The Thanksgiving issue

Under Title 36 of the U.S. Code, “Patriotic and National Observances, Ceremonies, and Organizations,” it is of course mandatory that all serial publications whose primary subject matter pertains to food, cooking, or other domestic affairs and which reach interstate audiences publish a Thanksgiving issue. Probably as a result of my admittedly somewhat whimsical application for an ISSN for my blog, I received a notice last week from the Department of State Office of Patriotic Education, Thanksgiving Section, advising me that as of November 1st I was not in compliance. And so, beginning tonight, I will do my duty as a Good American and publish, in four parts (or possibly five), the First Annual Walbert’s Compendium Thanksgiving Issue.

Sarah Josepha Hale

Sarah Josepha Hale, who in addition to being the Mother of Thanksgiving was damned cute in her thirties.

Thanksgiving was once an ad hoc affair, with civil authorities in the Europe and, especially, America proclaiming days of thanksgiving whenever they felt the circumstances demanded it. Your city delivered from a siege? Day of thanksgiving. Decent harvest this year? Day of thanksgiving. Only half your citizens died in this year’s smallpox epidemic? Day of thanksgiving! In the nineteenth century these displays of actual specific gratitude hardened into formal celebrations, and the New England states each declared its own annual official Thanksgiving Day. The seventeen-year campaign of magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale (who foresaw the boon to magazine sales a national holiday would bring), combined with the Union’s relief after the victory at Gettysburg, induced Abraham Lincoln to declare a national thanksgiving on the last day of November, 1863, and the celebration has been held every year since.

The traditional Thanksgiving Issue of magazines took another generation to appear. In 1858, speaking from the editorial pulpit of Godey’s Lady’s Book, the nation’s most widely read women’s magazine, Sarah Hale declared her own national Thanksgiving, urging her readers thusly:

Let us consecrate the day to benevolence of action, by sending good gifts to the poor, and doing those deeds of charity that will, for one day, make every American home the place of plenty and of rejoicing. These seasons of refreshing are of inestimable advantage to the popular heart; and if rightly managed, will greatly aid and strengthen public harmony of feeling. Let the people of all the States and Territories sit down together to the “feast of fat things,” and drink, in the sweet draught of joy and gratitude to the Divine giver of all our blessings, the pledge of renewed love to the Union, and to each other; and of peace and good-will to all men. Then the last Thursday in November will soon become the day of American Thanksgiving throughout the world.

That, obviously, would not do. Hale had obviously mistaken Thanksgiving for Scrooge’s Christmas, although, to be fair, football hadn’t been invented yet. Thanksgiving was destined to be a day about food above all else, about gorging oneself stupid and being thankful, if for anything, then for managing to stagger to the couch before passing out. When Table Talk appeared on the literary scene in the 1880s, the first national magazine devoted to food, that publication pioneered the Thanksgiving Issue, with all its crucial elements: the well-intentioned but highly mythologized history; the brief nod to gratitude; and then — the centerpiece — the glorious menu impossible to replicate at home, next to which one’s own must appear paltry and decidedly unfeastlike, with detailed instructions for doing things like roasting a turkey that you either have done the same way for thirty years and will continue doing the same way until you die, or else have never done and would sooner die than do so, and also desperate urgings to please, please make the cranberry sauce decently this year.

Although other culinary magazines came and went in the intervening decades, it was not until the 1920s that Congress passed into law the requirement that magazines publish a Thanksgiving issue. This was precisely the sort of high-handed, meddlesome activism for which conservatives had railed against Progressives (along the lines of the Pure Food and Drug Act, public sanitation, and the First World War), but after the Red Scare Republicans united with Progressives in the belief that immigrants needed to be Americanized sooner rather than later, and so in 1924, the old New Englander signed the Thanksgiving issue into law.

The law is quite vague on the issue’s contents, and so conventions have evolved over the years, but I’ll be sticking with tradition. On the first point, innacurate history, I’ll assume that this introductory post has covered by obligations. On, then, to the menu.

In Table Talk‘s November 1888 issue, Alice Goldsmith described a Thanksgiving menu of 1795, which she had found “In an old diary of my grandmother, of blessed memory, written in a quaint, old-fashioned, and girlish hand.”

On an enormous platter at each end of the table lay a glorious, golden-brown turkey, flat on its back. There were two luscious hams, boiled in cider without a doubt, and festooned with graceful overshadowing box; two tender sirloins of beef, an immense venison pasty, golden salmon, sausages garnished with fried apples, and pumpkin and plum pudding, with satellites of fruit tarts. Then, too, there were home-made pickles and preserves, and brandied fruits, and apple butter.

(Apple butter, she complained, was already by 1888 “a lost art.” I’ll put my own art of apple butter up against her grandmother’s, although I’d likely wind up agreeing with her that the apples themselves just aren’t what they used to be, and never have been.)

That ought to have been enough of a menu for anyone, and (Goldsmith wrote) “surely dining tables have grown less wide, for I know of none to-day that could hold such a display, except my own, which is more than a century old.” Ah, but for such tiny latter-day tables were courses invented. “Have not appetites, too, grown less?” Goldsmith asked, but three inches down the page Sarah Tyson Rorer answered in the decided negative. Following is her menu, with quantities to serve twelve:

  • Cherry-Stone Oysters in Beds of Cress.
  • Consommé á la Royal.
  • Boiled Salmon, Lobster Sauce. Parisienne Potatoes.
  • Turkey, Chestnut Stuffing, Cranberry Sauce. Boiled Rice. Browned Sweet Potatoes. Peas.
  • Shaddock Sherbet.
  • Canvas-Back Duck, Fox-Grape Jelly. Potato Croquettes.
  • Lettuce Salad, French Dressing. Water Biscuit. Edam.
  • Mince Pie. Pumpkin Custard.
  • Nuts. Raisins. Fruits.
  • Coffee.

Note the careful application of European sensibilities (French Dressing! Water Biscuit! Dinner in courses! Soups with French names!) to a pointedly American celebration. Two of the courses, plus the coffee, would about cover the Thanksgiving dinners of my own youth, with one or two substitutions and additions. The rest are a desperate Gilded Age attempt to make this dull expression of tradition respectable, innovative, exciting. Canvasback duck and fox-grape jelly, for example: native American ingredients, but with an old-English-countryside feel and served with (then) extremely fashionable and progressive croquettes.

Not just anyone could make this menu. Anyone even thinking about undertaking to prepare it would have two or three servants, at a minimum. The typical middle-class home had one servant; a domestic servant was, in fact, an important marker of a middle-class home. But unless the housewife was a gifted and devoted cook (or, even better, a professional food writer like Sarah Tyson Rorer), this feast was going to take more than one servant. I would guess two, plus a full-time cook, whose teeth would grind silently when read aloud Rorer’s advice, e.g.

The success of a dinner lies principally in the dainty serving of each course. We begin with cherry-stone oysters, which should be served four in number in their own deep shells, prettily arranged in a bed of cress.

Of course it’s all about the dainty serving and pretty arrangement: you couldn’t possibly eat all that food.

It’s easy enough to say that this Thanksgiving menu isn’t about tradition or giving thanks; it’s about class and status. But how different are the magazine menus of our own day, which make it annually clear that no self-respecting foodie would ever serve plain pumpkin pie when he could make pumpkin cheesecake, or pumpkin flan, or individual coconut-pumpkin tartlets, and that cranberry sauce is the food of dullards, unloved, miserably tolerated, and annually renewed by the addition of the year’s hippest ingredient?

Three years later Rorer was back at it. “Thanksgiving Day is drawing near again; and while we always feel that roasted turkey must occupy its place, we also feel that an entire change of menu, with this exception, would be a relief.” Out with the potato croquettes! In with asparagus tops (canned, undoubtedly, in November), olives with orange dressing, and a second oyster course. Or, if you prefer, after the turkey is cleared away, Salma of Duck with Olives and macaroni and cheese (then, believe it or not, an edgily European dish).

Tradition alone won’t sell magazines, of course, not for long. But revolving displays of überfashionability don’t, it seems to me, do much to inspire gratitude, which comes from appreciation of simpler things. Nor does the automatic dismissal of every norm and notion inherited from our ancestors, who did, I can assure you, know one or two things. We needn’t spout filiopietistic sermons or ballads about Captain Miles Standish, nor choke down turkey if we really hate the stuff, but surely we could find some old thing to be thankful for?

Here’s my menu. It doesn’t change much from year to year, which, again, is the point. Recipes will follow in later posts.

  • Various football snacks. Could be award-winning local farmhouse camembert, could be a ring bologna, could be both. Crudités to ensure that everybody gets a little fiber. Chex Mix (homemade, of course: are we really too lazy now to throw a few convenience foods into a pan and stir them two or three times?).
  • Roast turkey, obviously.
  • Sweet potato cornbread dressing, a nod to my wife’s Southern heritage, even though I admit I swiped the recipe from a restaurant.
  • Potato filling, a cross between mashed potatoes and celery stuffing, a nod to my own Pennsylvania Dutch heritage.
  • Something to do with sweet potatoes. I waffle on this. The ones I grew up with had marshmallows, and that’s simply out of the question, but thus unmoored from tradition, I am adrift on a sea of recipes. It’s sad, really.
  • Some sort of vegetable. Again, I grew up with frozen peas, which were an afterthought and don’t grab me. Some years it’s collard greens, others it’s green beans with something vaguely fancy (toasted shallots and olive oil are good). I expect I will ask my daughter what she wants, or let her pick it out at the farmers market.
  • Cranberry sauce with port and star anise. Probably we got this off of television, but it was fifteen years ago, which makes it a tradition.
  • It doesn’t feel like Thanksgiving to me without creamed onions, but since I’m the only one who ever eats them I’m thinking it’s time to give up on the whitest of all festival foods.
  • Wine or, maybe, beer, probably a pumpkin ale. If it’s wine, it’s red, and it definitely did not cost more than ten dollars a bottle, probably not more than eight: with all this food, who’s going to notice?
  • Pumpkin, apple, and pecan pies. These are my wife’s department. If you manage a slice of all three, you’ve achieved the pie-fecta.
  • Coffee.
  • Nap on the couch with the dogs.

That’s my Thanksgiving. But do what you like. I don’t actually give a rat’s behind what you eat, as long as you take a little time to be grateful for it.

In my next installment, I’ll take on the turkey.