Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in the 1800s
                I hope you're all looking forward to a delicious Thanksgiving. Lots of turkey? Pumpkin pie? The Thanksgiving menu has been a tradition for so many years that I was really surprised to learn what was on the table at the first Thanksgiving. Reading in my tattered copy of Facts for Farmers, "A compost of rich materials for all Land-owners" published in 1866, I found that the Pilgrims did indeed have turkey, but I doubt it resembled the plump tender bird we enjoy. Most likely it was all dark meat and as tough as the acorns it had eaten.

The Pilgrims often cooked this less than scrumptious fowl in a "coffin." The term refers to neither a casket nor an oven, but a pie shell, sometimes edible, sometimes not. The bird was boned and stuck with cloves, well-larded, then sealed in the coffin with the breast downward. Although the word "vegetable" was not yet in use, there were edible plants on the table. They were called sallets or potherbs, and most were so unpopular they were rarely mentioned.

Turnips were boiled and then added to the stewed broth of the turkey along with chopped herbs - parsley, thyme, chervil and a bay leaf. Onions were often creamed as they are today, but the sauce was thickened with an egg yolk rather than flour, and seasoned with raisins, coursely ground pepper, sugar and salt. The corn grown by the Pilgrims and local indians was a flint variety - nothing like the sweet corn of today. Celery was unknown and only botanists knew about potatoes.

We like to think there would have been cider at that first Thanksgiving feast, but the newly planted apple trees were not yet bearing. Cranberries might have been used in "puddings in the belly" what we call stuffing, but sugar was too scarce to make jelly or preserves. There was no Indian pudding because, although there were plenty of Indians, there was no molasses.

There was probably pumpkin pie, but more likely it was made with squash. The most popular squash in Colonial times was an egg-shaped variety called Boston Marrow, which had a thin, salmon-colored rind and fine-grained orange flesh. I'm afraid my squash and pumpkin pie fillings come from a can nowadays and contain plenty of sugar.

In a different section of Facts for Farmers called "How eating affects the Health" I read the following - "To meet at table, father, mother, children, all well, ought to be a happiness to any heart. Let joy pervade your meals. Let this excellent advice be followed universally, and we shall hear less about dyspepsia."

What makes Thanksgiving delicious is not the food but the gathering of family and friends. Enjoy your turkey and be thankful the menu doesn't include much of the above. 

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