Christmas may make the most movie appearances, but Thanksgiving—that most American of holidays—also makes a pretty good showing. While movies such as Rocky and Planes, Trains and Automobiles touch upon the spirit of the occasion, we’re all about the spread. So in no particular order, here’s a sampling of memorable meals from movies and television.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). Woody Allen’s table runneth over in this comedy, which starts with one Thanksgiving dinner and ends in three. (According to a Rolling Stone interview, Allen, who directed and starred in the movie, didn’t plan on including the two subsequent gatherings until filming was well underway.) In contrast with movie’s sordid domestic twists and turns, H&HS‘s luminous Thanksgiving table glistens with Manhattan privilege, orchestrated by the titular Hannah (with help from Mavis, the maid). In retrospect, this movie turned out to have undercurrents beneath undercurrents—and not just because Allen and co-star Mia Farrow were married at the time. Farrow’s own mother, Maureen O’Sullivan, played the film’s boozy matriarch, and her onscreen husband was played by Michael Caine, who introduced Allen and Farrow in real life. Oh, and that cushy place? O’Sullivan and Farrow’s own Central Park West apartment.
Home for the Holidays (1995). How many turkeys did it take to tell director Jodie Foster’s tale of Thanksgiving familial chaos? Food stylist Samantha Cameron sacrificed 65 birds—and a dozen pumpkin pies, to boot. “The Anne Bancroft turkey was made to look disgusting,” Cameron explained in a 1995 San Francisco Chronicle interview, “a nightmare turkey—burned and a funny color. And the [Cynthia] Stevenson turkey was beautiful. Of course, once you decide how you want them to look, the challenge is to make them look exactly the same every time.” Let’s not forget star Holly Hunter delivering the ultimate holiday motto of dysfunctional kin and comfort food: “It’ll be OK if we stuff ourselves until we can’t think anymore.” Incidentally, you can probably find secondhand copies of the Home for the Holidays Cookbook, with an intro from director Foster (turkey slingshot not included).
Check out this clip of the flying turkey:
A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973). No elaborate feast or messed-up meal can measure up to the al fresco fete that Charlie Brown served his friends. While an outraged Peppermint Patty only saw what was missing (“Where’s the turkey, Chuck? Don’t you know anything about Thanksgiving dinners?”), delighted viewers have year after year adored the impromptu blowout of buttered toast, popcorn, pretzel sticks, chips, and what looks like whipped cream with maraschino cherries. This is what happens when two kids, a beagle and a wee bird pretty much have the run of the kitchen unsupervised.
The Ice Storm (1997). Director Ang Lee has conjured up some of the greatest films around food, including Eat Drink Man Woman and The Wedding Banquet. Fresh from his first English-language success, Sense and Sensibility, Lee delivered The Ice Storm, a bleak portrait of a middle-class nuclear American family in the 1970s. The Thanksgiving spread for the Hoods (Kevin Kline as Dad, Joan Allen as Mom, and Tobey Maguire and Christina Ricci as the kids) stands out for its very ordinariness, right down to the glass Coca-Cola bottles. Only two silvertone candlesticks, a doily tablecloth, a tissue-paper turkey centerpiece, and what looks like a salt shaker in the shape of a pilgrim really distinguish the holiday occasion. That and Ricci’s prayer about massacred Indians and napalmed Asians.
What’s Cooking (2000). While not a classic per se, this movie is packed with familiar femmes (Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl, frequent Emmy-Award nominee Alfre Woodard, Joan Chen, Kyra Sedgewick, Julianna Margulies) and it’s an early work for British director Gurinder Chadha, who would go on to direct Bend It Like Beckham. A valentine to America’s diversity, What’s Cooking is what Chadha called “a subversive film. Using food as the metaphor, you discern that everything can be accommodated on the Thanksgiving table in the same way that culturally anyone can be called an American.” There’s not one but four polyglot Thanksgiving meals, with side dishes that include Chinese chicken salad, kugel, rugelach, pho, tamales, mac ‘n’ cheese, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. And because Chadha demanded authenticity in her takes, the movie went through 35 turkeys. Appropriately enough, the DVD release includes recipes.
Funny People (2009). An Adam Sandler film might not be something you’d expect in a holiday meal roundup. Then again, the comedian who gave us the Thanksgiving Song took this holiday occasion for a thinly disguised reflexive career moment. In the key holiday scene, Sandler—as terminally ill standup comic George Simmons—presides over a long table with about a dozen young comics. While there are no family members, the fixings are down-home: As the camera pans up the table toward Simmons delivering a melancholy toast about life’s impermanence, you see bowls of chunky cranberry sauce, a mound of pasta, green beans, Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes, a monumental turkey, and a slab of butter. Pretty mouthwatering—if you can get the taste the mortality out of your mouth.
Friends. There are so many meals to pick from in this long-running comedy series. How about the first, “The One Where Underdog Gets Away” (1994) with the grilled cheese sandwiches? “The One With the Rumor” (2001) a.k.a. the one with Brad Pitt and the “I Hate Rachel Greene” club? The traumatic flashback episode, which involved getting a head stuck in a turkey? Then there’s “The One Where Ross Got High” (1999), when Rachel made an English dessert trifle with a layer of beef sautéed with peas and onions. “Yeah, that was weird to me, too,” Rachel admitted about the culinary mishap that turned out to be the result of two cookbook pages sticking together. The ingredients:
And, of course, there’s the flashback-o-rama, “The One With All the Thanksgivings” (1998), featuring Monica (Courteney Cox) with her head inside a raw turkey. Because that’s kind of Heart of Darkness creepy, let’s watch the Pitt and his struggle with complex carbohydrates instead:
Pieces of April (2003). As the copper-haired, tattooed gamine April, Katie Holmes tackles a Thanksgiving meal—in a gesture of atonement—for her estranged family. Things go from bad (dropping the raw turkey) to worse (broken oven), and pretty much capture every first-timer’s fears. To create the feast, director Peter Hedges ended up calling his own dad. “Every dish that April makes in the film appeared on our Thanksgiving table,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer. Hedges also shared with the newspaper his recipes for spiced cranberry sauce, green bean casserole, and Waldorf salad.
The Blind Side (2009). Yes, take-out belongs in a Thanksgiving movie roundup. Homeless teen Michael Oher, who would later become an American offensive tackle for the Tennessee Titans, gets invited to the Leigh Anne Tuohy’s (Sandra Bullock) home for a real Thanksgiving dinner. For some modern-day Americans, that means eating off to-go plates in front of a TV set. But seeing Oher eat alone at the dining room table prompts Tuohy to take control of the remote and put the take-out on the table for an honest-to-goodness sit-down, with grace. For families who can’t cook, you have to be grateful for the magic of the feast you can pick up at your local store.
“Thanksgiving Orphans,” Cheers (1986). When dour barkeep Carla (Rhea Perlman) hosts a potluck for the Boston bar patrons without holiday plans (“This party’s for lonelies, not homelies”), you know an implosion’s bound to happen. Audiences didn’t get much time to admire the ice-cold potatoes before a giant food fight broke out. Unlike movie budgets that can go through flocks of Butterball, this was one take: Actor John Ratzenberger, who played barfly Cliff, told TV Land, “We knew we only had one chance to shoot it.” Turns out one was all the cast needed.
The hideous tofurkey in Everybody Loves Raymond (1998):
Chowing down with the Choctaws in “The Thanksgiving Story,” Daniel Boone (1965), which included conciliatory exchanges like “Will you bury that war club?” and “We’ll feast at your table.”
What are your favorite Thanksgiving moments onscreen?