'Atlanta's Savory Stories' explores the complicated history of Thanksgiving and tips for cooking at home

In WABE’s series “Atlanta’s Savory Stories” this month, food contributors Akila McConnell and food historian and chef Asata Reid delivered a number of discussion topics from Thanksgiving culinary histories to recipe tips and personal favorites. (Business Wire)

This month being November, Thanksgiving is, of course, foremost on our chefs’ minds. In WABE’s series “Atlanta’s Savory Stories,” our food contributors Akila McConnell and food historian and chef Asata Reid bring us histories and recommendations from Atlanta’s diverse culinary landscape. Reid and McConnell delivered a whole cornucopia of discussion topics from Thanksgiving culinary histories to recipe tips and personal favorites.

McConnell clued listeners into a lesser-known Thanksgiving origin story. “In 1789, the country was just formed. President George Washington issued the very first Thanksgiving proclamation, which created a day of public thanksgiving and prayer,” McConnell explained. But for 74 years, states and cities set their own dates for Thanksgiving, resulting in scattered, marginally popular holiday observances.

“The push for a national day of Thanksgiving came from one woman, and that woman was editor Sarah J. Hale of the ‘Godey’s Ladies’ Book,'” McConnell said. An educator in the domestic arts, a strong abolitionist and what Reid heard a Tik-Tokker refer to as “the Martha Stewart of her time,” Hale felt the unstable pre-Civil War United States needed to unite around a particular, nationally accepted day of Thanksgiving.

With the holiday catching on, the day of prayer and reunion quickly became food-obsessed as ‘Godey’s Ladies’ Book,’ at the top of their recipe game, issued out more elaborate Thanksgiving feast ideas. Finally, in 1863, Abraham Lincoln instated the official national day of Thanksgiving in a canny (and not-so-subtly self-serving) move to boost the brutalized country’s low morale as it weathered the Civil War.

Perhaps understandably, the resentful South was slower to catch on. With Thanksgiving turkey-fed Union soldiers trashing the homes of Southern landowners, the holiday was roundly disdained for decades. But though always controversial, the charms of the annual feast eventually won over Atlantans by the start of the 20th century. “Back in 1899, the Atlanta Constitution, their front headline on Thanksgiving Day was, ‘Thanksgiving Day was a day of turkeys, cranberry sauce and football…’ Very little has changed,” said McConnell. 

Chef Reid’s Thanksgiving tips for the home cook:

Sweet Potato Pie:  – “For a richer taste, roast the sweet potatoes in their jacket or in their skin and then peel them. It just gives them a deeper, richer, more caramelized flavor.”

– “Some people complain about the strings, those fibers that run through the sweet potatoes. But once they’re roasted and peeled, you just toss them in your mixer with the whisk attachment, and the strings just get caught up in the whip and you’re just left with creamy, smooth roasted sweet potato.”

– “To make a flaky pie crust, it’s actually pretty simple. Very few ingredients, but you need cold butter. I just use chipped cold butter; I cut my butter into tiny pieces and then freeze it, and as it bakes, the butter melts and it leaves buttery spaces behind and creates flaky layers.”

Smoked Turkey: – “If we are going to smoke a turkey, we usually spatchcock it — that’s just cutting the backbone out so it fits on the grill better — and then we brine it for 24 hours in the refrigerator. Once I take that backbone out, I start a pot of simple turkey stock … I use that turkey stock in my dressing to keep it nice and moist.”

– “The brine is usually a mix of salt and sugar plus aromatics like onions and garlic and herbs like thyme, rosemary and bay leaf. But sometimes, we’ll go in a definitive direction with flavors like adding orange peel, ginger and soy sauce … Keep it cold. I combine all of those ingredients in a large pot, bring it up to a simmer and then let it cool down to room temperature and pour the mixture into a giant pot with tons of ice. You want to cool this brine all the way down before you submerge your bird.”

– “After 24 hours … Place it on a wire rack and let it air-dry before we get it ready to head out on the grill.”

Recommended local spots to get yours premade: Pam’s Magic Cauldron, Wood’s Chapel BBQ

Cranberry Sauce: – “Take a saucepan and you add in your one-pound bag of rinsed cranberries and one jar of orange marmalade, the good stuff where you can actually see the orange peels in it.”

– “Throw in two sticks of cinnamon and a couple of cloves and then a generous splash of orange juice if you’re feeling pious, or orange-flavored liqueur like Cointreau or Grand Marnier, and just let it simmer.”

– “You do want to put a lid on it because cranberries do like to pop and explode.”

Akila McConnell’s Favorite Cranberry Relish:

“All I do is I throw two whole clementine oranges and then one cut green apple and then a bag of washed cranberries with just a little bit of lemon juice … into the food processor and grind it up. Get it really, really fine and then I just add sugar to taste and some cinnamon and nutmeg. I swear to you; it just disappears off the table.”