November 10, 2018

“Oh, Dear, My Thanksgiving Dinner!”

New York photographer Jeanette Bernard is believed to show her adopted daughter Minnie Fennel in the role of hapless pedestrian. The misstep, in which ingredients for her Thanksgiving meal are spilled out onto a dirt walkway. The photo was published in November 1907 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

(Photo by Jeanette Bernard, via PhotoSeed Archive)

The centerpiece of contemporary Thanksgiving in the United States and Canada is a large meal, generally centered on a large roasted turkey. It is served with a variety of side dishes which vary from traditional dishes such as mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, to ones that reflect regional or cultural heritage. The majority of the dishes in the traditional American version of Thanksgiving dinner are made from foods native to the New World, as according to tradition the Pilgrims received these foods, or learned how to grow them, from the Native Americans. Thanksgiving dinner is the largest eating event in the United States; people eat more on Thanksgiving than on any other day of the year.

According to what traditionally is known as “The First Thanksgiving,” the 1621 feast between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag at Plymouth Colony contained waterfowl, venison, ham, lobster, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkin, and squash. William Bradford noted that, “besides waterfowl, there was great store of wild turkeys, of which they took many.” Many of the foods that were included in the first feast (except, notably, the seafood) have since gone on to become staples of the modern Thanksgiving dinner. Early feasts of the Order of Good Cheer, a French Canadian predecessor to the modern Thanksgiving, featured a potluck dinner with freshly-hunted fowl, game, and fish, hunted and shared by both French Canadians and local natives.

A Thanksgiving Day dinner served to the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935 included: pickles, green olives, celery, roast turkey, oyster stew, cranberry sauce, giblet gravy, dressing, creamed asparagus tips, snowflake potatoes, baked carrots, hot rolls, fruit salad, mince meat pie, fruit cake, candies, grapes, apples, clams, fish, and many other food harvests. French drip coffee, cigars and cigarettes.

The White House Cook Book, 1887, by Mrs. F.L. Gillette, et al., had the following menu: oysters on half shell, cream of chicken soup, fried smelts, sauce tartare, roast turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, baked squash, boiled onions, parsnip fritters, olives, chicken salad, venison pastry, pumpkin pie, mince pie, Charlotte russe, almond ice cream, lemon jelly, hickory nut cake, cheese, fruits and coffee.

Sugar, among other food commodities, was rationed from 1942 to 1946. In 1947, as part of a voluntary rationing campaign, the Harry Truman Administration attempted to promote “Poultryless Thursdays,” discouraging Americans from eating poultry or egg products on Thursdays. Because Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday, this meant that turkey and pumpkin pie, two Thanksgiving staples, were discouraged, not only for that holiday, but for Christmas and New Year’s Day as well, since those holidays landed on Thursday in 1947. (Pumpkin pie was discouraged because it contained eggs.)

1943 Thanksgiving Day dinner menu from USS Wake Island.

The National Poultry and Egg Board furiously lobbied the President to cease promoting the plan; it culminated in a truce at the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation shortly before Thanksgiving. Turkey was no longer forbidden, but Eggless Thursdays remained for the rest of the year, meaning no pumpkin pie was served at the White House dinner that year.




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