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The night before Thanksgiving, chef and cookbook author Virginia Willis is in her sunny Atlanta kitchen, mixing up a kosher salt, brown sugar and water brine for her turkey — the secret, she says, to exceptionally tender meat and a dark golden skin. Her mother will drive up from near Augusta, Ga., with pound cake and pecan pie, made from scratch with fresh Georgia nuts. Mom's in charge of dessert this year.
Willis' bird will sit in the brine overnight. Come morning, she'll get to working on the rest of the Big Meal: collard greens, sweet potatoes, fluffy biscuits and cornbread dressing (aka the stuffing of the South).
For Sheri Castle, author of The New Southern Garden Cookbook (University of North Carolina Press), Thanksgiving just isn't Thanksgiving without sweet potatoes, more acres of which were harvested in North Carolina in 2010 than in any other state. "We're obsessed with sweet potatoes in all forms," says Castle, who says sweet potato pie, not pumpkin, rules in her neighborhood.
n New England, cue the cranberries It's not surprising to find a trace of apple, maple and/or cranberry in every course of the meal here, in this birthplace of Thanksgiving. "We brine our turkeys in apple cider and maple syrup," says Deborah Snow, co-owner and executive chef of Blue Heron Restaurant in Sunderland, Mass., where up to 400 people will dine for Thanksgiving this year. "It adds a nice sweetness and gives the turkey a beautiful color."
The Southwest goes Native American This year, in honor of the Native American tribes that live nearby, chef and culinary anthropologist Lois Ellen Frank will incorporate turkey feathers into her Thanksgiving feast. "We're trying to complete the circle and use every part of the bird, instead of just the meat," says Frank, who also runs Red Mesa Cuisine, a catering company that specializes in Native American-sourced foods of the Southwest.
California likes it flavors clean Grills rule in Southern California pretty much year-round. "At our restaurant, we roast the turkey breast and then char it over rosemary on the grill — California style," says Christopher Eddy, chef de cuisine at Campanile Restaurant in Los Angeles, where there will be a $65-per-person prix fixe Thanksgiving menu and takeout options.