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  • Writer's pictureChef Kelly Unger

Thanksgiving Tips & Indigenous Cuisine

Updated: Nov 17, 2023

How blessed we are to enjoy the bounty of deliciousness from our farmers everyday and especially to share with our extended family on Thanksgiving!! 


This week, in my final Chef's Note of the season, I'm going to share my general Thanksgiving cooking tips and also ways to incorporate Indigenous ingredients into your menu this holiday. 


To begin, the turkey! The crown jewel of the feast. Spring Creek Farm and Hershberger Heritage Farm have turkeys for us so we can enjoy the best possible Thanksgiving turkey. Place your order pronto! Remember that these quality birds cook in much less time than a grocery store version.


I roast my turkey using one of two methods, depending on the size. If I am making two turkeys or one ginormous bird, I will separate the white meat from the dark meat, place them in separate pans but start them in the oven at the same time. separation allows more hot air flow around each for more even cooking. If I am roasting an 18lb or less bird, I will start Mr. Turkey breast side down in the pan and flip him over to crisp up the skin during the last 30 minutes of cooking. 


Sage and turkey are best mates. The flavors go together so very well. Grab some fresh sage leaves and place them between the skin and breast meat as well as the cavity. Stag horn sumac and dried rose hips were used by Native Americans to give a citrusy flavor to a dish. If you don't have these items to add, you can substitute with lemons. I will add any of these to the cavity and to the pot of simmering gizzards, celery and carrots to make gravy.


I LOVE rice. So even though it's tradition at the Unger house to have Mashed Potato Stuffing for Thanksgiving, I still add a wild rice dish to the menu. Wild rice cooked with sautéed mushrooms not only is delicious but is a flavor combination Native tribes enjoyed. 


Cranberries! For heaven's sake, please make your own cranberry sauce. 1 bag of washed cranberries cooked with 1 cup of sugar or maple syrup and 1 cup of water all simmered together until the cranberries start to break down takes 15 minutes and is the easiest thing you'll make but gives the best flavor. If Native tribes can do this over an open fire, you can do this on your stove in the kitchen. Easy peasy! 


Corn. I have such a deep, deep love of corn. So did our Native tribes. And thank heaven they kept corn alive for us though their careful tending. It fed them heartily and in so doing gave them some free time from hunting and gathering to pursue art and other joyful things. When fresh, sweet  summer corn was with us at the market, I hoarded dozens of ears. I cut the kernels off the cob, laid them out in a single layer on a baking sheet and put them in the freezer for an hour to IQF (Individually Quick Freeze) them and then placed them in freezer storage bags. I also froze the cobs for adding to soups and broths through the winter. I'll add a few to my gravy pot. And I'll joyfully serve this corn from Trauger's Farm on my Thanksgiving table. I may shed a tear of joy and gratitude as I eat it. Seriously. 


Brussel Sprouts sautéed with bacon is a must have for me. But some farmer's market brassica should find its way to your table. I'm also making a Pumpkin Apple Pie this year; slices of some kind of winter squash/pumpkin (either butternut, buttercup or honey nut) and slices of apple - both the same thickness - sweetened and seasoned only with maple syrup and baked in my homemade crust. It's an amazing flavor combination, one enjoyed by Native Americans minus the crust, of course. Roasted squash is a great addition if you're not making this pie. Sweet potatoes and winter squash/pumpkin sliced and cooked together in a baking dish is also delicious. 


Here are some other Indigenous flavor combinations to try:


Turkey, pumpkin, corn and mushroom


Wild rice, mushroom, cranberries


Winter squash, maple syrup, sage, sumac


Rabbit (sub chicken), mint and apples


Winter squash, apple and cranberry


Yellow cornmeal and poached egg


Beans, cedar and juniper


Beans and maple syrup


Corn, sage and wild greens



Have the best Thanksgiving ever! Enjoy! 




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