The undisputed winner. I won't try to pit pumpkin and pecan pie against each other here. They are both stunning reconfigurations of foods that are woefully underwhelming when out of pie form, but they clean up nicely for the holidays. Pie signals the beginning of the end of Thanksgiving dinner, a sweet release from questions like "what are you going to do with a Literary Arts major?" and "why didn't you bring your boyfriend?" Even if pie weren't the best-tasting food at Thanksgiving dinner, it would be infinitely valuable for those few blissful seconds of silence you get when everybody starts digging in.
2. Sweet potato casserole
The word "casserole" is your aunt's euphemism for a medley of deep-dish, kitchen-sink, rebaked leftovers. At the risk of offending any Midwestern mothers who might be reading this, it is possibly the worst possible contribution to any potluck-style gathering. (Ok, egg salad is also pretty criminal.) However, none of these negative stereotypes apply to sweet potato casserole. It is baby food for adults. Plus, adding mini marshmallows on top is the perfect way to further Americanize your Thanksgiving. (Fun fact: Writing recipes that add them to sweet potato casserole was a corporate scheme in the early 20th century to sell more marshmallows! So American!)
3. Mashed potatoes and gravy
The duo that needs no explanation. Nothing lubricates a dehydrated piece of turkey breast like mashed potatoes and gravy. Although this combination does fall in the same elevated-baby-food category as the famed sweet potato casserole, it lags behind its rival only because the process of making gravy is, objectively, pretty nauseating. "Beef powder" is the stuff of food-coma-induced nightmares.
4. Brussels sprouts
Bell-bottom jeans. Fanny packs. Bike shorts. Everything that goes out of fashion eventually comes back, and the brussels sprout is no exception. Once the most universally-despised vegetable, it is now the star of many a fancy restaurant menu and many a Thanksgiving dinner. This renaissance may have something to do with the fact that people figured out how to pan-fry them and add bacon bits, which is an infallible cooking method that improves every single vegetable. Challenge me, I dare you.
This might be a controversial ranking, but what is controversial if not stuffing dead poultry with stale bread and then eating it? However, you should take this with a grain of salt (or a tablespoon): the true ranking of this side strongly depends on the skill of the cook. If your mom has learned her craft from a tried-and-true family recipe, then this can easily be the best Thanksgiving side dish. Alternatively, if cooked too long, then your stuffing can easily take on the consistency of a kitchen sponge (the one with the pan-scrubber on one side). And, in general, if your mom tends to miss the beep of the oven timer, make sure to throw in a special prayer for the turkey when you say Grace.
6. Cranberry sauce
Much like your eccentric unmarried aunt, cranberry sauce is a risky inclusion in your Thanksgiving dinner. If it is gelatinous enough that it jiggles in the bowl as you pass it around the table, then it is better left in the can it came from. But, on the other hand, if it is so liquidy that it stains the bottom of your mashed potatoes pink, then it can ruin the whole meal—kind of like when your cousin, who you haven't seen in years, treats the occasion as an opportunity to sell you Tummy Tea as part of an "entrepreneurship project" that's definitely just a pyramid scheme.
The day may come when you look down at your overwhelmingly brown-and-orange plate and become slightly concerned at the lack of color variation. This will mark the moment of your passage to adulthood, and it can be a beautiful transformation. But if, on Thanksgiving day, you find yourself mixing together any salad that includes either (1) iceberg lettuce or (2) ranch dressing—or, God forbid, both—then you have emerged from your chrysalis as a moth rather than a butterfly; you have awoken in the 21st century, but have trapped yourself in the culinary world of the 1950s.
Do you like listening to your local jazz radio station? Do you like responding to "what's up" texts with "not much, wbu"? Then you probably love turkey, because boy is it DRY. All of the other Thanksgiving side dishes are too polite to admit that they're only there to prepare your throat so that the turkey can make it down without getting stuck. This bland bird might be the "classic" Thanksgiving protein, but just like the 8 a.m. Turkey Trot your mom signed you up for, it is a part of Thanksgiving day more for the sake of tradition than because anyone particularly enjoys it.
9. Wendy's 4 for $4
You can come home now! The fire department is gone, and Uncle Scott stopped talking about the keto diet!