Stuffing happens

Favorite Thanksgiving side dishes can reveal a family’s culinary DNA

Making stuffing at the Lehndorffs

Holidays bring out the traditionalist in all of us. We have specific side dishes that need to be on the feast table to make it “Thanksgiving.” Many of these iconic pies, relishes, and appetizers are passed along for decades but they had to start somewhere. It was not a revelation from a higher food authority. One particular year someone decided to serve those dishes. In the case of green bean casserole, it resulted from a soup company marketing campaign.   

For me, Thanksgiving must include canned cranberry sauce and my family’s Italian sausage and potato turkey stuffing. 

Bread stuffing is okay, but this is indeed the right stuff. Start by boiling several varieties of peeled potatoes. Meanwhile, crumbled hot and mild Italian sausage is sizzled until about 75 percent cooked. The spuds and sausage get mashed together with turkey stock. It gets seasoned to taste with salt, pepper, sage, and butter. Some years other ingredients like piñon nuts and fennel also find their way into the stuffing. 

Baked as a casserole and served with gravy, this sausage-potato combo tastes great, but when it roasts in the nooks and crannies of the bird the flavor becomes truly magical. Pan-fried days later as a pancake, it is an exceptional base for eggs Benedict.  

How this unconventional Thanksgiving side dish came to became a family icon is a fascinating study in American immigration, culture and taste. 

My Mom—who passed this “recipe” along to me in Colorado and I to my son—got it from her mother, Vincenza Mazzola. “Nana.” She emigrated to Connecticut in the early 20th Century from Sicily with my grandfather, Michael, who opened an Italian market and made great sausage. 

The family legend is that when Thanksgiving rolled around, Nana didn’t know what a turkey was, much less what to stuff inside it. In the three-story apartment building they lived in, Nana consulted with a French-Canadian woman named Rose who suggested a forcemeat or potato-meat combination similar to the filling in the French-Canadian tourtière pork pies. 

Michael and Vincenza’s offspring, including my Mom, married people from other immigrant communities who brought their side dishes to the huge Thanksgiving eaten in shifts at my grandparents’ apartment. I remember turkey and stuffing, cranberry sauce and Polish kielbasa and kraut, and pumpkin pie and Italian cookies. 

Over the decades I’ve written often about this stuffing, especially during the decade when Nibbles appeared in newspapers across the nation. Here’s the irony: There are families in Colorado, Wisconsin, Ohio, and North Carolina who now serve sausage-potato stuffing every year, but most of my extended family on the Sicilian side don’t serve it. The recipe hasn’t persisted through the generations.  

I’m doing my best to revive these recipes so the next generations get to taste what they’ve been missing all these years. I urge you and your family to do the same and connect with your traditions and recipes. 

On Thanksgiving, I will share stuffing and other favorite dishes of family and friends and gratefully toast my immigrant ancestors who got me to this moment. 

Pass the gravy.

Holiday hack: Pomegranate peeling

Fresh pomegranates are finally in season and so are shirts stained red from trying to extract the tasty arils. The secret is to peel them in a water-filled bowl. First, cut off the stem end and the crown at the top. Then, using a sharp knife, make vertical cuts along the pomegranate through the skins but not the seeds. Peel away the skin under the water, gently pull apart the sections, strain, and enjoy. 

Local food news

Gemini restaurant, has opened at 1115 Pearl Street, former site of Riffs Urban Fare next to the Boulder Book Store, serving contemporary Spanish food and wine . . . Moe’s Bagels is now open in Longmont at 225 S. Main Street . . . There are no supply chain problems when you do your holiday gift and food shopping locally. Don’t miss the Boulder County Farmers Markets’ Winter Market December 4 and 5 in Longmont with over 100 local vendors, many familiar from the weekly markets. This is your last easy opportunity to pick up locally grown produce, honey, meats, eggs, baked goods, cheeses, prepared foods, and gifts . . . Denver’s chicken-focused Birdcall restaurant is open inside the Pearl Street Whole Foods Market. A second Birdcall will open nearby at Twenty Ninth Street . . . The late, loved Zolo Grill pops up briefly at Centro Mexican Kitchen with Zolo take-home favorites like enchiladas, margaritas, and banana cream pie. Order by November 20.

Words to chew on

“America has the opportunity, as well as the resources, to create for herself a truly national cuisine that will incorporate all that is best in the traditions of the many people who have crossed the seas to form our new, still young nation.”—James Beard 

John Lehndorff hosts a live call in Radio Nibbles show 8:30 a.m. Thanksgiving morning on KGNU (88.5 FM, streaming at to answer listeners’ last-minute feast cooking questions.