Lasagna might not be the first thing that comes to mind when most people think about Thanksgiving side dishes, but on some Italian American tables, the baked pasta is a holiday staple.
Thanksgiving is a relatively modern holiday and first came into existence in 1863 during the American Civil War, when President Lincoln issued a proclamation encouraging citizens everywhere to set aside a day in November for giving thanks. Thanksgiving has grown into a major secular holiday in the United States celebrated by just about every American regardless of their religion, race, or where their ancestors arrived from.
When Italian immigrants first started arriving in the United States in the 1880s, many traditions of Thanksgiving were yet to be created. For instance, the first Thanksgiving parade wasn't held until 1920 in Philadelphia, and the first Macy's parade wasn't until 1924. The Italians celebrated Thanksgiving in the way they celebrated other holidays with foods traditional to the regions they emigrated from. For many, this feast included fruits and vegetables, then an uncommon part of the American diet, and of course pasta, a mainstay of every Italian meal.
As Thanksgiving became more formalized, like in 1934 when the Detroit Lions played the Chicago Bears for the first time on Thanksgiving Day, the turkey also became enshrined in the traditional meal. The turkey, a native of North America, was plentiful and inexpensive and has become both a symbol of the holiday and a quintessential menu item, but here ends any sense of a standard Thanksgiving menu. The United States is a nation of immigrants, and Thanksgiving allows a celebration of that diversity through food. What Americans serve alongside their turkey varies by region, nationality, and by ethnicity.
Like other ethnic groups, Italian Americans bring their own traditions to the Thanksgiving table, but these traditions don't have a historic connection to Italy. While Catholic holidays did have specific foods associated with them in Italy, and those traditions, like the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve, arrived with Italian immigrants when they came to America, there was no such history for immigrants to draw on when it came to Thanksgiving.
Nevertheless, Italian Americans have found plenty of ways to Italianize their Thanksgiving menus. Cured sausages and meats like prosciutto along with Italian cheese often are served as an antipasto. Artichokes are my favorite Thanksgiving vegetable, and preparing traditional turkey stuffing with plenty of garlic is another way Italians have altered the menu. And while chestnuts now may be more associated with Christmas because of 1945 The Christmas Song, they are also a popular Thanksgiving treat.
But what about the lasagna? It isn't without controversy, but many Italian Americans serve baked lasagna alongside or before the turkey.
In a 2012 episode of Top Chef, the contestants were tasked with preparing Thanksgiving feasts, one for each of the judges, Emeril Lagasse and Tom Colicchio. The judges wanted to see some of their traditions in the meals, with Lagasse expecting foods inspired by the cuisine of Portugal and New Orleans. Colicchio, the head judge for the show, wanted to see lasagna on the table, shocking viewers and the contestants alike. Lasagna seemed to many a heavy addition to an already heavy meal.
For Colicchio, lasagna was always a big part of his Thanksgiving dinners. He explained in an essay how his grandmother would serve the lasagna as a first course before the turkey. It was part of the Italian American tradition, especially in New Jersey where Colicchio grew up.
Since then, social media has helped fuel the dispute. Each of the last several years has seen the hashtag #ThanksgivingLasagna trending. Lasagna fans show up to defend the choice and post pictures of their Turkey Day pasta. But there are still plenty who deride it as overly excessive.
Meanwhile, radio host Kyle Anthony on New Jersey's 92.7 has advocated for making lasagna, part of an official New Jersey Thanksgiving meal. His Thanksgiving minimalizes the turkey in favor of red sauce classics like meatballs.
Thanksgiving lasagnas are typically vegetarian, filled with ricotta cheese and mozzarella. There is, after all, a turkey to eat. Lasagna isn't the only baked pasta dish that Italian Americans serve, either. Manicotti made from lasagna noodles rolled up into tubes and stuffed with cheese are common, as is baked ziti or baked ravioli.
Meanwhile, in Italy today, La Festa Del Ringrazziamento, the day of thanks, is recognized as an American holiday with a Protestant background. Although Italians don't formally celebrate, some families may plan a Sunday meal together with a nod to American foods. One American holiday Italians do celebrate though is Black Friday, with as many as 85% of Italians planning on shopping for discounted goods.