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Culinary Discovery:
Celebrating the Bounty of Good Things, II

by Gabriella True

 

(Editor's Note: Read Gabriella's 2002 Bounty of Good Things, Part I)

To celebrate the end of the Revolutionary War and the Treaty of Paris a Thanksgiving was proclaimed for November 28, 1782. A few years later Representatives from states outside of New England began to feel uncomfortable about imposing a northern holiday on their constituents. Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican representatives were worried about crossing the line separating church and state, one of the principals upon which the young country was founded, because the holiday was still thought of as a predominately religious one. The Federalists, who thought churches were bulwarks of the social order that would support a strong central government, continued to support annual Thanksgivings. Presidents Washington, Adams and Madison all declared national days of Thanksgiving. Jefferson did not since, as he said, "civil powers alone have given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents." New Englanders continued to celebrate Thanksgiving regardless of whether the President declared the day or not.

The Thanksgiving preparations were begun weeks in advance. By the 1820's, the turkey, which had been domesticated, had secured the place of honor at the table but chicken pies, geese and ducks were still served. All these birds would have been suspended from a hook and roasted over the fire in such a way that the drippings fell into a pan and could be ladled back over the bird. The chicken pie was a major component of a New England dinner. Mutton, beef, venison and pork were served after being roasted in a pot with a tight lid and set in the fire with embers on top. Some families served shellfish, abundant along the coasts, but they were not considered special enough for Thanksgiving since they were so readily available. Cranberry sauce, apple butter, and currant and gooseberry jellies were always prepared. All fruits were stewed since the early Americans rarely ate raw foods. Apple cider was the typical drink in New England, while Germans chose beer and French, wine. Thanksgiving vegetables were cabbage, potatoes, turnips, squash and of course, the pumpkin. These vegetables would keep all winter in the cellar.

The pie, an English institution, was a major part of the meal. The mincemeat pie was begun well in advance because the beef had to be minced, the nuts shelled, the apples peeled, the raisins seeded and then everything minced and basted in molasses and brandy, after which 10 days were required for the for the pie to ripen. Trade had been well established making it easier to have molasses and tea. More pies were baked closer to the day, fruit pies, pumpkin and custard pies were among them.

Citizens of the 13 new states who wanted to own land of their own spurred westward expansion. As New Englanders left their hometowns in pursuit of the West, they brought their customs with them, including Thanksgiving. By the end of the 18th Century, Thanksgiving was celebrated all over the northwest part of the nation, from Pennsylvania to Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, and California. The recently transplanted New Englanders did not feel the need to wait for a gubernatorial proclamation of Thanksgiving, so they created their own celebrations and introduced it to neighbors who were not aware of the Yankee tradition.

In 1845, Methodist missionaries in Kansas invited a group of Quaker missionaries to a Thanksgiving because they had never celebrated such a day. "The Quakers were surprised; they had never heard of the turkey as a bird of Thanksgiving."

Sarah Josepha Hale is the single most important person to solidify Thanksgiving as a national holiday that would be fully woven into the fabric of American culture. She was a true Yankee, born in New Hampshire. In 1788 during the Revolution, she was left a widow with a family to support. She wrote a novel, Northwood, or Life North and South, in which she included an entire chapter on Thanksgiving Day, concluding that the day should be a national holiday just like Independence Day. She eventually became the first female editor of Lady's Book and Magazine published by L. A. Godey. Godey's Lady's Book, as it was referred to, was the most widely distributed ladies journal from the 1840's -1860's and had a readership that stretched from the southern plantations, to the rolling hills of Vermont, to the western frontier.

 

Page Two, Three, Recipes>>

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