Saturday, November 19, 2011

Thanksgiving Menu – Historical Perspectives

The first Thanksgiving

About 390 years ago, in 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag tribe members shared a three-day autumn harvest feast, which is considered as being the first Thanksgiving celebration. After the rain that marked the end of the draught and revived the crop of corn and other fruits, colonists decided to celebrate the day with their neighbors or Massasoit, the chief of the Native Indians or Wampanoags, and his family. He came with all his extended family that constituted ninety people and stayed for three days.

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First Thanksgiving Menu

Colonists were, of course, in bad shape and there were only four grown up married ladies left to do all the cooking. Thus, General Bradford sent four of his soldiers to hunt for fowls, who brought such a large number with them that it could feed the whole village for a week. Wampanoags also helped in supplementing the food supplies by contributing five deer they had killed and probably other supplies out of courtesy. The food listed in Winslow's account consists of corn meal, fish such as bass and cod and wild fowls or turkeys. Other things that were not listed, but were available to residents of Plymouth in those days and were probably a part of the feast were lobster, rabbit, chicken, squashes, beans, chestnuts, hickory nuts, onions, leeks, dried fruits, maple syrup and honey, radishes, cabbage, carrots, eggs, and may be goat cheese.

Potatoes were unavailable in those days and butter and oil were scarce. There were no ovens, so though pumpkin stew and pudding may have been served, there was no scope to prepare pumpkin pies. Women who did the cooking were born and raised in England and probably experimented with their cooking by adapting their cooking methods to the native foods available to them. Roasting was the preferred method of preparing meats and poultry. But roasting on a spit over a fire took hours and required constant monitoring by someone who also turned the spite every now and then, so perhaps roasted venison was served with boiled fish and fowl or turkey. It is not unlikely that few of these birds may still have an overlooked birdshot embedded inside them.

Indian corns do not pop well, so there were no popcorns on Thanksgiving table, though corn may have been ground into meal for bread and thickener. Though cranberries were available to the colonists, cranberry sauce could not possibly have been served, because they had no access to sugar. Though honey or syrup could have been used to sweeten the cranberries, it required a lot of labor. Since there were four ladies cooking all day, to feed the crowd of about 150 people, they could not have find time to do all that work. In short, the Thanksgiving meal for the pilgrims would have consisted of roasted venison, stewed or boiled fowl, lobster and fish, corn and wheat breads, stew of dried fruits and perhaps pumpkin, one or two boiled vegetables and only water to drink.

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Thanksgiving Menu 1779

The following menu for a New England Thanksgiving dinner as found in a letter written in 1779 by Juliana Smith to her 'Dear Cousing Betsey.'
Haunch of Venison Roast Chine of Pork
Roast Turkey Pigeon Pasties Roast Goose
Onions in Cream Cauliflower Squash
Potatoes Raw Celery
Mincemeat Pie Pumpkin Pie Apple Pie
Indian Pudding Plum Pudding

While it would be difficult to set forth a single 'traditional' Thanksgiving menu, the preparations related by Juliana Smith that went into this dinner were certainly typical of early New England Thanksgivings. 'This year it was Uncle Simeon's turn to have the dinner at his house, but of course we all helped them as they help us when it is their turn, & there is always enough for us all to do. All the baking of pies & cakes was done at our house & we had the big oven heated & filled twice each day for three days before it was all done & everything was GOOD, though we did have to do without some things that ought to be used. Neither Love nor (paper) Money could buy Raisins, but our good red cherries dried without the pits, did almost as well & happily Uncle Simeon still had some spices in store. The tables were set in the Dining Hall and even that big room had no space to spare when we were all seated.' Apparently roast beef was part of the tradition menu for this family, but 'of course we could have no Roast Beef. None of us have tasted Beef this three years back as it must all go to the Army, & too little they get, poor fellows. But, Nayquittymaw's Hunters were able to get us a fine red Deer, so that we had a good haunch of Venisson on each Table.' There was an abundance of vegetables on the table...Cider was served instead of wine, wiht the explanation that Uncle Simeon was saving his cask 'for the sick.' Juliana added that 'The Pumpkin Pies, Apple Tarts & big Indian Puddings lacked for nothing save Appetite by the time we had got round to them...We did not rise from the Table until it was quite dark, & then when the dishes had been cleared away we all got round the fire as close as we could, & cracked nuts, & sang songs & told stories."

Thanksgiving Menu 1845

The New England Economical Housekeeper, and Family Receipt Book, published in 1845, offers the following menu for Thanksgiving Dinner:

Roast Turkey, stuffed.
A Pair of Chickens stuffed, and boiled, with cabbage-and a piece of lean pork.
A Chicken Pie.
Potatoes; turnip sauce, squash; onions; gravy and gravy sauce; apple and cranberry sauce; oyster sauce; brown and white bread.
Plum and Plain Pudding, with Sweet sauce.
Mince, Pumpkin and Apple Pies.

Thanksgiving Menu 1877

Buckeye Cookery, published in 1877 and in 1880 listed the typical menu for the Thanksgiving Dinner at the time:

Oyster soup;
boiled fresh cod with egg sauce;
roast turkey, cranberry sauce;
roast goose, bread sauce or currant jelly;
stuffed ham, apple sauce or jelly; pork and beans;
mashed potatoes and boiled onions, salsify, macaroni and cheese;
brown bread and superior biscuit;
lobster salad; pressed beef, cold corned beef, tongue;
celery, cream slaw;
watermelon, peach, pear, or apple sweet-pickles;
mangoes, cucumbers, chow-chow, and tomato catsup; stewed peaches or prunes;
doughnuts and ginger cakes; mince, pumpkin, and peach pies;
plum and boiled Indian puddings;
apple, cocoa-nut or almond tarts;
vanilla ice-cream; old- fashioned loaf cake, pound cake, black cake, white perfection cake, ribbon cake, almond layer cake;
citron, peach, plum, or cherry preserves; apples, oranges, figs, grapes, raisins, and nuts; tea and coffee.

Thanksgiving Menu 1927

Good Housekeeping's Book of Good Meals: How to Prepare and Serve Them recommends the following Thanksgiving Dinner menu:

Cream of Tomato Soup, Roast Turkey, Southern Giblet Gravy, Potato Croquettes, Brussels Sprouts, Cauliflower with Hollandaise Sauce, Cranberry Jelly, Romaine Salad, French Dressing, Individual Pumpkin Pies, Whipped Cream, Cider Ice, Nuts, Raisins.
Halves of Grapefruit, Roast Duck, Apple Stuffing, Baked Sweet Potatoes, Creamed Turnips, Cole-Slaw, Baked Squash, Cider, Indian Pudding, Foamy Sauce, Nuts, Coffee.
Fruit Cocktail, Chicken Fricassee, Riced Potatoes, Celery, Buttered Onions, Squash Pie.

Thanksgiving as official Holiday

Thanksgiving became an official holiday in the United States on October 3, 1863 via proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln. This was largely due to the lobbying efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Magazine who had lobbied for 17 years for the holiday. The proclamation declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

By 1916, Thanksgiving was referred to in writings as Turkey Day due to the popularity of the bird at the traditional feast.

Interestingly enough, in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to move the official Thanksgiving date to earlier in November in order encourage a longer Christmas shopping season as a Depression recovery strategy. His idea was shut down by Congress, and the official date was declared permanently as the fourth Thursday in November via Public Law #379.

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Selected Recipes

There is tons of information and online resources nowadays letting you find out the best recipes for your Thanksgiving Dinner, so I will just post some, which look the yummiest to me, and easy to follow (even for myself).

Appetizer - Smoky Salmon Chive Spread


  • 2 cans (7.5 oz. each) salmon (preferably Alaskan king or sockeye), well drained
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  • 1 container (7 oz.) nonfat Greek yogurt
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  • 2 ounces hot-smoked salmon, finely chopped
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  • 1/4 cup finely chopped red onion, plus slivers for garnish
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  • 3 tablespoons chopped chives
  • 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
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  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
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  • Kosher salt
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  • Seeded crisp lavash or other crackers

  • Remove bones and skin from salmon; break into chunks. In a medium bowl, mix yogurt, hot-smoked salmon, chopped onion, chives, mustard, and pepper with a fork until well combined. Gently stir in salmon, season to taste with salt, and top with slivered onion. Serve with lavash.
  • Make ahead: Chill, covered, up to 3 days (you may need to moisten with a bit more yogurt).

45-minutes Roast Turkey

It's almost a given that time and oven space are at a premium on Thanksgiving Day, and this method of roasting turkey, unorthodox as it is, address both. Split, flattened, and roasted at 450 degrees F (lowering the heat if the bird browns too fast), a 10-pound bird will be done in about 40 minutes. It will also be more evenly browned (all of the skin is exposed to the heat), more evenly cooked (the legs are more exposed; the wings shield the breasts), and moister than birds cooked conventionally. But it works only for relatively small turkeys.

  • One 8- to 12-pound turkey
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil or melted butter
  • 10 or more garlic cloves, lightly crushed
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper

  1. Heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Put the turkey on a stable cutting board, breast side down, and cut out the backbone. Turn the bird over and press on it to flatten. Put it breast side up in a roasting pan that will accommodate it (a slightly snug fit is okay). The wings should partially cover the breasts, and the legs should protrude a bit.
  2. Tuck the garlic and the herb under the bird and in the nooks of the wings and legs. Drizzle with the olive oil and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper.
  3. Roast for 20 minutes, undisturbed. By this time the bird should be browning; remove it from the oven, baste with the pan juices, and return it to the oven. Reduce the heat to 400 degrees F (or 350 degrees F if it seems to be browning very quickly).
  4. Begin to check the bird's temperature about 15 minutes later (10 minutes if the bird is ont he small side). It is done when the thigh meat measures 155-165 degrees F on an instant-read meat thermometer; check it in a couple of places.
  5. Let the bird rest for a few minutes before carving, then serve with the garlic cloves and pan juices. Or serve at room temperature.

Pumpkin Tarts

  • 12 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1 pound butter, softened
  • 1/4 cup white sugar
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 12 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 cups solid pack pumpkin
  • 1 (12 fluid ounce) can evaporated milk
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
  • 8 ounces cream cheese, softened
  • 1 (16 ounce) package confectioners' sugar
  • 1 (7 ounce) jar marshmallow creme
  • 1 cup finely chopped pecans, divided

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  2. Make the pastry dough by creaming together 12 ounces of cream cheese with 1 pound of butter and the sugar in a large bowl until thoroughly blended. Mix in the flour, a little at a time, until the dough is workable. Cut the dough into 4 equal-sized pieces, roll the pieces into balls, and refrigerate until needed.
  3. To make the filling, mash 12 ounces of cream cheese with brown sugar, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon, and salt in a bowl until smooth and well combined; beat in eggs, one at a time, incorporating each egg before adding the next one. Mix in the pumpkin, evaporated milk, and vanilla extract until the filling is smooth.
  4. Cut each dough ball in half, and cut each half into 12 pieces (96 total pieces). Working in batches, press each small piece of dough into the bottom and up the sides of mini muffin cups. Fill the little crusts almost to the top with the pumpkin filling. Refrigerate unused dough until you need it to make the next batch.
  5. Bake in the preheated oven until the filling is set and the crusts are lightly golden brown, 25 to 30 minutes. Allow to cool completely before frosting.
  6. Mash 1/2 cup of butter, the shortening, and 8 ounces of cream cheese together in a bowl until thoroughly combined, and mix in the confectioners' sugar and marshmallow creme until smooth and creamy. Spread or pipe the frosting onto the cooled tarts. Sprinkle each tart with a few chopped pecans. Refrigerate until serving.

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Sources and Additional Information:

1 comment:

Mark said...

The history of the thanksgiving menu sounds interesting. Thanks for this well written summary. However I think it's good that the given menus stay special and are only served on thanksgiving.