How to Create a Standout Thanksgiving Table
photograph by Dillon Deaton

When the turkeys and hams go on sale at the supermarket, it’s time to start thinking about Thanksgiving. Amid the planning of the menu and the coordinating of all your guests, keeping abreast of the latest trends in dining and decor might not be at the front of your mind.

Fortunately, Charlotte-based Amélie’s French Bakery & Café combines food and decor in fresh, fun, and practical ways daily at their coffee shops, and Thanksgiving is one of their favorite challenges. We chatted with Amélie’s designer and cofounder Brenda Ische and executive chef and director of operations Mary Jayne Wilson for tips on how to execute a Thanksgiving that’ll keep your family well-fed and merry from start to finish.


Decor

1. Source materials from multiple store departments

When creating a unique tablescape, Ische encourages expanding the search for materials to all store departments. “I always stroll through every department in the home goods section,” Ische says. “I’ve used a small rug to arrange my centerpiece. I’ve turned a decorative lampshade upside down, filled it with newspaper, and used it for my decorative fruit.” Other ideas include using a printed cloth shower curtain as a festive kids’ tablecloth, or pieces of ribbon from the craft department to tie silverware together.

How to Create a Standout Thanksgiving Table

As for the plates and serving ware, “think beyond your grandma’s Thanksgiving table, where she had her matching silverware and china,” Ische recommends. Instead, put a modern spin on dinner china by mixing and matching plating patterns. Mismatched dishware looks best when each plate is placed on the same style of charger, on top of a solid-color tablecloth, that visually ties the different designs together. To find a variety of vintage dinner plates, plan a visit to a local antiques shop or thrift store; you might have to visit more than one to compose a complementary arrangement.

2. Expand your palette

Instead of limiting your tablescape to traditional Thanksgiving colors of burnt orange, beige, and brown, add dimension by including blue or green. “You expect orange and brown,” Ische says. “The unexpected just gets everyone’s attention.” For a subtle shift, try slate blue napkin holders or sage green candles. “The tablecloth is [also] an inexpensive way to add color to your table,” Ische says. Including copper-colored items when using brown or gold — but not both — is another harmonious color scheme idea.

3. Go tall with your centerpiece

Creating a Thanksgiving table centerpiece doesn’t have to be an expensive undertaking. “Go through what you have at home and think of it differently,” Ische says. “What else could this bowl be? Could you turn it upside down, and use it as a pedestal?” Vases and candles of varying heights and sizes can be used to create a centerpiece that’s tall, but not so wide that it impedes across-the-table interaction among guests. To add variety and depth, Ische recommends placing smaller arrangements around the main centerpiece. A vase of fresh flowers, like orange roses, red carnations, and yellow chrysanthemums, is another classic centerpiece idea.

How to Create a Standout Thanksgiving Table

For Ische, though, the most important part of designing a tablescape, is making sure to keep guests in mind. “I like to keep things fun and lighthearted, not too stiff and formal,” Ische says. “You want your guest to be at ease, happy, and comfortable.”


Dinner

1. Pass the appetizers

Small, light appetizers will help tide guests over as they wait for the main meal. Wilson recommends a simple cheese and charcuterie board; it keeps your oven available for cooking entrées, and can be created using handmade cheeses from North Carolina creameries, such as Goat Lady Dairy in Climax, Looking Glass Creamery in Asheville, or Piemonte Farm in Greensboro. To create a cheese board, Amélie’s recommends combining: one hard cheese, such as a nutty Spanish manchego or Swiss-like Gruyère; one soft cheese, such as a Brie or Camembert; a variety of spreads, playing with both sweet and spicy flavors; a variety of breads or crackers; and small, tart cornichon pickles.

How to Create a Standout Thanksgiving Table

Local bakeries are also great resources for seasonal rolls and breads that can be sliced and offered as an appetizer. Stick Boy Bread Co., with bakeries in Fuquay-Varina and Boone, has a variety of fall-themed breads such as pumpkin rosemary and sweet potato marshmallow brioche, and Bread & Butter in Chapel Hill bakes beer breads with North Carolina craft brews. For those in the Charlotte area, Amélie’s offers plain and flavored croissants by the dozen, and a breads-and-spreads platter with baguettes and your choice of two to three spreads, like truffle honey and roasted garlic feta.

How to Create a Standout Thanksgiving Table

2. Don’t forget the vegetarians

Whether or not your guests are feasting on turkey, everyone wants to leave Thanksgiving with a full stomach. Show your vegetarian guests a little extra care and consideration by offering hearty replacements that still capture homey flavors. “I really love to use Portobello mushrooms. You can almost treat them like a meat and marinate them, then grill them,” Wilson says. “Beans are also a really nice, high-protein item that you can flavor however you want to.” Creating a salad from root vegetables is another heavier entrée option for vegetarians, and even turkey eaters will want to save room for this roasted red pepper mac and cheese, with a pimento cheese-inspired twist.

3. Bring color into your side dishes

Colorful vegetable sides add more than just visual appeal to your dinner plates; orange and yellow vegetables are rich in beta-carotene, and purple vegetables contain antioxidants. Utilizing seasonal produce, such as Sandhills sweet potatoes or collards — with plenty of ham hocks — and shopping at farmers markets is an easy way to support local businesses during the holiday season when creating your family’s favorite, classic holiday sides. One colorful vegetable that you might not already have on your plate this Thanksgiving, but should? Squash. “Acorn squash is a really nice, neutral fall squash, along with butternut,” Wilson says. “The butternut has a beautiful, golden-orange color.”

How to Create a Standout Thanksgiving Table

Once you’ve collected your bounty, check out some of our most creative, colorful holiday side dishes from the Our State archives:

Butternut Squash Soufflé

Creole Eggplant Casserole

Baked Sweet Potato Orange Cups

Winter Squash Casserole

Mustard-Roasted Purple Potatoes


Post-Dinner

1. Be thankful together

Before your guests arrive, set up a display card on the serving table, asking, “Which Thanksgiving was the most memorable for you and why?” Have your guests think about the question through dinner, and take turns sharing answers when the plates are cleared. Other potential questions include, “What’s your favorite Thanksgiving family recipe?” and “Who in your life are you most thankful for this year?”

How to Create a Standout Thanksgiving Table

2. Get creative with the dessert

We’ll always hold a special place in our hearts for the trifecta of Thanksgiving pies — apple, pumpkin, and pecan — but dessert can be a less intimidating time to try adding new foods to your holiday lineup. A tart, or its free-form cousin, a galette — a French dessert made with pastry dough and filling — uses the same ingredients as a traditional American pie, but has a more rustic, unexpected look. Feel free to try different fillings, like berries or sweet potatoes. “Be confident in your ability to try something, and if it doesn’t work out, you know not to do it again next year,” Wilson says, chuckling. Try a modern adaptation of traditional Thanksgiving dessert flavors using our recipes:

Fried Apple Pies

Butter Pecan Pound Cake

White Chocolate Cheesecake Tart

Pumpkin Pound Cake

Sweet Potato Sonker

How to Create a Standout Thanksgiving Table

3. Offer a digestif

Finish the evening with an after-dinner adult beverage. “Typically, you go with a brandy, or a sweet liqueur that you can sip on,” Wilson says. Cocktails, though a more time-consuming undertaking, can allow you to be more creative with your digestif. “My grandmother actually makes something called a whisper,” Wilson says. “It’s coffee ice cream … with Kahlúa, crème de cacao, and Baileys Irish Cream.” For a family-friendly alternative, spiced apple cider is a great warm, seasonal addition.

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K McKay is the digital content writer at Our State. She is a graduate of Elon University, and was the spring 2017 digital intern at Our State. K loves meeting readers as she travels across the state, and is always ready to try a new restaurant.

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