Thanks for the Memories

From relaxing at river houses to preparing cherished family recipes and decking the halls,   Virginia Living staff share their favorite Thanksgiving traditions.

Photo by Patricia Lyons

Happy Thanksgiving! As we gather today in gratitude with family and friends and look forward to tucking into tables laden with turkey, stuffing and other goodies, we thought it would be fun to share some of our staff’s favorite Thanksgiving traditions. We discovered a few sentimental surprises as well as some pretty fabulous tips and recipes we hope you can use this weekend.

John-Lawrence Smith, Publisher

My favorite way to celebrate Thanksgiving is at my family’s river place with my immediate family and dogs, plus various combinations of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. On the menu, our tradition is fried chicken, deviled eggs, pimento cheese sandwiches, ham biscuits, congealed fruit salad, cream cheese brownies and iced tea.

Late in the day on Thanksgiving, for many years, we used to leave for a weekend of deer hunting. But more recently we have instead stayed at the river, or gone for a round of early Christmas shopping and a mid-day dinner. For the weekend, our traditions include more good food (especially my father’s paella and mother’s pheasant pie), long walks in the fields, Gator rides, walking the dogs (Buccleuch, my parent’s Fox Red Lab; Rigby, my brother Erskine’s Jack Russell terrier; and Rex, my English Springer Spaniel) down to the river for a swim and some retrieving.

I always work in a few hands of Gin Rummy with my mother, backgammon with my brother and shooting some clays with my father. We also try to get some work done: anything from splitting wood to bush-hogging, from cleaning out the ground gates to replacing fence posts and rails. There is a lot of lively conversation, love, camaraderie, and food that surrounds every part of the Smith Thanksgiving weekend. It is one of the nicest times of the year and I heartily look forward to it! 

Editor’s note: Check out one of our favorite pimento cheese recipes, below from Stove Restaurant in Portsmouth. 

2 cups grated Cabot white Vermont mild cheddar
2 cups Tillamook yellow sharp cheddar
1 cup Duke’s mayonnaise
½ teaspoon hot sauce
½ cup minced leeks, white only
1 ½ cups chopped roasted peppers with juice

Mix all ingredients, adding mayonnaise a little at a time. Cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours.

Before serving, allow to come to room temperature. Serve with your choice of crackers.

Makes approximately 2-3 cups

Erin Parkhurst, Editor

German nutcrackers.

My husband and I received a gift of a German-made nutcracker for our wedding, and every year since we have added a new one to our collection. It is one of our favorite traditions on the Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend, after we have decorated our Christmas tree with our three kids, to unpack them and set them up around the house. As Santa, soldiers, princes, drummers and the ones we call oddballs (a fly-fisherman, a train conductor, a very peculiar bird catcher and others) come out of their boxes, we fluff their fur beards and straighten tiny swords, argue about where each should go and laugh as we remember all the years that came before. 

Editor’s note: One of the best shops for German nutcrackers in Richmond is Old World Accents Christmas Shop in Carytown.

Sonda Anderson Pappan, Art Director

My favorite tradition for Thanksgiving is cooking the holiday feast with my husband. After having our early morning coffee, Jay begins prepping the turkey while I make the stuffing developed from an old family recipe (that’s a secret). While the turkey is roasting in the oven, I prepare our favorite cranberry sauce, made with fresh whole cranberries, tangerines and walnuts. Here’s the recipe (can be prepared one day ahead):

2 large tangerines
3 cups of fresh whole cranberries
⅔ cup of sugar (add more if needed)
½ cup chopped walnuts (to be added before serving)

Cut 1 tangerine with peel into 6 wedges and discard seeds. Add to food processor, coarsely chop. Peel remaining tangerine and discard seeds, add to processor along with cranberries and coarsely chop.

Place mixture into bowl and stir in sugar. Mix well then chill until ready to serve. Add chopped walnuts right before serving. Mix well.

Caitlyn Vanischak, Assistant Art Director

One of my favorite Thanksgiving dishes is something my grandma Phyllis Hosier makes called cabbage casserole. Here’s the recipe:

¾ stick melted butter or margarine
1 package of stuffing mix (8 ounces)
4 cups shredded cabbage
1 cup shredded cheese
¾ cups mayonnaise
1 can of cream of celery soup
1 pinch of salt and sugar
1 large chopped onion

Melt butter or margarine in a small sauce pan and mix into the stuffing. Spread ¾ of the stuffing mixture onto the bottom of a casserole dish.

In a bowl, mix the remaining ingredients and spread over the stuffing in the casserole dish. Sprinkle remaining stuffing mixture on top and bake at 350 degrees for 60 minutes. The casserole should be brown and bubbly. Let sit 10 minutes and serve.

Sandy Parrish, Accountant

I love spending Thanksgiving with family. For the last decade or so, my sister in-law and I have swapped off each Thanksgiving, hosting the family, which typically is between 15 and 20 people. The day after, I like to bake my fruit cakes and if possible start pulling out the Christmas tree. If I hosted, I would also make a white turkey chili with the left- over turkey. I totally avoid shopping during the holiday weekend. This year, the next generation of our family will be hosting everyone on Thanksgiving Day.

White Bean and Turkey Chili

1 pound dried navy beans (or 3-4 cans of your favorite white beans)
5 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 large onion diced
2 small cans of diced green chile peppers
1 pound diced turkey (or chicken, if you prefer)
1-2 tablespoons cumin
1 tablespoon oregano
1-2 teaspoons white pepper
1 pinch red pepper flakes
½ bunch fresh cilantro chopped

Rinse beans well. If using dried beans cover with cold water and soak for 2 hours. Drain and place beans in a large soup pot with stock and bring to a boil, over high heat. In a saucepan, melt butter and sauté onion and garlic until onions are translucent. Add onion and garlic to soup pot along with green chiles and turkey or chicken. Add remaining ingredients and cook over a low heat for 1 to 1-1/2 hours stirring occasionally.

Elizabeth Barnes, Advertising Executive

My favorite way to celebrate Thanksgiving is in my hometown, Onancock, on the Eastern Shore. We get together with my father’s family where the favorite dish is a huge plate of homegrown fried oysters, given to us by a family friend and shucked that morning. There is always a homemade cheeseball, baked macaroni and cheese, corn pudding, and sweet potato biscuits with country ham, another Eastern Shore tradition. Stories are shared about my father and aunt’s childhood and it is always fascinating to hear what our area was like before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel connected us to Virginia Beach. 

Editor’s Note: Click here for one of our favorite fried oyster recipes.

Eden Stuart, Assistant Editor 

For as long as I can remember, my family has always tuned in to the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. No one in my family is into sports (crazy, I know!), but we love watching the floats and the musical theater performances before sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner, which is usually more of a big late lunch around 3 p.m.

Catherine Bailey, Advertising Executive

I celebrate the holidays with my mom’s side of the family, the D’Amatos. My grandpa was Italian, an incredible chef, who made meatballs, pasta, ravioli, sausages and lasagna for Thanksgiving. Since my grandpa’s passing, the recipes have been handed down to my mom and her five siblings. Our huge family of 36 still enjoys an Italian Thanksgiving at home in Henrico … with turkey as our side dish.

Fabergé rabbit ornament from the VMFA shop.

Erin Stubbs, Digital Editor

Thanksgiving has always been our day to gear up for Christmas, so first and foremost that means decorating the tree and watching our favorite holiday movies (It’s a Wonderful Life, Joyeux Noel, Wizard of Oz and the 2007 Norwegian film Christmas Story). My mother was always the culinary artist in our family, so while she did the heavy-lifting in the kitchen and the movies played in the background, I prepped little appetizers that we’d snack on all day (deviled eggs, celery boats, crab dip, cheese and crackers) and laid out all of the beautiful ornaments that we collected together since my childhood. Now that I live in Richmond, my favorite place to find ornaments is the gift shop at VMFA; my fiancé’s mother gave us one of the Fabergé Easter bunny ornaments to celebrate our engagement and it will definitely have a special place on our tree this year.

Catherine Charon, Advertising Executive

My family is Greek, so we always celebrate Thanksgiving with roasted lamb and potatoes, spanakopita and lots of feta cheese. We gather around the table and laugh, drink wine, and recount the same stories that we tell every year. Like the time the family had dinner at the top of a mountain in Athens; or all the times my dad’s “short cuts” have gotten us lost; or how my Papou (grandfather) used to tell all of his stories over and over, and how funny that was. 

Editor's Note: If you want to try your hand at your own Thanksgiving lamb, click here for some of our favorite recipes.

Jo Ann’s Spanekopita

1 box phyllo, thawed
4 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained very  thoroughly
1 large onion chopped
1 pound drained and crumbled feta cheese
1 ½ sticks butter plus 1 tablespoon, melted
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup béchamel sauce
6 eggs beaten
dash of nutmeg
salt and pepper

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a deep skillet with olive oil. Cook chopped onions in skillet until translucent. Add drained spinach and sauté until spinach is warm and any remaining liquid is evaporated.  Remove skillet from heat. When spinach mixture has returned to room temperature, add eggs, white sauce, feta cheese, a dash of nutmeg, salt and pepper. Set mixture aside.

Prepare phyllo by removing 1 roll of pastry from the box. Lay phyllo flat on working surface. Cover with lightly dampened kitchen towel.  

Butter a 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Place one layer of phyllo in the baking pan. Brush with melted butter.  Place another layer of phyllo on top of the first, and brush with melted butter. Repeat process until there are 6 layers of phyllo in the bottom of the baking dish.  

Place the spinach mixture atop the phyllo and smooth out evenly. Cover spinach mixture with six layers of phyllo, prepared as before.  Pour left over butter on top of phyllo. With kitchen shears, cut the top layers of phyllo into the desired sizes of the spanakopita. (The phyllo is very crumbly once it is baked.)

Bake at 350 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes until golden brown. Enjoy!

Claudia Funes, Advertising Executive

Thanksgiving in my Spanish household is called Día de Acción de Gracias! It’s a day full of delicious food, drinks that will sneak up on you and a lot of laughter. My father has always been heavily influenced by Italian food, so we have a mix of Italian cuisine on the table paired with Latin spiced food. The family laughs all night long reminiscing about previous holiday gatherings, traveling and tales of our childhood. Somehow after the food is gone, everyone still has the energy to get up and dance salsa and bachata!  It’s a day I look forward to every year. 

Editor’s note: To add some Latin flair to your Thanksgiving weekend, check out the Salsa Sundays Thanksgiving Touchdown party at M&S Grill in Reston, where you can get your fill of salsa, bachata and merengue. Tickets start at $5.

Maddie Burfeind, Editorial Intern

I come from a big family, and our Thanksgiving can get a little chaotic, as it is the one time of year we are all gathered in the same place. My grandmother lives on the Rappahannock River—or as we lovingly refer to it, the Rivah. This is home base on Thanksgiving for 30 or so of our family and close friends. My favorite tradition, which usually takes place right before dinner, is taking the boat out on the water with everyone who isn’t elbow deep in preparing food. We navigate over to a little strip of sand called Mosquito Island, where we lay out and enjoy each other’s company. Brave ones will even jump into the water! 

Editor’s note: If you’re in the area, be sure to check out Irvington’s annual turkey trot, Thursday, Nov. 24th at 9 a.m. $30. 

Annaliese Merz, Editorial Intern

For the past six years I have spent the Thanksgiving holiday with my best friend, Meredith, and her (my second) family in Williamsburg and Urbanna. Thanksgiving at Meredith’s is a big affair with at least 15 family members. The day consists mainly of cooking the turkey because we all help prepare the side dishes on the day before. We always play croquet in the giant backyard. Then if the weather is nice we will take the sailboat out and have cocktails on the Rappahannock River. The evening closes with family dinner and playing the card game canasta.

Editor’s note: To learn how to play classic canasta, go to
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