A 19th Century Thanksgiving Dinner

This post answers the following questions

1) When was the turkey became a centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table?
2) How to make a Turducken?
3) What to cook on a 19th Century Thanksgiving Dinner?
4) How to baste the turkey?
5) What is the title of Sarah Hale’s 1857 cookbook?

As the Thanksgiving season comes around, there are recipes, especially turkey recipes, everywhere you look. For the past few years, “Turducken” has been a hot item. It’s basically roasting a chicken, inside of a duck, inside of a turkey, and it seems like a lot of trouble for the end result. Still, it seems to have gotten a lot of attention recently.

All this buzz about what to make for Thanksgiving made me wonder what Thanksgiving dinner looked like in the middle of the nineteenth century, about 150 years ago. Did it even exist in its present form back then? This inspired me to do some culinary historical research, to see what great-great-great grandmother might have been cooking, or planning to cook, in November, back around 1850.

Pumpkin pie, it seems, has been around, and associated with a harvest-type festival, since the 1600’s. At that time, pumpkin was still called by its Middle Ages name, “pumpion.” The Thanksgiving holiday itself was at first a state-by-state holiday, sometimes even on different days. In 1777 the Continental Congress declared a national day of Thanksgiving, but it was almost a hundred years later when the day finally became a true, annual holiday – by order of President Lincoln, no less.

Certainly by 1850, turkey was a centerpiece of the Thanksgiving table. A recipe from Sarah Hale’s 1857 cookbook, entitled ‘Thanksgiving by the Book,’ suggests a fairly elaborate turkey preparation. Mrs. Hale recommends first stuffing the turkey with a sausage meat made of pork, eggs, shredded shallot, and breadcrumbs. Next, the “gizzards” and liver should be dipped in egg yolk, sprinkled with cayenne pepper and salt, and put “under the pinions.”  Then, she recommends “dredging” the bird in flour, and placing it “near the fire.”

Mrs. Hale goes on to suggest basting the turkey with butter, dredging it again with flour, and basting it once more with butter. It should be served with gravy, “bread sauce,” and stewed chestnuts.

To accompany the turkey, the mid-nineteenth century family might well have enjoyed “pumpion pie.” An old recipe included pumpkin, thyme, rosemary, marjoram, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, currants, apples, eggs, sugar and butter as the ingredients for the pumpkin pie. Sounds delicious!

Pies were a staple of 19th century cooking, and another recipe from the era suggested “mince pies” for Thanksgiving. This recipe called for beef suet, currants, apples, sugar, and “lemon brandy, if you have any prepared.” (If not, “new cider” is recommended). Cinammon, cloves, and nutmeg are added for flavoring, with a little sweet butter added to the top.

Vegetables do not seem to have figured large in Thanksgivings of the past – perhaps by late November there were few fresh veggies left in chilly New England! But dessert was not forgotten – featuring, what else – apple pie. An 1855 recipe called for apples, sugar, mace, cinnamon, and rose water, as the ingredients for this dessert. And if the cook had been really industrious, the guests may have been delighted by “pulled molasses candy” as a final treat.

The cooks of the 19th century may have been doing their work by open fire and candle light, but nevertheless, it sounds like quite a feast!

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John Whitehouse is a freelance writer who covers food, fashion, and interior design. For cleaning up after the Thanksgiving feast, he recommends heavy duty work gloves for making those chores a little easier.

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