“Thanksgiving we eat and drink of ye best.”
Dated Nov. 24, 1748 from
William Haywood’s journal, Charlestown, NH
Without gushing too much, I have a lot to be thankful for this year, but on a daily basis, I’m surprised and delighted by waking up in my new old house. The oldest part of it was built in 1795, when George Washington was still president. The brickmaker who built it is buried in the old, old cemetery up the hill. There’s a brick-floor section of the cellar that never gets wet. Talk about fantastic engineering.
So when I started to think about this year’s Thanksgiving festivities, I decided to do something a little different. I really wanted to make up a spread that would delve into history, and reflect what might have been served at very early colonial-era Thanksgiving celebrations. My mother, on hearing this, wondered aloud if she could cook cod for the occasion on a bed of coals out in the firepit.
At least you know I come by it honestly…
I haven’t gone full Pilgrim with the meal (never go full pilgrim), for a couple of reasons. The main consideration is that the early pilgrims were met with a coastal array of fare, while I live in VT. Rather, I’ve tried to think about what meal might have been served when the house was still new, in the late 1700s.
As always when researching recipes, I begin with actual excerpts from the text, and go from there. Let’s start off with a great historical anecdote. For a citation just past the colonial period, this is too fantastic not to consider. From a 1779 letter from Miss Juliana Smith to her ‘Dear Cousing Betsey’, we learn that some staples of this meal have been around just about since the beginning, like pumpkin pie.
‘This year it was Uncle Simeon’s turn to have the dinner at his house, but of course we all helped them as they help us when it is their turn, & there is always enough for us all to do. All the baking of pies & cakes was done at our house & we had the big oven heated & filled twice each day for three days before it was all done & everything was GOOD, though we did have to do without some things that ought to be used. Neither Love nor Money could buy Raisins, but our good red cherries dried without the pits, did almost as well & happily Uncle Simeon still had some spices in store. The tables were set in the Dining Hall and even that big room had no space to spare when we were all seated… of course we could have no Roast Beef. None of us have tasted Beef this three years back as it must all go to the Army, & too little they get, poor fellows. But, Nayquittymaw’s Hunters were able to get us a fine red Deer, so that we had a good haunch of Venisson on each Table.’ There was an abundance of vegetables on the table…Cider was served instead of wine, wiht the explanation that Uncle Simeon was saving his cask ‘for the sick’… ‘The Pumpkin Pies, Apple Tarts & big Indian Puddings lacked for nothing save Appetite by the time we had got round to them…We did not rise from the Table until it was quite dark, & then when the dishes had been cleared away we all got round the fire as close as we could, & cracked nuts, & sang songs & told stories.”
To sum up, her Thanksgiving dinner was made up of:
- Haunch of Venison, Roast Chine of Pork
- Roast Turkey, Pigeon Pasties, Roast Goose
- Onions in Cream, Cauliflower, Squash
- Potatoes, Raw Celery
- Mincemeat Pie, Pumpkin Pie, Apple Pie
- Indian Pudding, Plum Pudding
I certainly wouldn’t turn my nose up at that! What I find especially delightful is that the even seems not to have changed considerably in the last 200 years. Even with our improved technologies in the modern era, the cooking/baking still takes days to complete. When the family assembles, there is still barely enough room at the table for all the guests, nor enough room in bellies by the time dessert is served.
At a certain hour before dinner, we will light the house only with candles and oil lamps. I expect it will be a cozy and intimate evening, during which we reflect on what makes us truly thankful. Everyone who is coming is encouraged to bring something period to read aloud during the digestion part of the evening in the living room.
And now, without further ado, I’m very excited to present to you my Colonial Thanksgiving menu! Anything with an *asterisk* will be posted in time for the holidays, and while this is a starting point, I’m sure it will change over the coming month. I also welcome any suggestions!
Thanksgiving has now come and gone, and I can say with great certainty that this is a menu to be many times repeated.
The grape sauce, adapted from my recipe for Goose and Mulberry Sauce, was a tart and surprisingly wonderful addition to the meal. I went back and forth between that and the usual gravy, and never could decide which I liked better. We were unable to obtain an heirloom turkey, so that will have to wait for next year. An organic bird took its place, and a tastier, more tender and juicy turkey I have not yet encountered.
I plundered the cellar for all sorts of delectable homebrew- with dinner we enjoyed wildling cider and a completely unique bottle of birch beer (which got all the neighborhood talking when I tapped the birch out front), with a Concord grape port to finish off the meal.
But what really made the evening for me, apart from the delicious simplicity of the foods, was the ambiance of the continued candlelight.
Colonial Thanksgiving Menu
Venison Stew? with Wheatsheaf Breadsticks
Main and Sides:
Heirloom Turkey with concord grape sauce
Scalloped Turnips with Cheese
17th century Pumpkin Pie, with ground acorns instead of almonds
Homemade Birch Wine – coming soon to Game of Brews!