Editor’s note: Thanksgiving traces its origins to an uneasy, temporary alliance between 17th-century English settlers and members of the Wampanoag Confederacy. This year, Eater is choosing to acknowledge that history in our coverage of the holiday.
The year that Mica Talmor moved to the U.S., her birthday happened to land on Thanksgiving. “We had this big Thanksgiving,” she remembers. “And I was like, ‘Wow, the whole nation is celebrating my birthday. This is awesome.’” It’s been her favorite American holiday ever since. In 2020, when the pandemic made the big gatherings that define Thanksgiving too risky, Talmor, a chef who owns Pomella, a California-Israeli restaurant in Oakland, California, couldn’t imagine just skipping the holiday altogether. Instead, she decided to offer a to-go menu of inspired classics that would be enough food to serve a small group.
“It changes the whole dynamic,” Talmor says of pandemic-times Thanksgiving gatherings. “For a lot of people, you make one thing, and then other people bring all the other [food], because it’s an elaborate meal. But when it’s just two of you at home, that just all goes away… We were trying to make it so you could look forward to something.” Talmor put together two- and four-person to-go boxes of dishes like wheatberry and kabocha squash stuffing, fennel-apple-cranberry sausage with ground turkey, and humongous harissa-spiced turkey wings with sumac-spiked ranch. The wings will be back this year when the chef launches an updated version of her takeout Thanksgiving menu.
Last year, the reception overwhelmed Pomella’s kitchen, leading to a good bit of happy “mayhem” as the staff scrambled to fill orders. Talmor thought that maybe this year, interest in a takeout Thanksgiving would wane as friends and family reunite. But when she sent out an email survey to ask her customers what they’d think of another special menu, she was overwhelmed by the number of people who said they were still celebrating with just two or three people, and didn’t want to face the task of cooking the whole meal themselves. And after another full year of filling takeout orders and preparing for the holidays, Talmor is ready this time. “We did not understand what we tapped into,” she says of last year’s holiday. “I had the notion that people still wanted to celebrate, but I did not understand what this meant for people. I didn’t fully get it until we saw the volume of orders.”
At New York Indian restaurant Baar Baar, chef-owner Sujan Sarkar will also be offering a Thanksgiving takeout menu, complete with a whole turkey bathed in tandoori spices. There’ll be a makhani gravy, rich with cashews and tomato; roasted butternut squash seasoned with five spice; and a dodha burfi pecan tart, fortified with a fudge-like layer of condensed milk solids. “Indian Americans, they like turkey, but they like to add a little bit of flavor to it,” says Sarkar of the turkey — and turkey chapli kebabs — he’ll be offering. “They want to celebrate Thanksgiving, but still, they are craving something more. And our other customers, they’re also looking for something different.”
Sarkar says that when the holidays came around last year, he was still “testing the waters,” trying to suss out how much interest there might be in his take on Thanksgiving dishes: He was somewhat skeptical, wondering who would want a Thanksgiving meal where curry leaves, garam masala, and jaggery took center stage. Now, it’s looking like Sarkar might make tandoori turkey every time the holidays roll around. “If we do well this year in terms of feedback,” he says, “then next year, we’ll keep doing it.”
Around the country, restaurants that offered to-go Thanksgiving meals for the first time last year are discovering that the desire remains high for these sorts of larger-batch meals prepared by chefs and reheated in home kitchens. The pandemic may have let up, but folks are — in many cases — more tired than ever, without a taste (or the time) for cooking 16 dishes by themselves. Plus, a to-go Thanksgiving offers the opportunity to break free of the doldrums of Thanksgiving predictability, instead ordering inventive reinterpretations of the staples.
Maybe all of this sounds familiar, and this is the year you put up the baking dishes and skip the Big Grocery Shop. It’s really nice that our celebrations can look a little more “normal” this year, but maybe it isn’t so bad if the restaurant takeout Thanksgiving is here to stay. In that spirit, we’ve collected lists of restaurants across the country that are embracing to-go Thanksgiving, and offering their take on the big feast.