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Table Talk: Historic Thanksgiving feasts went far beyond turkey

  • PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA COMMONS<br/>A traditional Thanksgiving dinner includes turkey.
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF WIKIPEDIA COMMONS<br/>A traditional Thanksgiving dinner

Thanksgiving is all about iconic foods. For many, the centerpiece has to be turkey; there must be cranberry sauce to go with it, and lots of vegetable dishes, among them squash or sweet potatoes (or both). Most people like a dish of creamed onions too. And nearly everyone agrees that pies are the thing for dessert. There’s some latitude about what kind of pies, but pumpkin pie — or for the adventurous, pumpkin cheesecake — must be among them.

Notionally these must-have foods got their status because Thanksgiving dinner has always been that way, and among other things, we are remembering the history of the English immigrants who made a new home for themselves in Massachusetts nearly 400 years ago. But, while it’s true that a lot of Thanksgiving traditions go back to their experiences, it’s equally true that Thanksgiving dinners of earlier generations were more varied and more inclusive.

Massachusetts’ first Thanksgiving in 1622 was described by one of its participants, Edward Winslow.

“Our harvest being gotten in our governor sent four men on fowling, that we might in a special manner rejoice together. ... They four in one day killed as much fowl as with a little help beside served the company almost a week.”

Though Winslow doesn’t identify the fowl, it’s easy to guess that among them were the geese, ducks and other water fowl that migrate over Massachusetts on their way to winter feeding grounds in the south. There were wild turkeys, too, as Governor William Bradford noted: “Beside waterfowl there was a great store of wild turkeys ... besides venison.” That venison came from the five deer that Winslow tells us were killed by the Native Americans — Massasoit and his 90 men — who joined in the feast.

So not just turkeys at that first Thanksgiving. Venison and various kinds of waterfowl, too. None of this would have struck the Puritan immigrants as unusual. They were used to Thanksgiving feasts in England, and similar foods would have been available. They were also used to Christmas — a religious holiday that didn’t meet their approval and which they did not celebrate when they settled in the New World, but they did enjoy some of its traditional foods. So the mincemeat pies of the English Christmas became a staple of New England’s Thanksgiving, and when apples had been introduced from England (in 1629) and got established, apple pies starred at Thanksgiving, too.

Pumpkin pies were different. Pumpkins and winter squash are New World crops, and were a great blessing to the immigrants because they could substitute them in some of their recipes. Custard pies had been a favorite from medieval times, so it wasn’t too great a step to add the ever-useful pumpkin to them, or later to add grated apples to make Marlborough pie, a favorite in 18th- and 19th-century New England.

By this time almost everybody who wrote recollections of Thanksgiving mentioned the pies. Novelist Harriett Beecher Stowe was one of many who recalled being drafted to help with the mincemeat pies as a child.

“For as much as a week beforehand we children were employed in chopping mince for pies to a most wearisome fineness, and in pounding cinnamon, allspice and cloves in a great lignum vitae mortar.”

She also recalled the excitement of listening to the Thanksgiving proclamation in church. The proclamation was issued by the governor, and so the date could vary from one year to the next and from one state to the next. It was not until 1862 that President Lincoln declared an annual Thanksgiving for the whole nation on the fourth Thursday of November.

For many people going out fowling and hunting for deer was no longer necessary — though for many it was still surely the way to put Thanksgiving on the table. But while the array of wild birds that had delighted the celebrants of the first Thanksgiving was no longer typical, 19th-century Thanksgivings did include meats and dishes that don’t now usually appear.

In 1784 Shubael Breed of Connecticut exclaimed, “What a sight of pigs and geese and turkeys and fowls and sheep must be slaughtered to satisfy the voraciousness of a single day.”

By the mid-19th century turkey was the showpiece of the feast, but it came bolstered with other meats. Grace Wheeler of Rhode Island described “the big turkey, brown and shining, accompanied by two big pans of chicken pie and roast pork, crisp and brown, clove studded so it had a spicy odor.” In her family the dessert of pies was followed by “cheese grandmother had made, both sage and plain.”

The chicken pies Grace Wheeler recalled were common; most memoirs of 19th-century Thanksgivings mention it. Edward Hale, author of “A New England Boyhood” (Boston, 1900), wrote, “You began with your chicken pie and your roast turkey. You ate as much as you could, and you then ate what you could of mince pie, squash pie, Marlborough pie, cranberry tart, and plum pudding. Then you went to work on the fruits as you could. The use of dried fruits at the table was much more frequent in those days than in these. Dates, prunes, raisins, and nuts . . .”

Pork was also a common Thanksgiving choice, with or without a turkey, because often the family pig was slaughtered in late fall. Venison was also not infrequent because it was one of the spoils of the fall hunting season. At first, the presence of these other meats suggests that tables must have been overloaded or that people had bigger stomachs. But probably they were necessary because until the factory farming techniques and the specialized feeds of the 20th century, turkeys would have been much smaller. What’s more, they wouldn’t have had the large and tender breasts typical of today’s birds. They would have spent their lives scratching round a farm, and so could have been tough. It’s not hard to imagine that the turkey might have been rationed to a slice or two apiece and everyone been expected to fill up on chicken pie or roast pork. Nor is it hard to believe that many might have preferred these succulent dishes to the drier turkey. In some homes a boiled turkey was served alongside the roast turkey, suggesting that this may have been a stratagem to both increase the amount of available turkey and also to provide some that was tender.

Few of us today would want to spend Thanksgiving boiling one turkey while roasting another, and if we were to make another main dish to support the turkey, it would most likely be something to appeal to vegetarians. But if you really don’t want turkey and prefer goose or duck or even pork or chicken pie, it’s good to know that they come trailing (almost) as much Thanksgiving tradition.

As for pies, they have always lent themselves to variety. Probably the vegetables have too. Very few older descriptions of Thanksgiving mention the vegetable accompaniments. Squash sometimes appears, but few other vegetables — certainly not Jerusalem artichokes. Yet they could have been eaten at that first Thanksgiving, at least by the Native Americans. They are native to North America, and the first mention of them by a European was made by Samuel Champlain, the founder of Quebec. In 1605 he found the indigenous Nauset people growing them on Cape Cod. He described them as “roots with the taste of artichokes.” They’re not ready for harvesting until November, so they come at just the right time.

A recipe follows, along with other recipes that are not part of most 21st-century Thanksgiving tables, but nonetheless have heritage to justify their inclusion — and if you don’t want to add them to your celebration, they are good for other fall and winter meals.

Palestine Soup

After the French explorer Samuel Champlain took Jerusalem artichokes from Massachusetts to Europe in the early 17th century they became popular with the artichoke-loving Italians. They noticed the plant was a type of sunflower and called it girasole, which describes the sunflower, ever turning to the sun. In English this became Jerusalem. From this we get two new terms. One is Palestine Soup, which appears in English and American cookbooks of the 19th century because the Jerusalem was in Palestine. The other word is “sunchoke,” which refers back to the sunflower origins, and was coined by Californian growers marketing the knobby veggies as a novelty in the 1980s.

Look for Jerusalem artichokes in farmers markets. They look like lumpy ginger roots. Mostly they are pale-brown skinned with creamy-white flesh, but sometimes that are pinkish. They are still unfamiliar to many people, so they are often pricey (and always so in supermarkets). But they grow easily, appearing year after year, so growing your own is an inexpensive option. You may also find them growing wild. This recipe is adapted from a 19th-century original. It makes an intriguing start to a meal — though you will need to multiply the recipe if you serve it at Thanksgiving dinner — or just a warming lunch dish for fall and winter.

1 pound Jerusalem artichokes

2 tablespoon butter

½ cup chopped onion

½ cup chopped celery

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Salt to taste

1 quart chicken or vegetable or other stock

1 cup cream or half-and-half

Pinch cayenne pepper

Wash the Jerusalem artichokes and drop them into a pan of cold water. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain and run cold water over the artichokes. The peel will now be loosened so remove it. Slice the vegetables.

In a saucepan, melt the butter and stir the artichokes and onion into it. Cover the pan and cook over very low heat for 5 minutes. Add the celery, a tablespoon of the parsley, a pinch of salt and half the stock. Bring to a boil and simmer for 10 minutes or until the vegetables have softened. Puree the mixture using a blender, food processor, food mill or a sieve.

Return the puree to the pan and add the remaining stock and the cream, simmer for a couple of minutes then taste. Add salt if needed and the cayenne. Serve garnished with the rest of the parsley. Serves 4-6.

Pumpkin Slices with Mint

Marinated in mint and vinegar, these pumpkin slices have an acid tang and a minty kick that can be much appreciated at Thanksgiving when so much of the food is rich or sweet — or both. You can serve them as an appetizer or as a side dish. The straight part of butternut squash cut in slices and which you then halve into semicircles works equally well. The recipe is from southern Italy. A similar recipe from northern Italy includes basil rather than mint.

1 sugar pumpkin, peeled and seeded

4-6 tablespoons olive oil

3 garlic cloves, halved

1 tablespoon sugar

Pinch or two of cinnamon

Several grinds black pepper

½ cup white wine or cider vinegar

16 small mint leaves

Cut the pumpkin into ¾-inch slices, cutting as you would a melon. Heat the olive oil and the garlic pieces gently for 2 minutes, removing the garlic as soon as it begins to look golden. Add the pumpkin pieces, a few at a time and fry until they are tender enough to be pierced easily with a fork. Set them aside and continue cooking until all the pumpkin is done, adding more oil as needed. At the end of the cooking, drain any excess oil from the pan and return all the slices and the garlic halves to it. Sprinkle with the sugar and a little cinnamon, grind on the pepper, tear half the mint leaves into bits and scatter them on top, and finally, pour on the vinegar. Leave for 30 minutes, turning the pumpkin in the mixture after 10 minutes. Serve slightly warm or chilled with the remaining mint leaves scattered on top.

Chicken and Leek Pie

This pie appeals to both adults and kids. Its secret is to roast the chicken whole, which preserves more chicken flavor. (If you don’t want to do this yourself, use a whole roast chicken from the supermarket rotisserie — not quite so good, perhaps, but very satisfactory).

For the filling

1 small-medium whole roasted chicken

Salt and pepper to taste

3 leeks

1 medium-large carrot

1½ cups milk

1 bay leaf

1 large sage leaf, chopped or ¼ teaspoon dried sage

1½ tablespoons all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

For the crust

1¼ cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

6 tablespoons butter

1 egg, beaten

½ cup milk plus more as needed

1 teaspoon dried thyme

½ teaspoon oregano

½ teaspoon dried sage

Cut the chicken into substantial bite-size pieces, discarding any skin and avoiding small bones. Put them into a deep casserole, and season with salt and pepper. Turn the oven to 375 degrees.

Prepare the leeks by cutting away the bright green tops and discarding any coarse outer layers. Slit each leek downwards and splay under cold running water to remove grit caught in the layers. Cut into 1-inch lengths. Peel the carrot, slice it in half longways, then cut into thin semicircles.

In a saucepan, heat the milk along with the bay leaf, sage and carrot pieces. Let them simmer for 5 minutes. Add the leeks and continue to cook gently for five minutes. Put the flour in a small bowl and stir to a paste with a couple of tablespoons of water. Stir in some of the hot milk, then turn this paste into the pan and stir over the heat until it forms a sauce. Cook for a couple of minutes, then discard the bay leaf and stir in the parsley. Taste and season lightly with salt. Pour this sauce over the chicken in the casserole and set aside.

To make the crust, in a large mixing bowl, mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Cut the butter into pea-sized pieces and rub into the flour mixture until it looks like very coarse crumbs. Mix the beaten egg and ½ cup of milk then stir in the thyme, oregano and sage. Pour into the dry mixture, stirring quickly, but not beating, to combine. You need a soft dough with a droppable consistency. If necessary, stir in more milk a tablespoon at a time. Drop dollops of the dough all over the top of the chicken and leek mixture. Spread them a little to join them up. If a few little gaps remain, don’t worry as they will be covered when the topping expands in the oven. Bake for 18 -22 minutes or until the topping is golden. Test for doneness by poking a skewer into the center of the dough. It should come out clean. If not, continue baking at 350 degrees until it is baked through.

Chocolate, Cranberry and Almond Bread

There must be cranberries at Thanksgiving, and here’s a new way to work them into the menu. This recipe is closely based on one in “Chocolate Holidays” by Alice Medrich, who recommends it for breakfast on Thanksgiving Day. It could also replace one of the pies, or you could make this the day after Thanksgiving using leftover bread and cranberries.

16-ounce loaf of tender bread, ideally brioche or other bread that lacks a hard crust

1 stick melted butter, plus extra for buttering the pan

2 cups cranberries

2½ cups half-and-half

1 cup sugar

2 7-ounce bars of bittersweet chocolate

6 eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon almond extract

1-2 tablespoons sliced almonds

Preheat the oven to 350 and grease a 13-by-9-inch glass lasagna pan or two 9-inch glass or ceramic pie pans with butter. Tear up the bread into largish pieces and place them in a single layer on a baking sheet. Toast them in the oven for 5 minutes. Drizzle the melted butter over them, and toss them around to distribute it. Put half the bread in the pan (or pans). Scatter the cranberries on top, and then cover with the remaining bread.

Heat the half-and-half and sugar in a saucepan until it just reaches simmering point. Remove from the heat. Break up the chocolate and stir the pieces into the hot half-and-half mixture until the chocolate has melted. Whisk the eggs thoroughly, then stir in the vanilla and almond extracts, and finally the half-and-half mixture. Stir to thoroughly blend everything. Pour this mixture over the bread, making sure the top layer of bread is completely covered. Cover the pan — or pans — with tented foil and place them in the oven. Bake for 15 minutes, then remove the foil. Scatter on the sliced almonds and bake for 15 minutes longer or until the pudding is bubbling around the edges. (It will still be damp and jiggly in the middle.) Remove and cool on a rack. The pudding will continue to cook and the center will set during this time. Can be served at room temperature or reheated to serve warm.

Marlborough Pie

This pie was a Massachusetts specialty, and is often mentioned in memoirs of 18th- and 19th-century Thanksgivings. It seems to have come from England with the immigrants because there is a recipe for it — though not identified by the adjective Marlborough — in Robert May’s “The Accomplish’t Cook,” published in 1661. His version calls for 24 egg yolks for the apple custard filling. Here’s a more modest version. Cortland apples are a good choice because the flesh doesn’t brown when exposed to the air. Northern Spies are also delicious. McIntoshes are not so good as cooking turns them to mush — great in apple sauce, not so good in this pie.

4 large Northern Spy or Cortland apples (about 2 pounds), peeled and cored

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

¾ cup granulated sugar

3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk, beaten

1 tablespoon rum or 1 teaspoon vanilla

½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons butter, melted and allowed to cool but not solidify

¾ cup half-and-half or light cream

9-inch deep-dish pie shell, baked blind

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grate the apples. (You should have about 2 cups grated apple.) Quickly mix the grated apple with the lemon zest and juice, then stir in the sugar, and then the beaten eggs, the rum or vanilla, the nutmeg and melted butter, and finally the half-and-half or cream. Pour this mixture into a pie shell that has been previously baked to a light gold without any filling. Place it in the center of the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and continue baking for another 15 minutes or until a toothpick poked into the middle comes out clean. Cool on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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