Thanksgiving dinner — Photo courtesy of E+ / PeopleImages
On the 4th Thursday of November, many of us in the United States will gather around a large table and chat with family and friends as we pass the turkey and stuffing. Though Thanksgiving dishes may vary by family and by region, not much of how the traditional Thanksgiving meal is depicted has changed over the years.
Imagery of a turkey being the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving Day table has remained consistent over the past century. The iconic scene is even captured in Norman Rockwell’s 1942 painting, Freedom from Want.
But Thanksgiving dinner was not always so familiar. When George Washington proclaimed the first Thanksgiving designated by the new national government in 1789, families gathered for a different kind of meal.
Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want — Photo courtesy of Norman Rockwell/U.S. National Archives and Records Administration
“There was a lot of variety and no one type of Thanksgiving meal,” explains Chef Walter Staib, a Philadelphia chef who specializes in the history of American cuisine. On his Emmy Award-winning PBS show, A Taste of History, and at his Philadelphia restaurant, City Tavern, Chef Staib explores American colonial cuisine and replicates dishes enjoyed by our founding fathers.
“Much of what early Americans were cooking during the 18th century came from an English cookbook by Hannah Glasse called The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy,” says Chef Staib. The book, published in 1747, was the most popular cookbook of its time and laid out the framework for what would commonly be served during the early Thanksgiving Day celebrations.
Based off the recipes in the book, we know that the first official Thanksgiving Day meal could have consisted of venison, elk, wild pheasant and other types of fowl – and some turkey.
Though some turkey was served during the early Thanksgivings, it was not as common as it is today. Even after Alexander Hamilton proclaimed that “no citizen of the United States shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day,” turkey still wouldn’t become Thanksgiving’s main attraction until the mid-19th century.
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment turkey becomes the American standard, but some believe that the notion of a holiday meal consisting of turkey, gravy and stuffing was popularized by Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843, 20 years before President Lincoln upgraded Thanksgiving Day to a national holiday.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol — Photo courtesy of John Leech/Wikimedia Commons
Seafood was also very popular during 18th-century Thanksgiving Day meals. In fact, a fish meal was George Washington’s personal favorite and he loved it so much, he sometimes ate fish for breakfast.
“It is likely that George Washington would have enjoyed the fish that were available in the Mid-Atlantic, such as striped bass, catfish and various species of trout,” explains Chef Staib. “One of the more unusual seafood options that George Washington is reported to have enjoyed is the ‘pea crab’ or oyster crab. These are the little crabs that you sometimes find in oysters.”
Pea crabs or not, oysters also have a strong presence in early American cuisine because they were plentiful along the shores of the northeastern United States. Oysters even found their way into ice cream, which was a favorite Thanksgiving tradition of Mark Twain. And it’s not as gross as it sounds! It was an ice cream that was more savory than sweet, and serving the ice cream with a raw oyster on a half shell was a nice way to start a Thanksgiving Day celebration.
“There were anywhere from 18 to 20 different dishes served,” says Chef Staib, “and everything was served family style.” Relishes, soups and salads that we usually eat as a starter were served alongside the main meal in the late 18th century.
One Thanksgiving tradition that we share with 18th century Americans is our love of desserts.
“The average sweet table in early America was sure to have multiple options,” explains Chef Staib. “Some of the common dessert options at the time were candied fruits/fruit peels, various chocolate items, biscuits (or cookies as we call them) and a variety of pies and tarts.”
So if you’re thinking about incorporating a #ThrowbackThursday into this year’s Thanksgiving meal, give some of these early American traditions a try.