Red Sauce America - Food, Culture, and Italian American Experience

Lasagna for Thanksgiving? It’s more likely than you think.

By on Sunday, November 19th, 2023 at 4:42 pm | 1,309 views

Lasagna, for Thanksgiving? You bet. A lasagna side by side with a freshly roasted turkey

Turkey is an iconic food of the Thanksgiving table. There are many ways of preparing turkey–roasted, fried, or stuffed with a duck and chicken come to mind–but for most people, their Thanksgiving meal becomes their own through the side dishes they serve.

Few holidays in America are quite as universal as Thanksgiving. The secular celebration is an ideal way for the nation’s many diverse cultural and ethnic groups to unify around eating too much food, black Friday sales, and football. And each family’s menu serves as an opportunity to highlight those unique culinary traditions.

Italian immigrants began arriving just as the idea of modern Thanksgiving began taking hold in the United States. The Italian diaspora turned to American shores in the 1880s. Back then, Turkey was only just becoming a popular holiday centerpiece. Serving the big bird was primarily a New England tradition until Rhode Island poultry farmer Horace Vose began sending turkeys to the White House. He earned his farm national fame and eventually helped make the turkey into a Thanksgiving food.

Meanwhile, Italian immigrants settling in America found themselves eating far better than they had before. Celebrations and holidays became a physical manifestation of the abbondanza, the bounty. A big holiday like Thanksgiving usually featured antipasti, soup, pasta, and Sunday gravy filled with meats. Vegetables too were part of the Italian American feast, more common on the plates of Italians than early Americans. The meals often ended with fruit and Italian sweets. The New England Historical society has an early 20th century family’s menu showing how Italians mixed their culinary traditions with those in America.

Italian Americans now several generations removed from their immigrant ancestors continue to maintain many unique culinary traditions.

My family began our Thanksgiving holiday with an antipasti plate filled with salami, sausage, prosciutto and cheeses. My grandfather would buy dried sausages from Corrado’s in Clifton, New Jersey. The large Italian market featured a variety of imported and domestic Italian foods. While it’s easy today to find these things in most national supermarket chains, even through the early 1990s they were considered specialty items.

My grandfather also brought another Italian tradition: chestnuts. To close out Thanksgiving dinner, my parents served Sambuca and Amaretto, alongwith eat nuts and fruit. We had whole walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts, and the chestnuts would roast in the oven. I can’t say I like chestnuts all that much, but we still roast them every year in memory of my grandfather.

We didn’t serve a Thanksgiving lasagna until I met my wife. She, too, is half Italian. When we merged our Thanksgiving meals, we included her family’s tradition of baking a lasagna. Although our families are both from New Jersey, her Italian ancestors arrived a generation before mine, and that might explain some of the differences in those holiday customs.

That had me thinking: what else do Italian Americans serve at Thanksgiving?

I reached out to John Mariani, author of How Italian Food Conquered the World and the food-focused newsletter, Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. I met him last year as a guest on his radio show Almost Golden in Westchester, New York.

“My father always made the stuffing—“Als’ stuffing”—which was composed of sausage and mozzarella with breadcrumbs,” John said. The sausage was sweet Italian.

Stuffing is a common way for a family to add their own twist to a holiday meal. Another Italian variation on stuffing comes from Chef Tom Colicchio, who explained that his grandmother made stuffing with a large amount of garlic. While garlic has become a favorite flavor for cooks today, even a few decades ago it was considered an exotic Italian spice.

Colicchio also set off a debate about Thanksgiving Lasagna during a themed episode of Top Chef. He told the team cooking a Thanksgiving Dinner he expected to have a lasagna, a typical addition for his family too.

Colicchio isn’t the only celebrity known for Thanksgiving Lasagna. Stanley Tucci described having lasagna and Italian Wedding Soup at his aunt’s Thanksgiving celebrations.

For those wondering how there is room in a single oven for both a turkey and a tray of lasagna, the secret is that there isn’t. There are two ways around this problem. First, cook the lasagna ahead of time and simply reheat it while the turkey is being carved. However, Italian dining tradition dictates pasta should be served before the meat. To get around the problem, we cook the lasagna on an outdoor grill.

There are plenty of other Italian-influenced dishes for Thanksgiving too. Earlier this year I spoke with Peter Gilberti who serves as President of the Italian American St. Joseph Society in New Orleans. The society runs the annual St. Joseph’s Day parade and dinner honoring the feast to Joseph.

“Depending on the cost, my mom would have 20 artichokes stuffed,” Peter told me when I asked about his Thanksgiving traditions. However, he also added that his father would make soup from artichoke hearts. “Close to the holidays there was a rule in our house that when you get to the heart, it goes back to the plate with all the drippings,” Peter said, “My dad would take that and put it into a frozen storage container, and he would do that until he had what he needed for artichoke soup.”

Meanwhile, not every side dish is actually drawing on Italian influences. When I spoke to Katie Parla, author of Food Of The Italian Islands, I asked her about Thanksgiving traditions. Parla lives in Italy now, but she originally is from New Jersey, too, and I wanted to know if she also had lasagna at Thanksgiving.

“We make ambrosia,” she said. “I just figured it was Italian, but it is not. No, it’s from Florida.”

I found this answer hilarious since my family had for many years served ambrosia. And I, too, had long assumed it was of Italian American origin. Like Katie, it’s more likely it came from my very Anglican aunt who had lived in Florida.