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A Turn-Of-The-Century 'Dainty Thanksgiving Meal' Idea Shows Thanksgiving Meal Is Always Work

Updated on December 4, 2015
1950's TV probably missed the mark when trying to recreate a turn of the century thanksgiving.
1950's TV probably missed the mark when trying to recreate a turn of the century thanksgiving. | Source

Yet Lives On The Lure Of Thanksgivings Past

Few holidays land a holiday psychological left hook like Thanksgiving. Surely if a time machine were available the freeways would be less crowded as people would instead opt to fly to a Thanksgiving past, probably one their youth.

Meals are the crown jewels of the Thanksgiving Holiday. Today we think of turkey, mashed potatoes, turkey gravy and pumpkin pie. Recently while researching some dress of the turn of the late 1800, just prior to the arrival of the 20th century, I found a suggested menu for Thanksgiving. There were some stark differences in the meals then and now.

The article appeared in an 1898 edition of The Delineator a very popular magazine of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The magazine, devoted mostly to fashionable sewing done in the home, always added additional homemaking tips.

The editor it seems was none other than Theodore Dreiser who probably began his life as a novelist white editing the magazine. His novel Sister Carrie was a best seller in America and eventually became a movie that rocked the masses in 1952.

At the time the article was published, Americans were leaving the farms and congregating in the cities where the industrial revolution was in full force. One would expect they left behind the large familiy traditions of the past, including the traditional large Thanksgiving dinners.

Thanksgiving had been a mostly traditional holiday until 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln declared a special Day of Thanksgiving in 1863, in the midst of a Civil War. Congress passed a law making it an official holiday in 1870.

Since America was abandoning the farm to go to work in the cities, onee would expect average families in industrial cities downsized their meal sizes in order to curb waste and cost.

Here is the dainty meal as suggested by The Delineator in 1898.

First The Appetizers

First The Appetizers

“Begin the dinner with some delicate appetizer in the form of a canapé.”

Canapés of the era called for fried toast. The pop up toaster would not be invented until 1919 after electricity was a common utility. The toaster invention would also lead to the marketing of sliced breads. In 1898 bread was mostly baked in the home or (considered extravagant) bought at bakeries. In either case the common unit of bread was loaves.

Fried toast was made by taking thinly rolled bread or biscuit dough punched out in small circles and frying them in a skillet greased by melted butter.

The Delineator recommended using either a caviar or anchovy paste to decorate the wafers, adding a small amount of fragrant seasoning such as parley, impernell or chervil and then topping them with finely chopped olives.

A 1900's Issue Oof the Dileneator

A top fashion magazine of the past.  It featured home sewing projects and patterns.
A top fashion magazine of the past. It featured home sewing projects and patterns. | Source

Next The Soup

The authors recommended Thanksgiving guests be given a clear soup following the appetizer. In these days of countless canned soups we would likely choose a noodle soup but in this era soup was still made from scratch.

Clear soups were to be made by simmering meat, poultry, fish or vegetables in liquid to create a broth. The broth could be served on its own, or used as the basis for an augmented clear soup. Well-known clear soups include chicken noodle soup, matzo ball soup, Vietnamese pho noodle soup and Italian brodo. With all of these soups, the broth itself remained transparent and contained no dairy or other thickeners.

Here is a recipe for making your own clear soup.

The reason for serving clear soup,the author explains, is that a “heavy soup cloys the appetite” and does not cleanse the palate to prepare one for the tasty dishes to follow. The clear soup would not be served in large amounts.

The Terrors of Oyster Timbales

Nothing so confused me about this suggested meal as the editor's suggestion that it include oyster timbales and a Normande sauce. Instructions began like this:

"Open two dozen oysters, scald them in their own juices. Strain the liquor and set aside. To the drained oysters are added a teaspoon of butter and some pepper. The oysters are added to each timbale. A timbale is a shallow drum shaped dish or baked pastry cup. To that is added fish paste made of ground fish,onion juice, three eggs, dashes of salt and cayenne. These are placed in an oven and baked for a few minutes. To this is added a normandie sauce."

Finally I gave up trying to understand this culinary composition and lo and behold found a video made by one of America's great chefs who actually still makes oyster timbales.

I was unable to capture an oyster video but there is a link where you see salmon timbales being prepared. at Hank's Fish Tales.

From Hank's Fish Tales

Before Thanksgiving Football

In days of yore, Thanksgiving then, like now, had its own holiday cards.  This proves there were smiling faces before smiley faces and emoticons :).
In days of yore, Thanksgiving then, like now, had its own holiday cards. This proves there were smiling faces before smiley faces and emoticons :). | Source

Meanwhile Back At The Meal

Next would come the turkey. The Inquisitor suggested it be surrounded by chestnuts boiled to the point their out skins could be removed and covered with finely-minced and fried onions and flavored. with lemon juice, salt and pepper. Wow, and we moderns thought chestnuts could only be roasted by an open fire.

Sweet Bread isn't really SWEET BREAD

Turkey, Gibllet Gravy And Peas

Finally the main course arrives! A golden brown turkey on a platter--probably baked in a wood oven-- accompanied by a boat of giblet gravy and a side dish of creamed peas.

Not much is said in the article about preparing the turkey except for a stern warning to NOT use bread in the dressing. Instead readers are encouraged to use Sweet Breads. The warning insists that bread steals the juices and flavor from the turkey.

Beware: You may feel that this is some kind of a debate over yeast. After all isn't sweet bread just sweetened bread or a bread devoid of yeast?

WRONG! Sweet bread is not a bread at all! Sweet bread is--we are told-- a delicious organ extract from the thymus and pancreas of butched animals with veal being the preferred supplier, followed by lamb or pork. If you want to know more about preparing this delicacy here is a link for you.

Now about that giblet gravy. In the old days Gobblers did not come with their liver, heart and gizzard in frozen paper bags. They were fished warm out of the freshly butchered innards and saved for the gravy. Even before the Great Depression American cooks were imbued with a "waste not--want not" mentality. Giblet gravy is still in fashion but in you want to know more, go here

So as the turkey is not to be eaten alone, a simple side dish is recommended: creamed canned garden peas. These peas should be cooked, seasoned and enhanced with rich cream. For this age it should be noticed that the same taste cannot be duplicated with anything other than true rich cream. Don't even think of reaching for the 2-percent milk.

Traditional Chestnut Fare

Chestnuts roasted traditionally by an open fire.
Chestnuts roasted traditionally by an open fire.

Salad Finale'

In perusing this menu I felt almost certain I had been afflicted with dyslexia or had inadvertently been reading it upside down. Danged if they didn't serve the salad last--excepting of course the dessert and coffee!

They suggested a cold glass plate of crispy lettuce, wafers a little shredded cheese and a home-made french dressing (2 tbsp olive oil,and one teaspoon each of vinegar, salt,and chives and a half teaspoon of pepper.) Well it hardly sounds French but who can say.

But it came at the end of the meal. Isn't than un-American? My wife says not. She says it is an old tradition trying now to get itself reborn. Some believe salad near the end of meal greatly aids digestion and helps prevent indigestion.

Good Grief Charlie Brown!

As mentioned earlier, the meal concludes with dessert and hot cups of coffee.

Not a great deal of space is given to desserts. They mention fresh fruits and "various" cakes. But nowhere is there a mention of pumpkin pie. Good grief Charlie Brown! Is pumpkin pie not truly an integral part of Thanksgiving. Or Is it a lousy trick played on us by an American pumpkin growers association? Surely the editors just forgot!

Thank goodness for black coffee!


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