Thanksgiving begins the thoroughbred racing season at the New Orleans Fair Grounds & Slots (1751 Gentilly Blvd., 504-944-5515; www.fairgroundsracecourse.com), and an outing to the historic track has long been a central part of the holiday for many New Orleanians. Some make a day of it (and fancy dress and costumes abound) while others simply pass through en route to family gatherings. Thanksgiving tables in the track's Clubhouse are sold out, but you'll find a holiday buffet in the Grandstand for $29.99 and traditional fare from white beans to corned beef po-boys at the concession stands. Craig Dennison has been at the Fair Grounds since 1990 and oversees its food throughout the year.
: When you first started here, were you surprised to find that food had an integral role at a horse track?
Dennison: It is different here. The local food is just a way of life, and the food we do here that people really respond to is local food. Everyone who knows I'm part of the track, when the (racing season) is coming up, they'll tell me how they can't wait to come for opening day and what they're going to eat. It's just part of the place.
: The track is known for its corned beef sandwich. What goes into that?
D: That dates back for years. They used to carve it from stands right there as they made the sandwiches. Today, we'll go through 40,000 or 50,000 pounds in a racing season. You have people, they'll go to the same concession stand, order the same sandwich and then they have to eat it at the same spot every time. It's part of their ritual for luck.
: What's your favorite part of Thanksgiving at the track?
D: There's nothing like it. I've only had one Thanksgiving off with my family in all the time I've been here, and that was the year after Katrina when we didn't open. But I love it. The best part of it is when I get people fed and can take a break — walking around you see all these unique New Orleans characters wearing their costumes and having their Bloody Marys. Hang out by the rail here and you'll see it all. — IAN MCNULTY