Culinary History Collection


Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Issue 5 Winter 2004


by Jo Anne Barton

Thanksgiving Day is a national holiday celebrated as a day of feasting and giving thanks for divine goodness, and is observed on the fourth Thursday of November. As Americans, we like to think that Thanksgiving is "our" holiday but in fact, Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October and many other cultures have a feast day to celebrate the harvest. We trace our Thanksgiving to the Pilgrims who shared their food with the Indians. According to the 1959 edition of the General Foods Cookbook, the first governor of Plymouth Colony sent four men fowling so that the colony "might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruit of our labors." The celebration of a day for thanksgiving continued but it was not until Abraham Lincoln's presidency, that it became an official holiday.

One source says that duck, biscuits, butter, pudding and strong Holland Gin were on the menu at that first Thanksgiving. The Indians liked it so well that they made camp nearby and came to dinner every day for the rest of the week. Talk about overstaying your welcome!

Various sources credit turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin pie as American contributions to the Thanksgiving menu. Cranberries, also known as "bounce berries," grew wild in the New England bogs and provided food for the cranes who also lived there; thus the name "crane berries." These foods do appear on menus throughout the years. Speaking of menus, Sarah Harrison is quoted in Colonial Virginia Cookery with this rule of thumb: "for a dozen diners, 9 dishes in each course offers adequate variety; for 18 people, 15 dishes."

The American Heritage Cookbook has a menu for Thanksgiving dinner during the Revolutionary War. The menu was taken from a letter written in 1779 by Juliana Smith. Five entrees were listed—"Haunch of Venison, Roast Chine of Pork, Roast Turkey, Pigeon Pasties, and Roast Goose." Apparently roast beef was a usual menu item, but according to Miss Smith, "of course, we could have no roast beef. None of us have tasted beef this 3 years back as it must all go to the Army, and too little they get, poor fellows." The vegetables were onions in cream, cauliflower, squash, potatoes, and raw celery. Of the celery, Smith notes: "Uncle Simeon had imported the Seede from England just before the War began and only this year was there enough for table use. It is called Sellery and you eat it without cooking." The desserts were mincemeat pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie, indian pudding, and plum pudding. Miss Smith notes that "neither Love nor (paper) Money could buy raisins, but our good red cherries dried without the pits, did almost as well." This sounds like a lot of food but there were 40 people in attendance.

The Williamsburg Art of Cookery has directions for roasting a turkey from Patrick Henry's wife, Dorothea Dandridge Henry. Those directions say to put the turkey in salt water for four hours, then pour hot water into the body cavity to heat it up well. Dry and stuff. Baste every half hour. For a 10 pound turkey, roast about 3 hours.

Mary Randolph in The Virginia Housewife (1846), provided directions for both boiling and roasting a turkey. The turkey was to be stuffed, sewed up, dredged with flour, and put in a kettle of cold water. "Cover the kettle and set over the fire; as the scum begins to rise, take it off, let it boil very slowly for half an hour, then take off your kettle and keep it closely covered; if it be of a middle size, let it stand in the hot water half an hour, the steam being kept in will stew it enough, make it rise, keep the skin whole, tender, and very white." The directions for roasting a turkey started in the same way but the turkey was put on a spit instead of in a kettle of cold water, then "lay it down a good distance from the fire, which should be clear and brisk; dust and baste it several times with cold lard; it makes the froth stronger than basting it with the hot out of the dripping pan, and makes the turkey rise better."

In the early 1900s, the Thanksgiving menu at Sagamore Hill, home of President Theodore Roosevelt, started with oysters on the half shell, celery, radishes, and olives. A consomme was served. The entrees were roast turkey with chestnut stuffing and giblet gravy and roast suckling pig. According to The American Heritage Cookbook, suckling pig was a favorite of Teddy Roosevelt and of his daughter Alice. Vegetables were spinach, mashed potatoes, onions in cream, and brussels sprouts plus a salad. Desserts were mincemeat pie, pumpkin pie, vanilla ice cream, nuts, fruits, and chocolate dragees. Coffee was also served. Roosevelt's son said his father's coffee cup "was more in the nature of a bathtub." Maybe that explains why he used 7 lumps of sugar in his coffee!

The General Foods Cookbook (1932 edition) included this suggested menu for Thanksgiving Dinner: tomato juice cocktail (made with canned tomatoes, lemon, ketchup and 4 teaspoons of powdered sugar), roast turkey with chestnut stuffing, cranberry mold (lemon jello, celery, crushed pineapple, cranberries), brussels sprouts, riced potatoes, down-south biscuits (made with cake flour and lard), lettuce salad, cheese straws, delicious pumpkin pie (had 1 cup coconut), coffee, nuts, cream wafers (fondant), and raisins. Incidentally, the "famous Swans Down Cake set consisting of a standard aluminum measuring cup; a set of aluminum measuring spoons; a steel spatula, so useful in making level measurements; a wire cake tester; a wooden mixing spoon, and two heavy tin cake pans—one for angel food and one for butter cakes" was offered for sale in the cookbook. The complete set could be had for $1.00, postage paid.

In The General Foods Cookbook, information was given about selecting the turkey and about dressing the turkey. (The turkey was dead and the feathers had been removed but you got everything else!) The book suggested that one look at the feet of the turkey for an indication of age—the feet of a young turkey would be black; those of an old bird, grayish. It was also suggested that one should not let the dealer cut off the feet until the leg tendons had been drawn. Isabella Mary Beeton in The Book of Household Management, also instructs the reader to "Choose cock turkeys by their short spurs and black legs, in which case they are young; if the spurs are long, and the legs pale and rough, they are old." Beeton says that hen turkeys are preferable for boiling, on account of their whiteness and tenderness. She also advises that turkeys "should not be dressed until they have been killed 3 or 4 days, as they will neither look white, nor will they be tender."

To continue with the directions from The General Foods Cookbook for dressing the turkey:

Remove hairs and down by singeing. To do this, expose all parts of the bird to a flame. Cut off the head. Draw out the pinfeathers. To pull off the foot, and with it the tendons, cut through skin around the leg 1 inch below the leg joint, taking care not to cut the tendons. Place leg at this cut over edge of board. Press downward to snap the bone. Then take foot in right hand, holding bird firmly with left hand, and pull off foot.

Make an incision through skin below breastbone. Remove, through this incision, the entrails, gizzard, heart and liver. Cut gall bladder carefully from the underside of the right lobe of the liver. (Take great care that the gall bladder is not broken.) Remove every part of the lungs, located on each side of the backbone and enclosed by the ribs. Remove the kidneys from hollow near end of the backbone. Cut oil bag from tail.

Placing the first two fingers under the skin close to the neck, withdraw the windpipe, also the crop which will be found adhering to skin close to breast. Draw back the skin of the neck, cut off neck near body, leaving the skin long enough to fasten under the back. Wash thoroughly with cold water.

The Good Housekeeping Cookbook (1942) informs the reader that "turkeys can now be purchased in packaged quick-frozen, freshly killed, or cold storage form."

Recipes From Old Virginia (1946) alludes to a combination of boiling and roasting turkey. The recipe for oyster dressing says "it is stuffed in turkey after turkey has been steamed and is ready to be put in oven to brown."

The vegetables on the early Thanksgiving menus were typically those that grew in the fall or could be stored in a root cellar—potatoes both white and sweet, turnips, Brussels sprouts, onions, winter squash, cauliflower, and greens such as spinach and kale.

Since green beans are a popular vegetable in Virginia, I found this information about French Beans in The Virginia Housewife to be interesting. "To send up the beans whole, when they are young, is much the best method and their delicate flavor and color is much better preserved. When a little more grown, they must be cut lengthwise in thin slices after stringing; and for common tables, they are split, and divided across; but those who are nice, do not use them at such a growth as to require splitting."

Mincemeat pie and pumpkin pie are traditional desserts for the Thanksgiving meal. Mincemeat actually had meat in it—beef, pork, or venison. It was cooked with raisins and other dried fruits, apples, sugar—either white or brown, and spices usually cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice. Cider or vinegar might be used as the liquid. Today we have Mince Pies without the meat.

Pumpkin pie was the traditional dessert in my family so I was interested to read this discussion of pumpkin pie in The American Heritage Cookbook: "Pumpkin pie," according to The House Mother, "if rightly made, is a thing of beauty and a joy—while it lasts. . . Pies that cut a little less firm than a pine board, and those that run round your plate are alike to be avoided. . . .With the pastry light, tender, and not too rich, and a generous filling of smooth spiced sweetness—a little 'trembly' as to consistency, and delicately brown on top—a perfect pumpkin pie, eaten before the life has gone out of it, is one of the real additions made by American cookery to the good things of the world."

When you make plans for celebrating Thanksgiving in the future, whether you choose to cook the meal at home, buy the food prepared (takeout), or eat out, appreciate the advances that have been made in our food supply.


I looked at about 15 books of the 1500 in the Peacock-Harper Culinary History Collection in preparing this article. No doubt many of the others also had relevant information. Books cited in this article:

The Virginia Housewife, Mary Randolph, Philadelphia: E.H. Butler, 1846

The Williamsburg Art of Cookery, Helen Claire Bullock, Williamsburg: Printed for Colonial Williamsburg, incorporated, on the press of A. Dietz and his son, near the great prison at Richmond, Va, 1938.

Colonial Virginia Cookery, Jane Carson, Williamsburg, Va: Colonial Williamsburg; distributed by the University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, 1968

The American Heritage Cookbook, New York: American Heritage Publishing Company; Distribution by Simon and Schuster, 1964

Recipes From Old Virginia, Virginia Federation of Home Demonstration Clubs, Richmond, Va: Dietz Press, 1958.

General Foods Cook Book, New York: Consumer Service Department, General Foods Corporation, 1932; New York: Random House, 1959

The Good Housekeeping Cookbook, New York, Toronto: Farrar & Rinehart, Inc., 1942

The Book of Household Management, Margaret Beeton, London: S.O. Beeton, 1861

Feasts for All Seasons, Roy Andries De Groot, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966

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