Well that day is upon us. That time when we gorge ourselves on Turkey and Dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy. Of course, someone always brings the Jello Salad to the table. But here’s the rub…Why do we celebrate this day? What makes this day so special and is it all about the food? Let’s take a minute or two out of our busy schedules and delve into the history of Turkey Day…otherwise known as Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving became a national holiday, when in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill that officially establishes the fourth Thursday in November as a day of Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving Day is now a national holiday.
But the celebration goes back farther than that. Right? Of course it does. The tradition of celebrating the holiday on a Thursday dates back to the early history of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. Post-harvest holidays were celebrated on the weekday that was traditionally set aside on the day known as “Lecture Day,” which was a midweek church meeting where sermons that pertained to what was happening were presented. Now the starving Pilgrims…as the story goes. Wait! The pilgrims were not starving. In point of fact they were celebrating the day of Thanksgiving in gratitude for the bounty of the harvest. In 1621, the Plymouth governor, William Bradford, did in fact invite the local Indians to join in the three day festival held in gratitude for the bounty of the harvest that season.
Thanksgiving became an annual custom throughout New England in the 17th century and in 1777 the Continental Congress declared the first national American Thanksgiving following the victory at Saratoga. And in 1789, President George Washington became the first president to proclaim a Thanksgiving holiday. He did so at the request of Congress. He proclaimed November 26, a Tuesday, as a day of national thanksgiving. However, it wasn’t until 1863, when President Lincoln declared Thanksgiving would fall on the last Thursday of November, that the modern holiday was nationally celebrated.
With very few deviations, Lincoln’s example was followed annually by every subsequent president. That is until 1939. In 1939, Franklin D. Roosevelt departed from tradition by declaring the November 23, the next to last Thursday of the year as Thanksgiving Day. This caused a considerable uproar and much controversy. For the next two years, Roosevelt repeated the very unpopular proclamation. However, being the man he was he admitted to his error in judgment and actually signed a bill into law, making the fourth Thursday in November the National holiday of Thanksgiving Day!
Now the crowning glory of the day is the large meal. The centerpiece of which is a golden brown turkey. After the turkey most of the dishes served with it are family traditions. Most of the foods that were served at that “first” Thanksgiving were made from foods that were native to the New World. And according to the myth they were foods that were received by the Native Americans that attended the celebration. The food served during that first Thanksgiving were foods caught, and harvested by the pilgrims. These foods included, Lobster, fish, waterfowl, clams, berries, fruit, pumpkins, and squash and last but not least wild turkey. A lot of the foods served at that first Thanksgiving are still being served today, while some, most notably the seafood, has gone by the wayside. Now that being said, some of the best Thanksgiving feasts that I’ve attended have featured dishes such as baked clams, Lasagna, Egg Plant Parmesan, Lobster Cantonese, and gumbo. Originally turkey was not the common part of the traditional holiday dinner until after 1800. by 1857, turkey had become part of the traditional dinner in New England. Mainly due to the Founding Fathers’ (most especially Benjamin Franklin) love of wild turkey.
So we now have established the turkey as the “traditional” centerpiece of the meal. A typical meal in 1935 included, pickles, olives, oyster stew, cranberry sauce, fruit salad, rolls, mince meat pie, fruit cake, creamed asparagus, dressing/stuffing, giblet gravy, candies, grapes, apples, clams, and fish. It was finished off with coffee, cigars and brandy.
The White House Cook Book of 1887, written by Mrs. F.L. Gillette, encouraged the following menu for Thanksgiving dinner: Oysters on the half shell, followed by 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 meat pie, Charlotte Russe, Almond ice cream, lemon jelly, hickory nut cake, cheese, fruits and coffee. Now some of you might want to know what these foods are. For instance, snowflake potatoes have spices, and sour cream in them. And a venison pastry, is just a venison pot pie. And a Charlotte Russe is a sponge cake, with fruit and whipped cream.
Now back to turkey. The American people will buy and consume one third of all turkeys produced during the Christmas/Thanksgiving season. And each turkey eaten will weigh on average just at 18 pounds. Most of those turkeys will be stuffed with a bread-based stuffing and roasted with the bird (we’ve learned over the years that roasting in the bird isn’t very healthy as it has enough time in the cooking process to grow bacteria…cook that stuffing outside the bird!); however, some of those turkeys will be stuffed with rice, or chestnuts and some are even stuffed with oysters. I’ve had sausage stuffing, cranberries in the stuffing, raisins (not my favorite), and apples. The traditional stuffing is made with bread, sage, celery and onions.
Deep fried turkey is becoming popular due to its short cooking and preparation time, but it has some safety risks to it. Then there is the Turducken, which is boned turkey, duck and chicken placed atop one another, rolled together, tied up and roasted. It is quite nice, but not very traditional. I also enjoyed the deep fried turkey, but I miss that roasted gravy, And then there is the goose. A favorite food in Europe. Living in the Pacific Northwest has also had an impact on me. You’ll find that Dungeness crabs are also found on the table and as crab season starts in early November it can be the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal. Deer season in the Northeastern part of the country is beginning at that time of year too and a nice Venison roast can be the centerpiece of a meal in that part of the country. With many people immigrating into the country you will also find that some of their traditional meals are finding their way into the Thanksgiving meal.
Most Thanksgiving meals are served at midday or early afternoon to account for the amount of food served. There are usually copious leftovers to be had, that will be eaten for days after the main meal. Turkey soup, turkey hash, Turkey pot pie, Turkey tetrazzini, Turkey and dressing cakes with gravy, and on, and on. People are making those leftovers into other meals and freezing them for later meals.
You are always going to find someone that says, it’s not Thanksgiving without the Turkey, Dressing and mashed potatoes. And while it’s traditional, you might want to think about adding something new to your Thanksgiving day meal. And one more little tidbit, the President of the United States, in addition to issuing a proclamation, will pardon a turkey which will spare its life. The “pardon” allows the bird to spend the rest of its life roaming freely on farmland.