Retro Thanksgiving: Musings Amid Vintage Menus

I yanked the last of the two dozen buttermilk-potato rolls from the baking sheet, yelping a little as the steaming, fluffy bread burned my fingers. The cornbread for the cornbread dressing cooled on a rack across the kitchen. And my spiced cranberry sauce gleamed, ruby-red under the lights I’d just installed under the cabinets.

Thanksgiving. A cook’s favorite day. One full of tradition and mostly fond memories. Usually. I won’t mention the half-raw turkey Mom cooked one year. Or the pumpkin pie that slid from oven to floor in the time it took to gasp, “Oh no!”

Most Americans believe the myth of Thanksgiving, the one painting a beautiful tableau of the kind Wampanoags and the starved Pilgrims mingling happily, sharing food, celebrating a beautiful friendship. Most likely a few of the dishes now associated with Thanksgiving appeared on the table then, but swan, lobster, and seal could well have been there, too.

First Thanksgiving (Jennie A, Brownscombe, 1914)

Note Brownscombe’s inclusion of the fine English table touches: china plates, silver serving dishes, and a pristine white tablecloth, all doubtful for that particular occasion.

An eye witness wrote:

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors; they four in one day killed as much fowl, as with a little help beside, served the Company almost a week, at which time amongst other Recreations, we exercised our Arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and amongst the rest their greatest king Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five Deer, which they brought to the Plantation and bestowed on our Governor, and upon the Captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful, as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want, that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.

Edward Winslow

Many years later, author and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale (the “Mother of Thanksgiving”) – she wrote The Good Housekeeper (1841) and “Mary Had a Little Lamb” – petitioned authorities to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. During some of the bleakest hours of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln did just that, in 1863. He urged Americans to pray to God to “commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife.”

In 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt decreed the fourth Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day.

All that history fascinates me. But if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering more about the food.

A recent post on a Facebook history group intrigued me:

So I thought it’d be enlightening to browse the New York Public Library’s vintage menu collection.

Here’s one from Illinois, 1899:

C. & N. W. Passenger Station, 1899 (NYPL Menu Collection)

And here’s one from the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, 1912:

Waldorf Astoria, 1912 (NYPL Menu Collection)

And this one dated 1895, from the Hotel Roanoke, where I ate many times with the Peacock-Harper Culinary History group from Virginia Tech:

Hotel Roanoke, 1895 (NYPL Menu Collection)

Note there’s no reference to the famous peanut soup of later years.

And this one dates to 1898 Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania:

Wyoming Valley Hotel, Wilkes-Barre, PA, 1898 (NYPL Menu Collection)

I see many English and French influences … . And a great deal of turtle, too. Nary a green bean casserole, though. Nor that disgusting abomination, sweet potatoes with marshmallows.*

Have a good week, cooking for Thanksgiving or whatever you’re planning.

Though sometimes I wish it all could be as simple as Elizabeth David’s idea of a perfect Christmas dinner:

If I had my way – and I shan’t – my Christmas Day eating and cooking would consist of an omelet and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening. This lovely, selfish, anti-gorging, un-Christmas dream of hospitality, either given or taken, must be shared by thousands of women who know it’s all Lombard Street to a China orange that they’ll spend both Christmas Eve and Christmas morning peeling, chopping, mixing, boiling, roasting, steaming. That they will eat and drink too much, that someone will say the turkey isn’t as good as last year, or discover that the rum for the pudding has been forgotten, that by the time lunch has been washed up and put away it’ll be teatime, not to say drink or dinner time, and tomorrow it’s the weekend, and it’s going to start all over again.

~ Elizabeth David, Elizabeth David’s Christmas (2003, p. 6)

That would work for Thanksgiving, too, wouldn’t it?


*For the marshmallow travesty, see The sweet potato casserole is Thanksgiving’s weirdest—and most American—dish . And go HERE for an explanation of the origins of the now-iconic green bean casserole.

2 thoughts on “Retro Thanksgiving: Musings Amid Vintage Menus

  1. My mother made the most delicious turkey gravy ever. She was up around 5AM to start a meal for Thanksgiving lunch after letting our cat out into the back yard. This was a day of a brief breakfast and one big meal and then leftovers to fix a plate yourself in the evening. In the afternoon we would take walks in the neighborhood or up to town where all the shops were closed except the only pharmacy. Some years we had goose that my Dad had bagged on his hunting trips; my mother managed to create meals out of various game that had small bits of shot here and there in them. Better cut the meat carefully to check for it or you would need to go to the dentist. For dessert we might have pie or cake or something someone had stopped by to share. This could be a box of home made candy. This was the 50s in a small California town…a simpler time.

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