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November 24, 2004

A Funny Thing About Traditions….


They say they have got to have mashed potatoes and stuffing? They can't possibly do without gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing and candied yams? They insist that Thanksgiving could not exist without a turkey?

Oh really?

A little historical research and what do you know…tradition is perhaps not so traditional as you expect. The point is, read this opinionated timeline of Thanksgiving history and liberate yourself in the kitchen to do things as you wish, and feel free to start the next big trend.

Fifty or so English settlers and 90 local Wampanoags gather for a three day harvest feast of some kind. Scanty evidence indicates it was a humble menu of fowl and corn, though the Wampanoags brought most of the food: five venison. Most people sit on the ground, eating in open air. There is no pumpkin pie. It is not called Thanksgiving. The English shoot off their guns for fun.

Puritans hold "Thanksgivings" during these years: religious days set aside for fasting, church and prayer--not eating.

"Thanksgivings" become more festive in New England but still involve churchgoing. They are irregular events according to governors' proclamations throughout New England. Turkey (a luxurious food), chicken pie, and mince pie are "must haves" on the holiday table.

Famous ladies magazine editor Sara Josepha Hale sets out on a 17-year crusade to establish a single national holiday of thanks. She writes hundreds of beseeching letters to politicians and devotes many pages of her national magazine to the cause.

Abraham Lincoln declares an annual national day of thanks amidst Civil War. He is no doubt influenced by Sarah Josepha Hale. Despite thousands of essays, articles, and broadcasts telling this story over the last 50 years, Americans prefer the one about pilgrims and Wampanoags.

Daddy gets the legs. In this era when men liked spices and ladies evidently did not, the Thanksgiving turkey legs often went to dad, as highly spiced "deviled legs" with cayenne, mustard, and pepper.

Goose makes a comeback because turkey is too costly. One woman's magazine argues that it can be prepared with a few leaves of sage, onions and apples, compared with the expensive and rich sauces and stuffings of turkey.

Pecan Pie is invented, according to the Karo corn-syrup company. Southern food writers at end of century will search, to no avail, to find historic precedents that set this beloved traditional desert any earlier.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt changes Thanksgiving to the third Thursday in November instead of the fourth. His reason: more time for Christmas shopping during the Depression. He is bombarded by thousands of letters shaming him. He restores Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November by 1942.

The Butterball brand and the self-basting turkey are introduced. The Swift Company develops a broad-breasted bird without the tough tendons and uses a hot-water bath to remove feathers.

The Swanson food company has 520,000 pounds of unsold turkey after Thanksgiving. The first frozen TV dinner is born featuring turkey, corn-bread dresing, gravy, butterd peas, and sweet potatoes in a three-compartment tray.

Julia Child enraptures, enthralls and shocks Americans when she debones a turkey on national television, apparently with lusty pleasure.

Stovetop Stuffing is invented during the decade of malaise. It takes ten minutes to make, which is a good thing because everyone is too worried about Stagflation, Vietnam and Richard Nixon to take time to cook.

"Molded Cranberry Salad" becomes an American Thanksgiving favorite. It calls for raspberry gelatin, a can of whole cranberry sauce, an orange, and crushed canned pineapple.

The personal is political. The Moosewood Cookbook offers a vegetarian alternative to turkey with a "comprehensively stuffed" butternut squash.

For the first time in known history turkeys now reach an average live weight of 20 pounds-a size which once would have been considered mutant and frightening a hundred years earlier. Now they are triumphs of modern agriculture.

It is unclear who will pardon the Turkey. Since Henry Truman, every U.S. president has pardoned a turkey from being slaughtered. However, we do not know who the president is at this time.

A census of "heirloom turkeys" carried out by the American Livestock breeds Conservancy, shows a rising population of these ancestral and genetically diverse breeds being raised by small farmers-roughly in the equivalent numbers of people who voted for Ralph Nader.

Cookbook author, chef, and television personality Bobby Flay popularizes the deep-fried turkey, a virile method of cooking apparently favored by men. The process is done out of doors, requires 10 gallons of oil and three hours in the deep fryer. Over 10,000 turkey fryers are sold. An estimated 100 are used.

Everyone is talking about turkducken, a novel concoction of chicken inside a duck inside a turkey. This technique must be carried out by two culinary surgeons who debone the three creatures, then layer them one inside the other, truss them, and finally, cook the bizarre triplet some nine hours. That same year, William Sonoma-the store for serious cooks--has record sales of boxed stuffing, jarred cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie filling because Americans evidently don't have time or know how to cook, according to many surveys.

The average live weight of turkey reaches a bewildering 27 pounds, according to the National Turkey Federation.

2004 inches toward 1,000 recipes available online under the search terms "Thanksgiving."