Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thanksgiving- A look into the 19th Century meal!

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth" Jennie A. Brownscombe, 1914
     Once a year we all sit down and enjoy a great feast with our friends and family in November. This national holiday is often a time to be grateful for all that we have. In recent years however, it has become cluttered with the stress of setting the meal out on a massive table topped with manicured centerpieces and the looming cloud of Black Friday shoppers. The images of Pilgrims & Indians dance in our heads as we sit down to eat the traditional meal of Turkey, dressing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pie- you know just what they had in 1621! Okay, so maybe I am painting a false picture. Let's take a look back.
     Thanksgiving was made a national holiday in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln, not 1621! We have one lady to thank- Sarah J. Hale. While Thanksgiving had been celebrated sporadically before the 1863 proclamation, it was not an annual occurrence. Hale had lobbied for years to get a day for national Thanksgiving, in the midst of the Civil War, after the victories in Gettysburg & Vicksburg, Lincoln conceded and made the proclamation for an annual national holiday.
     Traditional foods have been served for centuries, but where our "menu" comes from is a bit sketchy. I would assume that a lot of the first thanksgivings used what was available, usually meaning wild game & seasonal vegetables. Some of the first "pilgrims" list fowl, venison & fish for the meal, and not much else is mentioned. It could be that the sides were a common staple and not worth the mention.
     When Sara J. Hale wrote Northwood in 1827 she included an entire chapter about the Thanksgiving Meal, giving detailed information about the food that was included- with the turkey taking the center stage. She also references a chicken pie that should be as large as the host's gratitude for the party. Another reference to a Thanksgiving menu can be found in Buckeye Cookery in 1877.

     You can see that many of our traditional favorites are mentioned including roast turkey, baked sweet potatoes, macaroni & cheese, and  pumpkin pie!   There are other references to what should be served at a Thanksgiving meal that include chicken pie, pork loin, pickles & sweetmeats! There seemed to be a lot of variety in the meal, much like there is today from table to table.
     Meat pies were common in the 19th Century, as I have tried on here, there are many varieties for each meat pie, chicken, pork, mincemeat, etc. the possibilities seems almost endless. The chicken pie seems to be a staple on the 19th century kitchen table. Sara Hale describes a simple pie made from the best parts of the chicken then flavored with butter & put into a puff paste- like a pumpkin pie. The dish below taken from  Jennie June's American Cookery Book, 1870 is more complex- including three meats & boiled eggs.

Roast turkey- the center piece of every meal- including a nice stuffing & gravy from the  Practical Cook Book-1850. Suggested sides include boiled ham & cranberry sauce.

Cranberry sauce is often served with roast turkey & other fowl.
Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches- 1844
The side items seem to be an endless list of potatoes, squash, salads, pickles, breads, and relishes. Almost any in season vegetable could be dressed and sent to the table to accompany the meats.

Desserts were plenty to chose from as well- the lists of cakes, pies and puddings could meet the need of any sweet tooth.
There are many- almost too many- reference to pumpkin pies & puddings- check out this post for pumpkin goodies.
 Indian Pudding- a dish made with corn meal and molasses- was an item most tables had seen throughout the year, and of course was brought out on Thanksgiving as well.
Directions for Cookery, in Its Various Branches, 1844
Mince pies are often thought of as a traditional Christmas dish but seemed to have been served around Thanksgiving as well. This is a common recipe combining beef & apples with raisins and spices to make a great savory pie!
The New England Economical Housekeeper, 1845
So on this Thanksgiving, sit aside the Sales ads & the Christmas ornaments & make a delectable meal for the family- enjoy it with the ones you love! Maybe take the time to read Thank You, Sarah: The Woman that Saved Thanksgiving ! Remember, Thanksgiving would not be the holiday that it is today without a great influence from the 19th Century!

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