Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Where Y’Eat: How New Orleans Makes All-American Thanksgiving Its Own

Ian McNulty
A spread at a New Orleans family Thanksgiving

New Orleans is famous for restaurants. But if you really want to understand New Orleans food culture, there’s no better place than around the home table, hopefully with family and ideally on a holiday.

This is where the bigger picture of the New Orleans food obsession unfurls.

That’s what I’ve learned from marrying into a New Orleans family. Picking up their traditions and trying to make them my own has meant treading a path filled with distinctly local markers of place.

Our Thanksgiving is always with my wife’s grandfather, Pépère, Mr. Paul, the 90-something whose home is the spiritual hearth for this family. I try to contribute something – usually the wine, or an easy appetizer or a dish from my own family. Mostly, though I am a witness to traditions that started long before I showed up.

The centerpiece is all-American turkey; but the sides? Those are all New Orleans. There’s dressing made with Louisiana oysters. The leftover oysters will be fried for homemade po-boys Friday. There’s mirliton casserole, a dish you hardly see on menus but that feels essential on the holiday table.

And there is always rice. In the Thanksgivings of my youth, in New England, the starches were potatoes, sweet potatoes and more potatoes. But in my New Orleans family, any holiday meal without rice would be like bread without butter. There is rice for gravy, rice for gumbo, rice for the springtime crawfish bisque and, always, there is rice for Thanksgiving.

When dessert hits the table, so does the coffee and cognac and so do the stories. We eat New Orleans food and talk New Orleans food. The chapters of a New Orleans life converge around the table.

This is why I love Thanksgiving in our city. Even if you gobble everything on your plate all by yourself, when you partake in its traditions and try to add something of yourself back into them, it will always be a shared meal.

Ian covers food culture and dining in New Orleans through his weekly commentary series Where Y’Eat.