When you think “Thanksgiving,” you probably think of tradition—autumnal colors, Pilgrim-themed décor, and, of course, turkey and mashed potatoes.
But Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be traditional—especially in Florida, where November temperatures often spike above 80 degrees and that white powder underfoot is sand, not snow. So why not turn tradition on its head and host a tropical Thanksgiving on the beach with nary a turkey or mashed potato in sight?
We asked some local experts to help us create a Gulf-front holiday celebration on one of Venice’s prettiest stretches of sand, just south of Sharky’s on the Pier, and invited Anna and Joe Schulten and some of their family and friends as our guests for the occasion. Anna and Joe have deep Venice roots—they’re both Venice High alums and Anna’s family owns the Captain’s Landing store on the Island of Venice, while Joe’s late father was the head surgeon and chief of staff at Venice Hospital—so they’re no strangers to beach picnics, but they admitted this was their first Thanksgiving feast at the beach.
Stylist and event planner A.J. Latteri set up a pretty but sturdy folding table and chairs in the sand and topped the table with linens and dishware in vivid coastal hues. A coral tablecloth, turquoise accent pieces and colorful, mismatched plates established a bright, casual tone, and those sunny hues made everything—including the food—pop, especially against the neutral backdrop of the sand. An easy-to-carry orchid basket, a ceramic pineapple and capiz-shell napkin rings added the finishing touches.
We’d asked Josh Booze, head chef at Fins at Sharky’s, to come up with a tropical twist on a typical Thanksgiving menu. We also requested dishes that were relatively simple to make and could be easily transported from home. Booze gave a nod to tradition with a juicy ham, but added tropical flair with citrus-avocado salsa. He served up an assortment of colorful sides and salads—including jicama salad, root vegetable hash with sage brown butter and shredded hearts of palm, and an arugula salad packed with roasted beets, oranges, feta cheese, cranberries and a chile-coconut vinaigrette. Cornbread topped with a Captain Morgan rum reduction and cherry garnish and a pineapple-upside-down carrot cake rounded out the meal, and a fruit spritzer with showstopping floral ice cubes quenched everyone’s thirst. (A tip: Sangria would be lovely to serve, too.)
Then the Schultens and their guests sat down at sunset—the absolute best time to schedule a Gulf-front dinner. As everyone packed up, we all agreed we’d been inspired to plan a similar event for our next holiday.
Grilled, glazed ham with citrus-avocado salsa
Arugula salad with roasted beets, mandarin orange segments, feta cheese, sun-dried cranberries and a chile-coconut vinaigrette, topped with toasted coconut
Cornbread with a Captain Morgan rum reduction and cherry garnish
Pineapple upside-down carrot cake
Fruit spritzer with floral ice cubes
Recipe: Carrot Pineapple Upside-Down Cake
Makes 18 mini-cakes or 1 large cake
¼ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup corn syrup
1 cup brown sugar
1 ½ cups white sugar
1 ½ cups canola oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 cups shredded fresh carrots
1 pineapple, peeled, cored
and sliced into thin rings
Maraschino cherries, for garnish
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
Melt ¼ cup butter, ¼ cup corn syrup and 1 cup brown sugar together; portion 2 tablespoons of mixture into the bottoms of 18 greased and floured ramekins. Top with pineapple rings and place maraschino cherries in the center of each pineapple slice.
In a large bowl, mix together sugar, oil and eggs. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg. Combine the wet and dry ingredients in one bowl, then add shredded carrots and vanilla extract, stirring to combine. Portion cake mixture into ramekins and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of each ramekin comes out clean. If you prefer to make one large cake, adjust baking time to 45-50 minutes, checking frequently until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.
Recipe courtesy of Fins at Sharky’s
For a fancy—but fuss-free—touch, make custom ice cubes.
Everyone exclaimed over the floral ice cubes stylist A.J. Latteri dropped into her fruit spritzer—but she says they couldn’t be easier to make. Simply fill up an ice cube tray (she used one with larger molds), drop in slices of fresh fruit, edible flower petals or herbs, and freeze. The result is a beautiful drink accessory that will also keep you cool and hydrated on the beach.
Shore Tips for Success
Check the weather forecast, as it tends to change by the hour in Florida. Have a back-up plan for rain, and be sure to pack some sweaters and cuddly throws in case the temperature drops or the wind picks up just as you hit the beach.
We’re blessed with a number of very different beaches and great access and parking to most of them. Do your homework and choose a beach that offers what you want, whether it’s grand seclusion or playground and restroom facilities.
It’s worth walking a little farther from the parking area so you can set up where you’re not likely to get lots of people sitting near you or walking through your meal.
Try to balance traditional and tropical in your menu, so it still feels like Thanksgiving—or Christmas or Hanukkah, if that’s what you choose to celebrate.
“You want food that holds up well and is easily portable,” event planner Latteri advises. That means nothing too delicate or cream-based. If kids are attending, bring extra snacks, like peanut butter crackers or fruit. And make sure to keep a basket filled with hand sanitizing wipes, sunscreen, bug spray and an empty trash bag nearby.
Have fun with your décor. Use colors and objects that reference the seaside setting, and leave your precious—and breakable—holiday china at home. You can find tropical-themed tableware and accessories in local shops; natural items, from starfish and shells to driftwood, add authenticity and warmth.
Whether you’re going full tilt or keeping it simple, the most important thing is to have fun and appreciate the time with your loved ones. That’s what Thanksgiving is all about, after all—and who wouldn’t be thankful for a sunset and sea view as you’re breaking bread around the Thanksgiving table?
Stylist: A.J. Latteri/The Loft 5 Models: Chase Jacob, Anna Schulten, Joe Schulten, Lexie Schulten, Keith Struble, Salli Struble Props From: Linens by the Sea, Ralph's Interiors, Seaside Chic Homes, The Tabletop, U.S. Tent Rental Food Provided By: Fins at Sharky's