Lately I’ve been wondering what Thanksgiving was like when my mother, Hazel, was growing up. Was there a big family dinner? If so, did they eat the same things we do today? Did they have entertainment, like music or recitations or theatricals? And what would Thanksgiving have been like during the Great Depression — hardly a time for celebrating when so many millions were out of work?
So I did a little research, and had a lot of fun taking a ride on the Time Machine, into a world where the basics — food, family and a good time — were pretty much the same. Only styles, kitchens, appliances, grocery stores and social conventions have changed.
Turkey, of course, was the centerpiece of a 1920s and 30s Thanksgiving. It wasn’t always that way, though. Even though Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving since Pilgrim days, we all know by now that the honored bird didn’t even have a seat at the first Thanksgiving table. They would have eaten deer or pheasant or some such wild animal, but no turkey.
About a century and a half later, however, turkey was pronounced essential when, according to an article on the Arcadia Publishing website, “after sitting down to a Thanksgiving table in the late 1700s with no turkey, Founding Father Alexander Hamilton stated that ‘no citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day.’”
And what would the Hamilton Thanksgiving table have looked like? Foodtimeline.net gives us an idea, from a letter written by one Julianna Smith to her “Dear Cousin Betsey.” So who needs turkey when you’ve got a spread like this? “Haunch of Venison, Roast Chine of Pork, Roast Pigeon Pasties, Roast Goose, Onions in Cream, Cauliflower Squash, Potatoes, Raw Celery, Mincemeat Pie, Pumpkin Pie, Apple Pie, Indian Pudding, Plum Pudding, Cider.” Wow — that’s a gut buster, even by today’s excessive standards!
Despite Hamilton’s stern pronouncement, however, it took another century for Thanksgiving to be declared a national holiday. President Lincoln gave the go-ahead in 1863, after he succumbed to the prodding of a famed writer of the day, Sarah Josepha Hale. For years, Hale had been stumping for a national day of “joyful gratitude to God,” describing it in one of her novels with an emphasis on the bountiful harvest table, and the turkey that stood as its centerpiece. We’re lucky, by the way, that it wasn’t lamb — Hale’s most famous legacy is the children’s poem, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
Eventually, due primarily to its economical advantages — it was not only cheap and tasty, but could feed a whole lot of people — the turkey became the official Thanksgiving main dish.
So how did you get your turkey in the 1920s? At the supermarket, all plucked and dressed and nicely packaged? Not quite. On the Daily Mail website, I found a Thanksgiving photo gallery that shows a picture of a fancy society belle emerging from her new 1927 “motor” to buy a huge live turkey from an old farmer in the countryside. Talk about making turkey from scratch! In another creepier photo, a little boy stands in a barnyard, offering a turkey some treats with one hand while an ax stands ready in the other.
Not everyone went that route, however. Most city dwellers, like my grandmother, would have purchased a ready-to-cook turkey from the butcher — in my Orthodox Jewish family’s case, the kosher butcher.
A typical 1920s Thanksgiving would have featured parlor activities, singing being the most popular. Most middle and upper-class homes had a piano, which didn’t just sit around as furniture. At least one family member would have learned how to play it, as it would have been the primary source of entertainment for family get-togethers and parties. There was also the old Victrola, on which you could play those big, thick 78 rpm records that scratched and crackled. But remember—not an iPod or CD Player or laptop or Smartphone or TV in sight. Even though the Harvard-Yale Thanksgiving game was being played, you couldn’t see it in your living room. You might be able to hear it on your radio — if you had one. The “wireless” didn’t become a staple of the average home until the 1930s.
And what was a 1920s Thanksgiving dinner like? I can tell you one thing — it was a lot more elaborate than it is today. Thevintagesite.com provides a window into a typical 1920s Thanksgiving dining room. In addition to the turkey and a stuffing of “plain breadcrumbs and oysters or roasted chestnuts,” there were the cranberries. “The invariable accompaniment of the turkey is cranberries. There are many ways of serving these berries; cooked and moulded with the skins, or made into jelly; as a conserve with seeded raisins, walnuts and an orange; or frozen as a frappe.”
Then came the courses.
“The First Course. For the first course, the suggestions are many. Raw oysters, oyster cocktail, clams or grapefruit are fine appetizers. Dainty canapes with chopped olives, pimientos, cream cheese, anchovy or caviar may be combined, making a delicious course.
“A clear soup should always be served with a heavy dinner, but many prefer to omit the first course and serve a cream soup.”
The Fish Course. For the fish course, halibut turbans or fish cooked in scallop shells are very dainty.
“The Turkey and Vegetables. In addition to the turkey, you may serve Roast Guinea Hens. Vegetables may include string beans, creamed celery, peas and carrots. For the starchy vegetable – potatoes, mashed and beaten with a little milk and butter, well-seasoned, put in a buttered baking dish and browned in the oven are delicious, as are glazed sweet potatoes.
“The Salads. Some unusual salads are celery with red and green peppers, large red apples hollowed out and filled, white cherries with the pit replaced by a bit of salted pecan nut, and tomatoes, their peel turned back like rose petals.
“The Desserts. The most popular of Thanksgiving desserts is flaky pie with a luscious rich filling – mince, apple or pumpkin. Excellent pumpkin can be purchased in cans. Another delicious dessert is New England pudding made of crackers, molasses, eggs, raisins and spices and served with a sauce. This does not trespass on the plum puddings which must be kept for Christmas. Ice-cream or ices are, of course, appropriate.
“Thanksgiving sweets and relishes are legion, but nuts must always be present. Stuffed figs and dates, candied orange, lemon or grapefruit peel are more suitable than ready-made candies. All kinds of pickles and jellies have their place, too.”
And finally, “The Drinks. For a drink, nothing is more appropriate than sweet cider or grape juice. Perfectly made black coffee should always be the grand finale of the feast.”
And let’s not forget the table itself, which would have been the height of elegance. Nothing but the best company china, crystal and silver, from the cutlery to the coffee pot. And always a fancy linen or lace tablecloth. Plastic had yet to be invented, and while they had paper, no one ever thought of making it into plates.
It’s all beautifully nostalgic, the Thanksgiving of yesteryear. But one thing’s for certain — since it would be at least 10 years before the first dishwasher came into the home, I wouldn’t have wanted to be stuck at that sink!