All in the Family: Matt Register’s Southern Thanksgiving

Matt Register and his family combine two types of Southern food, American and Italian, in their annual Thanksgiving menu.
by Catherine Currin | Photography by Eamon Queeney

In most families, the Thanksgiving meal is about tradition: cooking from recipes passed down for generations, maybe adding a couple new twists. Turns out, the same is true even if you’re a chef.

For this year’s Thanksgiving spread, WALTER trekked over to Kure Beach, where Matt Register, owner of mouthwatering, down-home joint Southern Smoke BBQ, typically hosts Thanksgiving. In his family, the meal isn’t just inspired by the whole hog, country cookin’ he’s known for—his wife Jessica comes from a long line of Southern Italians in upstate New York, so the Thanksgiving meal infuses two kinds of Southern: American and Italian.

“True rustic Italian food is so much like true Southern food,” Register says. “It’s all about what’s seasonal. We’d make sweet potatoes because someone just brought my grandmother a bucket of sweet potatoes. We saved our corn from July to have for Thanksgiving and other holidays.” Similarly, some Italian staples like caprese salad and eggplant parmesan are favorites when tomatoes, basil and eggplants grow in the summer.

The menu is always a smorgasbord of Italian favorites and Southern classics, and it’s all hands on deck, too—Register’s not the only one cooking. There’s a dry-rubbed porchetta with a crispy skin from Register’s father-in-law Jim Talerico (he learned the secrets in Tuscany) plus his father Tim Register’s famous fried chicken (you can get this one at the restaurant in Garland). There’s a colorful antipasto salad with mozzarella, olives and artichokes, which Register’s mother-in-law, Charmayne Talerico—a.k.a. Grandma Char—says is on the table at almost every meal. “I always think they’ll get sick of it, but they keep asking for it so I keep making it,” says Talerico.

Register also puts his own twist on traditional recipes. He makes Utica collards—a Southern version of Utica greens, an upstate N.Y. staple of spicy, stewed greens—but swaps in collards for escarole and country ham for pancetta. He smokes turkey breasts instead of cooking a whole bird—“a breast is about $7 at the store, plus it’s easier. I love cooking it this way!”—using the same techniques that make his Garland outpost such a destination. At their core, most of his dishes are about making things easy, but also delicious. Take the hash: it’s a dish based on leftovers, says Register. “You can roast the sweet potatoes the day or two before and use them in this dish. I love things that come from something you’ve already got.” He says much of his cookbook, Southern Smoke, takes this approach.

As far as dessert goes, Grandma Char is in charge—though there’s a longstanding debate in the Register household on which one of her pies is the favorite. The kids love her pumpkin and cream cheese pie, while Register swears by her apple walnut specialty. “I don’t even like apples, but I look forward to this pie!”

More important than the food, Register says, is tradition. His mother Lynn Register says Sundays in Sampson County are sacred in their family, especially around the holidays. “We always celebrate the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Sunday lunch was our time with my mother, and we keep that tradition going,” she says. “If you weren’t going to be there for Sunday lunch, you better have had a good excuse.”

Register reminisces on his grandmother’s lace cornbread (thinly fried, resembling a delicious doily) and her meticulous process of using the entire sink to dredge her signature fried chicken. He credits much of his love for cooking to time in the kitchen with his grandmother. “I believe the most important room in your house is your kitchen. On Thanksgiving, you put everything aside and you’re there as a family, in and out of the kitchen, cooking together.” 

Click here for the recipes.