Turkey Talk: Savannahians Share their Thanksgiving Staples and Traditions

Updated November 17, 2022 at 11:55 a.m.

Savannah is a beautiful tapestry of many communities, cultures and customs. One of the biggest ways that we demonstrate our diversity is through food. As we prepare to gather for the Thanksgiving holiday, we expect every table to look a little different, evoking the unique traditions, heritage and cultural identities of each family. We asked several Savannahians about their Thanksgiving staples to get a glimpse into the variety enjoyed around town on turkey day. While there are certain commonalities, there are also striking differences, emblematic of the diverse community that we live in. Here’s how locals do Thanksgiving day their way.

Patricia Aikens

Patricia Aikens, known around town as Miss Pat, is a Savannah native of African American descent. She works as a residential cleaner and is looking forward to spending time with loved ones during Thanksgiving this year.

“I just enjoy everybody being happy and having something to eat and watching everybody get along. No arguing, just love,” said Aikens.

Her holiday staples include turkey, collards, macaroni and cheese, cornbread and fried chicken. She also does smothered pork chops and kindly shared the recipe:

“You batter the pork chop in milk and then flour and then cut off the fat. Then you wash it and put your seasoning on it. Then, you get your eggs and your batter and you batter it in a bowl and put a little bit of milk in or water to stretch it. You batter it up and then put it in the flour,” she began.

“Then you have your grease ready to fry and once you fry your pork chop, then you take it out and then you get to make your gravy. Now how you do your gravy is you get an onion and you cut up a little bit of it, put a little bit of grease in the frying pan, get some flour batter, two tablespoons of flour, and stir it up till you brown the gravy. Then you add in some water and keep stirring until you get enough gravy and get it thick enough. Then you lay your pork chops over and let them simmer down,” she explained.

Rosanna Horton

Originally from San Francisco, Rosanna Horton is a graduate program coordinator at South University. She is of Jewish, Scott-Irish, English and Sicilian descent, and her Thanksgivings through the years reflect an amalgamation of cultures. Growing up, she recalls a “god-awful green pudding” from her Scottish Irish English father’s side of the family along with pumpkin pie, pecan pie and other traditional items. On her mom’s side, wine was always an important part of the meal.

“In my family, my mom started us with wine from the time we were about two years old. So, the little glasses of wine would be like a quarter red wine and then the rest would be water. So we always had red wine with our turkey dinner,” Horton explained.

Thus, her Thanksgiving staples include wine as well as kosher chicken — Horton and her mother were never particularly fond of turkey — canned cranberry sauce and homemade bread.

“The family was all about the bread. My mother’s family were bakers in New York, and they had a bakery. So it was always about the bread. . . Homemade bread is pretty scrumptious,” she recounted.

She recalls big Thanksgiving gatherings with as many as 40 people coming together to enjoy a bountiful holiday feast.

“Everybody helped make the food. And everybody, all the kids of course, cleaned the dishes. Then we would go out in front of our grandparents' house and play croquet. As we got older, my cousins would play football,” she described.

Kay Heritage

Big Bon Bodega co-owner Kay Heritage is a transplant from South Korea who found success in the pizza and bagel industries. Food is central to Heritage and she certainly enjoys the Thanksgiving holiday, although she didn’t grow up with it in South Korea.

“In Korea, we really didn't have a Thanksgiving Day per se, but it was a harvest day. The food that was most abundant in the fall, that's what we ate. However, here in the United States, my kids, we always have Thanksgiving meals together and of course, the very traditional Thanksgiving turkey. It has to be baked, it can’t be fried or smoked. So it's always a classic baked Turkey,” she explained.

Her Thanksgiving staples include cranberry sauce (canned and homemade), baked turkey, kimchi and rice, and turkey gravy. She shared her secrets to a tasty turkey and gravy.

“Typically a lot of families roast the whole turkey, but I actually cut it. I cut the turkey ahead because it cooks a lot quicker, and you can control the cooking time, the dark meat takes a little longer and the white meat is quicker. I always use a thermometer, so I actually brine the turkey the night before with the salt and sugar solution and keep it in the refrigerator overnight. The next day, I just put it with a little bit of butter and dry thyme and bake it,” she explained.

“As it cooks, you get the turkey juice. So I take some of that and put it on the pan with a little bit of butter and then add flour. I usually use chicken broth, low sodium chicken broth. And that's pretty much it, my kids just don't like anything else in it. No mushrooms, very basic,” she continued.

Whether it’s harvest day or Thanksgiving, Heritage loves what fall family feasts are all about.

“I just think having Thanksgiving or harvest day is so meaningful, because you have lots of food, and it is just such a feast. And in Korea, just like American Thanksgiving, families gathered and we feasted, we got together and talked. That part is very similar where families gathered and shared stories and caught up with life stories, saw each other, saw grandparents, seeing grandkids, and that part is universal, I believe. It's really Thanksgiving, whether it's celebrated in Korea or the United States. It's a time of reconnecting with each other and just making memories over good meals,” she said.

Maureen Cliett

Maureen Cliett, or Mama Mo, is a retired fourth-generation Irish Catholic who was born and raised in Savannah. Her holiday staples include cornbread dressing, gravy, brussels sprouts, butter beans and squash casserole, which she kindly shared her recipe for.

“I boil the squash and cut up an onion. Then I drain it really well, and then I mash. The squash is really watery, you’ve got to really drain it a lot. And then I mix it with a can of cream of chicken soup and shredded sharp cheddar cheese. I use bread crumbs and I put an egg in to help hold it together. Then I bake it and mix it, until it's kind of like a souffle consistency,” Cliett explained.

She enjoys the Thanksgiving holiday because it's an opportunity to bring the family together and express gratitude for life’s many blessings.

“It's a time to get together with your family and be thankful for everything that you have. . . You get all the family together. When you get that many people together and a house with that many opinions, it's wild,” said Cliett.

Luis Polo

Born in Panama, Luis Polo works as a nurse practitioner in Savannah, and his Panamanian heritage has a big influence on his Thanksgiving dinner.

“It was [always] very untraditional, basically just making the day a feast and getting as much family here and then just eating our faces off. There wasn't necessarily any set foods. Sometimes we would do turkey. Sometimes you'd see some of the traditional stuff like green bean casserole. But then there'll be very much like Panamanian-style or Latin American dishes kind of strewn around. So it was very untraditional in that way,” Polo explained.

His family was never “super focused on the American tradition of Thanksgiving,” instead prioritizing gratitude for family and “the opportunity to be in a country that provided a lot of freedoms for us.”

Polo’s Thanksgiving staples include green bean casserole, deviled eggs, patacones — which is Panamanian fried plantains — fried turkey and mango salad.

For Polo, the food may change year to year but one thing remains constant: a grateful heart.

“We have everything I should be giving thanks for year round. For the things that I've been given and the blessings I've been given, Thanksgiving is that one reminder [that] we should all come together and really verbalize [our gratitude] so that we can ride that energy, that spirit of Thanksgiving into the holiday season and the rest of the year. . .  For me, it's like communion. It's something that we need to really verbalize right now and remind ourselves today that it's something we should have all year round,” said Polo.

Published November 16, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

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