"Know your audience," says Jack Bishop, editorial director of America's Test Kitchen. "The people I know want a pie for dessert and they're not really interested in going too far afield. And the turkey is the turkey, and there's not really a lot you can do there."
But if you're the cook, making the same meal year after year can be mind-numbing. Here's a brief guide to knowing just how classic you have to keep the classics, and how far you can push things.
TURKEY: Go classic in the prep, but modern in the method.
The classic Thanksgiving turkey gets rubbed with butter and salt, and maybe a few herbs.
"A lot of people expect the same meal all the time," says Mary Risley, director of San Francisco's Tante Marie's Cooking School. "It's the one meal that every ethnic group across this country eats. And maybe the Italians have ravioli before, and maybe the Chinese have dumplings before, but everybody has turkey. So don't mess with the turkey."
But Rick Rodgers, author of more than 40 cookbooks, including "Thanksgiving 101," says you can keep it real but still have a little fun. "Doing something as simple as cooking the turkey outdoors on your grill is a way to take something traditional into the 21st century," he says.
Bishop says once you've broken that mould and put the bird on the grill, you might as well play with a few flavours. "Doing a spice rub with cumin and chili powder and cinnamon, you can have some fun there," he says. "As long as you choose a spice rub that's not too unusual and you don't do it two years in a row you'll be fine."
And in the home of Erling Wu-Bower, chef de cuisine at Chicago's Nico Osteria, Cajun-rubbed turkey is traditional. "We make this spicy Cajun lemony rub and poke holes and put whole cloves of garlic in it."
Wu-Bower cooks the bird in the oven wrapped in foil so it essentially steams, then browns it at high temperature. "You can't touch the turkey," he says. "This is the traditional bird."
— MASHED POTATOES: Go classic, period. If you must play, go no further than casserole.
"There has to be mashed potatoes and I'm just not going to mess with that because there's going to be a lot of people who are going to be very vocal," Bishop says. He admits to occasionally using eggs to turn the mashed potatoes into a souffle, but nothing crazier than that. "Chives are in it," he says. "That's the most out-there ingredient in mashed potato casserole."
Rodgers says your approach to mashed potatoes should be even more basic than that. "Ask yourself, 'Will it taste good with gravy on it?'" he says. "You have to make mashed potatoes that taste good with gravy."
— STUFFING: Go classic on the foundation, innovate on the add-ins.
Bishop says first deal with the stuffing base: will it be white bread, cornbread, multi-grain or rice? After settling that, go for the flair.
"If you want to experiment, stuffing gives you the most leeway," he says. "You can add apples, fennel, sausage, bacon, nuts and dried fruit."
If you have a really picky audience, you might want to play it even safer. "Stuffing is a good example of where people expect the expected," Rodgers says. To feed his jones for something new, Rodgers makes two stuffings — one nothing but white bread, celery, onion and herbs, and one with oysters or wild mushrooms.
— SWEET POTATOES: Go classic on the concept, modern in the execution.
Marshmallows are the classic topping for Thanksgiving sweet potatoes. But the sweetness of that dish and its festive sensibility can be captured in other ways without causing a riot, these experts say.
Bishop suggests a sweet potato puree topped with a streusel of brown sugar, butter and spices. "It's for people who love the idea of the marshmallows, but it's more sophisticated," he says. "Even the people who love the marshmallows seem pretty happy when they get this. It's sweet, but it's also crunchy."
If your guests can handle it, Bishop says go nuts and take the dish Indian with cashews and chilies. Maybe even some coconut and cilantro, or coriander and peanut butter for an African flavour.
Wu-Bower takes the sweet potato experiment one step further. He suggests browning rounds of roasted sweet potato in olive oil then dousing them in butter, brown sugar, red wine vinegar and neonata, a chili-infused Calabrian fish sauce. Deep fried capers add crunch.
— VEGETABLES: Do a classic green bean casserole, or go completely off the rails.
"I can't stand green bean casserole," Bishop says. "There, I just said it. It's a lot of work and it's not very good."
Instead, he suggests roasting green beans with red onions and walnuts or tossing them with a maple-mustard glaze. Or simply blanche them and toss them with something crunchy, like slivered almonds or roasted pumpkin seeds.
Wu-Bower offers an Italian take on Szechuan green beans, sauteing them with ground pork, garlic, onions, chilies and garum, a Roman fish sauce.
Or break away from the green beans altogether. Wu-Bower suggests marinating broccoli in salt, pepper and olive oil, then grilling it and dressing it in lemon zest, raw garlic, Fresno chilies, mint and white wine vinegar. Tante Marie's Risley suggests pulsing Brussels sprouts in the food processor and roasting them with olive oil, salt and pepper.
— PIE: Stick with the classic assortment, but jazz up the ingredients if you must.
"You gotta have pumpkin pie, pecan pie and apple pie," says Wu-Bower. "I feel like half-a-pie per person is a fair amount."
Bishop suggests dressing up the pecan pie with a mixture of semi-sweet, milk and white chocolate chips. Or you can combine the pecan and the pumpkin pies by putting a praline top on a classic pumpkin base. "It feels totally out there, but it's totally classic," he says. "That's a nice twist on a classic."
Apple pie can make friends with cranberries, Bishop says, with a layer of crisp apples atop a base of cranberry jam. "It's kicking-it-up-a-notch apple pie," he says.
Michele Kayal is an editor at http://www.americanfoodroots.com . Follow her on Twitter @hyphenatedchef