Bright and tart pineapple is a summer treat that’s perfect for cooling you down on a hot afternoon. But in the South, pineapple serves a dual role that easily moves between the seasons. In the summer, there are pineapple desserts at church picnics, family reunions, and potlucks, and in the fall — especially around Thanksgiving — you’ll find both sweet and savory pineapple dishes on the dinner table.
Pig pickin cake and pineapple casserole are common Southern Thanksgiving dishes that prove the spiny fruit deserves a place on the table after summer long days.
Pig pickin cake
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Against our mothers’ express wishes, let’s start with dessert. One of the most iconic desserts in the South, and particularly in North Carolina, is called pig pickin cake — so named because it was often the finishing touch to a barbecue or pig roast (the phrase “pig pickin” refers to the fact that guests would pick the best part of the pig right off the bone). The light, refreshing flavor is considered the ideal cap to the rich, salty, and fatty flavors of the barbecued meat.
Pig roasts are typically summertime affairs, so this cake is usually associated with hot weather. But the Thanksgiving dessert table has recently adopted pig pickin cake. Several years back, The New York Times reported that it was the most searched for Thanksgiving recipe in North Carolina — although to be fair, in more recent years the answer has changed to more traditional dishes like mac and cheese. And that makes sense: Just like a pig roast, Thanksgiving tends to be a heavy meal centered mostly on various types of roasted meats, making this light citrus- and pineapple-infused cake the perfect ending to the night before you pass out from a food coma.
Part of the reason it’s so adaptable is that most of the ingredients are canned or boxed — a holdover from what writer Liz Biro calls “mid-20th century age of convenience foods.” To make pig pickin cake, you start with a boxed yellow cake mix and mix in a can of mandarin oranges. The topping is made with a box of instant vanilla pudding mixed with canned crushed pineapple and — this is very important — Cool Whip. Practiced home bakers might be tempted to make their own whipped cream, but traditional pig pickin cake should be topped with Cool Whip and garnished with more canned mandarin oranges.
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Casseroles are commonplace all over the country — particularly in the South and the midwest — and are eaten in every season for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Usually, preparing casserole involves dumping inexpensive and easy to access canned goods into a baking dish, making them ideal for homecooks who need to serve big groups on a busy schedule. Pineapple casserole, sometimes also known as cheesy or scalloped pineapple casserole, is no different.
To make pineapple casserole, canned pineapple is mixed with heaps of shredded cheddar cheese and then topped with crunchy, salty Ritz crackers. That’s all nestled between layers and layers of creamy, salty melted butter.
With its mix of sweet and savory flavors, pineapple casserole has become an iconic Thanksgiving side dish in the South. This hybrid dish might be considered a dessert with a savory twist or a savory dish that incorporates a sweet element, depending on how you look at it. Cookbook author Perre Coleman Magness tells Huffington Post that, “You’ll find this recipe in almost every Southern community cookbook, sometimes in the dessert section, sometimes in the side dish section.”
Devotees of pineapple casserole say it pairs well with baked ham — a mainstay of the Thanksgiving table. Those who have never tried it might be skeptical of pineapple casserole, but think about it: Ritz crackers and a slice of cheddar cheese is an iconic duo, and pineapple and ham are a celebrated combination. A scoop of pineapple casserole beside a slice of honey baked ham is a winner — especially if you have a sweet tooth.
While North Carolina claims pig pickin cake as its own, Southern folks from Tennessee to Florida to Mississippi sing the praises of pineapple casserole. One reason for its popularity might be how easy it is to make, and the fact that many people have the ingredients in their pantry no matter the time of year. But Thanksgiving pineapple dishes are also easy to customize depending on your tastes. Some recipes add extras like jalapenos and pepper jack cheese for a spicy kick, while a sweet potato and pineapple casserole combines the canned pineapple with sweet potatoes and marshmallows to create the ultimate Thanksgiving mashup.
Predictably, lots of people from the South don’t want to wait until Thanksgiving to prepare pineapple casserole, and the fact that most of the ingredients are available at the grocery store year-round make it the perfect dish for any kind of holiday celebration. In Southern Living, writer Caroline Rogers argues that, “Pineapple casserole is a quintessential Southern dish,” and that any Easter lunch in the South simply isn’t complete without it. No matter when you eat it, this surprisingly versatile dish proves that pineapple doesn’t always need a tropical twist to fit in at the dinner table. [mn-pst-ender]
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