Turkey is turkey; it's the side dishes that make the meal.
When it comes to Thanksgiving, families tend to stick to starchy tradition. But cooks want more.
Inspired by restaurants, TV and social media, cooks are experimenting with Thanksgiving side dishes. They're tweaking the family favorites and spicing up the standards.
"It's traditional with a twist," said Kristen Sturt, senior editor of Grandparents.com. "It's familiar but it doesn't freak them out. You want to please people, not turn them off to the meal. But you don't want to cook the same thing for 30 years."
Start with the stuffing. "Cornbread stuffing is really popular now," Sturt said. "Especially with cranberries or chorizo that's very big right now. Or use some green apples or a little white wine; anything that adds a little different note of flavor."
For vegetarians, Thanksgiving side dishes often become the main attraction.
"Our Thanksgiving meal is made up of side dishes," explained Sacramento food writer and former restaurateur Peg Tomlinson-Poswall.
Her daughter and son-in-law are vegetarians and regular Thanksgiving hosts.
"We do not miss the turkey because everything else is so interesting," she said. "I love side dishes. The menu changes almost every year. But there are always riffs on traditional dishes: green beans with a shiitake sauce; stuffing with roasted peppers, fennel and Swiss chard; tricked-out cranberry sauce with brandy; sweet potato gnocchi."
Chefs often incorporate ethnic flavors into stuffing, a malleable mix of bland bread or other starch. Sunset magazine's 2012 Thanksgiving feast features a Thai-style sausage and rice dressing by Denver chef Thanawat Bates.
"Being from Thailand, I prefer rice over stuffing and pork over turkey," Bates explained, "so it makes sense for me to take these Thai flavors and fit them into the American tradition."
Nationally known restaurateur Rohini Dey melds Indian and Latin flavors in her menu at Vermilion in Chicago and Manhattan. When she first opened for the holiday in 2004, Bon Appetit named her Thanksgiving menu the nation's "most innovative" feast.
"We're an Indian-Latin restaurant," Dey said by phone. "Originally, I wondered, 'Shall we even open on Thanksgiving?' But it's been a sellout every year, incredibly busy. We've found dining guests are open to new flavors, even on the most traditional day."
Alongside fenugreek-black cardamom smoked turkey breast, she'll serve cumin-glazed yam-lentil stuffing. The chorizo will go in the feijoda, a thick Brazilian bean stew she serves as a side. A crispy yucca cake subs for mashed potatoes. Cranberry chutney is laced with panch puran, a five-spice blend.
"The chutney brings back childhood flavors and memories," Dey said. "It incorporates those tastes into something American. (As a side dish) I'm partial to the feijoda because it brings back memories of gorging on it on a Brazilian beach I just love it."
Memories are key to Thanksgiving bliss meaning some side dishes are almost mandatory. Starting with their earliest feasts, the Pilgrims made corn a Thanksgiving tradition with such side dishes as succotash, a mix of lima or pea beans and corn. Corn casseroles still are must for many families.
"Corn casseroles are huge for our audience," said Sturt of Grandparents.com. "They're easy to make and you can add some cheese, chilies or of course bacon."
When experimenting, start with the sweet potatoes, she suggested.
"Sweet potatoes are especially kid-friendly," noted Sturt. "People are very receptive to sweeter flavors, so it makes sweet potatoes excellent for experimenting."
Capital Public Radio's food expert Elaine Corn, another longtime Sacramento food pro, isn't afraid to try something different on Thanksgiving. It helps make a holiday potluck buffet interesting.
"Our mixed-up family always has surprises new recipes many of us bring to whomever is hosting," Corn said.
But she swears by one standby: bourbon sweet potatoes. Frozen orange juice concentrate and bourbon give the dish an extra zing.
Sweet potatoes also can get a boost from coconut, bananas, pecans, cardamom, even chives (just not all at once).
"I prefer them with marshmallows and a little powdered mace," said Sturt, noting her own family's tradition. "That's my mom's dish."