A traditional Thanksgiving meal calls to mind turkey, stuffing, gravy and all the other fixings and, perhaps, those more unique family dishes that show up year after year, like grandma’s special sweet mashed potatoes with marshmallow topping or the tofurkey your uncle brings each year since he became a vegan.
Whatever your holiday celebration calls for, it’s a good bet that it’s not what New Hampshire was feasting on around the time of the Civil War or at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Turkey has come and gone from the dinner table at various times in our nation’s history, with main courses ranging instead from seafood to venison to pigeon pie — or to no main dish at all.
A hard-earned smorgasbord: Native Americans and the 1600s
Paul Pouliot says Native American harvest foodways weren’t quite as history books describe them. His research has helped to preserve the heritage of the Pennacook Abenaki people, for which he serves as Saghmo (akin to the speaker of the house and president) for the Cowasuck Band.
“Think about it in simplistic terms. They didn’t have conveniences and you have to remember the harvest was probably earlier. Colonial America moved stuff to suit their own agenda, but [a northeastern Native American] celebration would’ve been late August and September, not late November.
“And it was about giving thanks, it was Native Americans giving thanks and prayers, for deer [they] killed and the harvests’ yield. The celebrant conduct was mainly ‘we have this food.’ It wasn’t about the feast or gorging on food,” Pouliot said.
With winter approaching, harvesttime meant work, not leisure; hunter-gatherer lifestyles’ dictated they were constantly on the move. Crops were planted together earlier in the year. According to Pouliot, planned combinations of corn, which grew tall for beans to climb around it, surrounded by leafy, prickly squash provided for natural growing conditions that would keep out deer without constant attention.
Abenaki people during the growing season moved on to other areas for fishing and foraging, so by the time it was harvesttime, there was a lot of fish, squash, pumpkins and beans to dry and cure with ash for preserving over the winter.
Seafood including salmon, alewife and even lobsters could be cooked on the spot, as could migrating game birds, which filled up swamps and marshes. Venison may have also been served for harvest meals, Pouliot said, though such large game was mostly hunted in the winter.
While it’s true that turkeys were bigger birds and thus bigger targets, it wasn’t Native Americans who made it the “quintessential New England Thanksgiving food,” Pouliot said. Tribes would kill what they could, usually feasting on a variety of fowl like mallards and other ducks, grouse and quails.
“Whatever came in abundance, they were shot down and eaten,” Pouliot said.
As for side dishes, Northeastern forage foods like nuts, strawberries, blueberries and Concord grapes were often served dried. Flint corn was mashed up to make flour and hominy, and wild rice, beans and squash would be made into soup bases. The roots of sunflower-like Jerusalem Artichokes made good soup bases as well. Typically, any Abenaki hunters bringing birds and fish would add these to the soups, prepared in large, acorn-shaped clay cooking pots.
Large harvest meals were an all-day affair, with every able-bodied person picking the forest bare of sticks and branches, stoking the fire and cooking.
“Thanksgiving as an opportunity to feast at a big banquet table is identified with the 1620 time period, but I’m not sure if that’s what it was,” Pouliot said. “I think it was more of a potluck where you brought what you could to a communal fire to share. It was a smorgasbord, no main course, but sometimes included deer, turkeys, or whatever.”
Pouliot’s work with the Cowasuck includes cooking classes with the Mount Kearsarge Indian Museum in Warner. One authentic recipe he experimented with was a minimal fiddlehead and mushroom soup.
Fiddleheads are curled fronds of young fern plants, found in the wild and highly nutritious, he said. Keeping in the boil-and-eat style that his ancestors utilized, a soup following the below recipe may have been enjoyed around harvesttime.
A side of turkey: 1700 to 1780
Early settler contact did not affect Abenaki spiritual Thanksgiving ceremonies, Pouliot explained, but the ushering in of the colonial era would bring real impact with King Philips’ War in 1675.
“Colonists began hunting down Indians, and the whole thing became more about survival. It was harder to be able to move around, and thus, harder to plan for harvesttime and hold those feasts,” he said.
By the 1700s, harvesttime was still about giving thanks for the seasonality of the family farm, said Erica Boynton, foodways coordinator for the Remick Country Doctor Museum & Farm in Tamworth. She coordinates annual Thanksgiving events that demonstrate and discuss 200 years of farm living and meals.
These were still industrious times, and the importance of getting ready for winter by preserving the harvest and processing animals for food and other uses, like candle making, was important. Cast-iron cookery and tools lent themselves to hearthside cooking, a method adapted from what the colonists had seen Native Americans doing, though the meals were done inside and were less soup-based. Rich assortments of simple, seasonal foods, usually with a lot of vegetable crops and wild meats, like migratory birds and deer, were served.
“Roast turkey was sometimes served as a side dish if it had been hunted, but deer hunting was more familiar, so venison may have been more popular,” Boynton said.
These hunts were big affairs since harvest celebrations called for significant dinners that weren’t part of the common man’s diet, she said. Some English settlers were bringing recipes across the pond and combining them with those learned from the Native Americans.
Indoor cooking and new advances in tools allowed for more than just soups. Thick white cream sauce, for example, would have served as a topping on roasted or boiled onions, squash or potatoes.
“Menus became more elaborate. The day was about sharing in the spirit of abundance with family and friends and holding prayer and worship,” Boynton said.
Pigeon and other meats were baked into pasties, an English dish of meat wrapped in pie crust that look similar to apple turnovers. Baking was becoming an important part of the day as pies were quickly becoming a fixture at farm meals, especially around the harvest time.
A meal more elaborate: 1780 to 1850
“During the last few years of the 18th century, attitudes about the typical Thanksgiving meal changed and meals became specific to the holiday and much more elaborate,” Boynton said.
Some of these prepared meals may have been the result of American Cookery, the first known American cookbook written in 1796 by Amelia Simmons. It included recipes for “Pompkin Pie,” chicken and other farm dishes and ways to stuff and prepare game, such as turkeys and venison. Farm animals offered an alternative to hunted game because they could be selected and fattened to serve groups.
“Having to feed a large group of animals over the winter would prove hard to do, especially a sheep or cow retaining fat and muscle on a slim diet. Animals that have been to pasture through October were butchered for beef and meats,” said Alena Schellenbean, a hearth cook and role player for the Strawbery Banke Museum.
The Shakers, for example, would meticulously select birds for fricasseed chicken dishes, according to a 1905 Good Housekeeping article provided by Canterbury Shaker Museum Archivist Renee Fox. Ever-precise, the communities in Canterbury and elsewhere would follow strict guidelines in their recipes, serving the chicken in deep dishes full of rich, thick cream gravy. Shaker side dishes like boiled white potato, baked squash, mashed turnips, pickles and homemade cheese had regimented recipes much the same.
Elsewhere, large dishes like chines of pork, prepared by scoring and stuffing with parsley and other herbs, and haunches of roast beef, lamb or other meats would be prepared and, like in Shaker communities, this meant gathering ingredients and long prep periods. At Strawberry Banke, Schellenbean focuses on the end of the fireplace era, which extended to about 1830 as stoves became the more popular method of cooking and pies came into vogue.
“Pies are huge. At this point the oven can hold a dozen pies at a time, and this was the perfect time of year to make them. Without fridges, late November was the perfect time to put pies in the attic or the coldest bedroom,” Schellenbean said.
Sometimes up to 20 pies would be served at Thanksgiving, with more still in storage. Schellenbean supposes the last pie prepped around the harvest would be eaten as late as April.
Shaker mince pies, according to Good Housekeeping, were made richer with beef drippings in the crust and filled with sour apples, tender boiled beef, grape jelly and loads of spices, boiled cider and lemon rind for flavor. Fruit pies were plentiful too, often calling for special ingredients such as plums, which were also baked and eaten as part of the celebratory feast.
Crust could and would be baked around just about anything, and the bulk of the baking would start early on Wednesday or Thursday morning, but butter churning, fat rendering and other preparations would begin earlier in the week. Apples, pumpkins and spices would be gathered for filling starting even earlier. Nutmeg was more popular than cinnamon, Schellenbean said, so it was on everyone’s list for grating into pies.
“Now, tastes have changed obviously, but there was always help around for cooking because Thanksgiving is an entirely non-religious holiday. Puritans celebrate other holidays by spending them in church, but non-religious ones meant they could celebrate by getting together at the homestead,” she said.
A holiday is born: 1850 to 1900
As the country grew up, so too did Thanksgiving’s biggest advocate. Sara Josepha Hale, a native of Newport, helped turn Thanksgiving into a national holiday with a letter to President Abraham Lincoln in November 1863. For years she had been been editorializing for its creation as editor for Godey’s Lady Book, which also published recipes.
“She made it a regular thing, made it universal throughout the nation as a way to bring it together in a divided time,” said Kathleen Shea, director of the NH Farm Museum in Milton. “It was now a homecoming, especially in Northern New England. Christmas wasn’t as big of a holiday. Thanksgiving was the big, big one.”
Pie, she said, would continue to be a common food on the farm. Around harvest time, pies always concluded breakfast, dinner (now called lunch), and supper, but Thanksgiving called for still more. As recipes and methods began to develop, families began coming up with their own takes on pumpkin, apple and other fruit pies.
“Pecan pie was a response to apple pie. It was the south responding to the north, adopting their traditional foodstuffs into the holiday,” said Shawn Pirelli, a PHD student at the University of New Hampshire who is also doing work for a Thanksgiving exhibit research partnership between the Smithsonian and Plimoth Plantation.
The holiday was becoming a truly American affair, he added, not just a New England one. Now forgotten varieties of pie like the Marlborough, a sweet custard and egg pie, were highly popular, as were coffee custard, tapioca cream and cooked peach pies. Mince meat pies “may have seen their heyday” during this time as well, Shea added.
In England it was the Victorian era, and upper-class influences could be felt around Thanksgiving, meaning more and more lavish meals were dominating the dinner table.
“They would start with a soup course first, which is a Victorian era thing, like oyster stew. Then, if you were on a farm, the side dishes were still whatever had been harvested: turnips, potatoes, corn, and anything. And then prepared foods like quince jelly, pickled beets and pickled onions, pickles were served a lot with meat because they helped digestion,” Shea said.
Some places, keeping in line with that elegance, would symbolically serve double entrees — turkey and chicken pie, ham and turkey — to make the meal special. Poorer farmers would often try and spruce up meals with dishes prepared from boiled squash, turnip and pumpkins, and succotash, made from dried beans and corn, was popular during the end of the Civil War.
Thanksgiving, magazine style: 1900 to 1960
By 1900, westward expansion had given way to industrial and transportation revolutions. In his research, Pirelli said that postcards depicting the typical New England Thanksgiving food were often sent to transplanted relatives about all the fantastic fare they were missing.
“At first, it was only [New England states] that made the holiday a big deal, but soon, sweeping changes in transport and food storage allowed it to become ingrained in the culture,” Pirelli said.
During the Depression, part of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ job was to hand out shopping lists and facilitate relief for turkey, stuffing, gravy and other holiday essentials, according to Pirelli. As refrigerators, advertising and modern packaging became more advanced, it was no longer about the food but the idea, Pirelli said.
Menus were set and homogenized relatively quickly as turkey with gravy and stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce became the central norms along with cornbread, winter squash, yams and a few other interchangeable sides.
Back in Tamworth, at the 1950s living quarters of Dr. Edwin C. Remick, his wife Marion would be busy preparing a big Thanksgiving feast in her modern kitchen. Football games, music and larger family parties began to shape Thanksgiving into what it became today.
“Our apartment set up at the museum spans a 30-year time period. The ‘50s and early ‘60s Thanksgivings were driven by really neat advertisements and gimmicks and about entertaining,” Boynton said. “Traditions began to shape that we still have today. Usually in the 1950s, the wife was working all day to prepare the feast, the husband was watching football and the kids playing or helping out.”
As entertaining became more of a part of the holiday, new kitchen appliances and monthly and weekly magazines with recipes were the norm. Turkeys, now the meal’s centerpiece, were frozen, but other foods were inspired by new modes of cooking.
“It was tropical themed sometimes. Cooking was being influenced by different world cuisine. Women would be reading monthly magazines and talking and discussing what they’re gonna make,” Boynton said.
Magazines fueled a growing entertaining fervor around Thanksgiving. Fruit sides like apple balls, cranberry jelly circles or apple-pineapple slaw added pop to the day. Conversational drinks like cranberry-juice cocktails would’ve been enjoyed before the meal, and after, coffee served with ice cream, mocha-chiffon pie or Tipsy peaches would be savored.
Publications would also inspire kitschy food art, like stuffing shaped like a turkey, hard boiled eggs shaped into penguins or Jell-O molds with zany fillings. These all made appearances, regretfully, Boynton said. Sometimes unorthodox ingredients crept in too, like a 1954 recipe for ham glaze that calls for a concoction of sugar, mustard, flour, and Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.
While convenience foods like packaged mashed potatoes and stuffing started taking the place of homemade dishes, there was still a love for the basics. Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cookbook, published in 1896, would become a staple for the family home, standardizing many classic New England recipes like steamed pudding so they’d forever keep their place at the table.