This is a blog about Thanksgiving, the quintessential American holiday. It is not about the First Thanksgiving, or the late 19th century Thanksgiving, or the 20th Century Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving.
This Thanksgiving story is about Thanksgiving in late 18th and early 19th century New England, specifically Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of my upcoming novel.
At the time, Thanksgiving was the most important holiday of the year, though there was no exact day for observance. In 1789, George Washington declared November 26 as the national day of Thanksgiving, but not every state followed suit.
The day began with a church service to thank God for the year’s bounteous blessings. But feast preparations began much earlier with both cleaning and cooking activities. Pies, for example, could be made far in advance and stored in unheated bedrooms or the attic where they froze. Uneaten Thanksgiving pies might not be consumed until April.
Since butchering generally occurred after the holiday, the menu emphasized fowl for the meat course. Accounts of the time talk about farmers coming into Salem from the country with wagons full of poultry or loads of wood. Vendors set up on each side of Essex Street from Central to Washington Streets.
The large family party began about 3:00 with well-spread tables and by 11:00 guests were on their way home.
Though turkey was often on the menu, many thought the small birds were a lot of work for not much meat. Chicken pies were far more popular as well as more economical.
Roasted root vegetables filled out the menu. As a special treat, vegetables served on Thanksgiving were peeled.
And for dessert — Plum Pudding
As far as liquid refreshment, hard apple cider was a popular choice.
To get an idea of traditional foods, consider these recipes from Elizabeth Cleland A New and Easy Method of Cookery, published in 1757.
TO ROAST YOUNG TURKEYS.
Put in their bellies Forc’d-meat*, made of their livers, scalded Oisters, green Onions, Parsley, mince them all, Crumbs of Bread, Salt, Nutmeg and grated Lemon-peel; mix them all with a Piece of Butter, and a raw Egg: you may either lard them, or roll them Saves of Bacon, then paper and roast them; put Gravy in the Dish with them, and Bradsauce in a Sauce-boat made thus: Boil some Bread and Water, with a little white Gravy, an Onion stuffed with Cloves, a Blade of Mace, and a little Salt; boil it smooth; put in a good Lump of butter, then give it a Boil; take out the Onion before you send it to Table. You may roast Chicken the same Way.
*Forc’d-meat is a mixture of meat or vegetables chopped and seasoned to use as stuffing or garnish
TO MAKE A CHICKEN PIE
Scald your Chickens, and cut them in Quarters, wash them very clean; season them with Pepper, Salt, Cloves andMace; put them in your Dish with Forc’d-meat Balls, Yoks of hard Eggs, and Artichoke Bottoms. You may make it without this if you please; put a little Butter and Gravy. You may put Fruit in it, if you like it sweet, and make a Caudle for it as above. You may leave the Chickens whole if you please.
TO MAKE A PLUM PUDDING
Beat eight Eggs and half a pound of Flour, two Gills* of Milk, and half a Pound of Raisins shred, half a Pound of Currants washed and picked clean, half a Pound of Beef Sweet shred small, and mix all together; season it with Nutmeg, Ginger, Salt, and a Glass of Brandy. Two Hours boils it.
*One gill is four ounces of liquid.
After the feast, guests retired for wine and games. One popular game was Hunt the Slipper. After naming one person as “It,” the players sat in circle with their feet drawn up and knees raised high enough so that a slipper could be passed hand-to-hand under each player’s knees. Meanwhile, the person who was “It” ran outside the circle trying to touch the person who had the slipper. If she or he succeeded, the two exchanged places and the game resumed.
🦃 🦃 🦃
Ours to Fight For: Freedom From Want by Norman Rockwell.
Old Christmas 1916.
Chicken Pie by Oddbodtz.
Plum Pudding Attribution: Kolforn (Wikimedia).
Hunt the Slipper by Thomas Rowlandson.
Kinga Borondy. “How has the New England Thanksgiving Menu Changed?” Wicked Local. Nov. 18, 2021.
Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.
Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.