Truth be told, Thanksgiving was not even popular in rural parts of Pennsylvania until the 1880s and 1890s. In places like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the holiday took root somewhat earlier in the 1840s and 1850s mainly because hotels promoted the dinner as a way of increasing business, not to mention catering to travelers from New England. Ah, the commercial basis for tradition . . .
Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863 in response to an appeal from Sarah Josepha Hale, who long advocated the establishment of the holiday in Godey’s Magazine, which she edited.
Lincoln was not the first to declare a national Thanksgiving; Congress declared the holiday initially in 1777 and periodically thereafter to commemorate some important occasion. But Lincoln’s declaration occurred during the darkest days of the Civil War, when the outcome was uncertain and the country’s economy was in tatters.
The idea of a national Thanksgiving seemed to play into the general mood of the times and became something of a day of remembrance once the war was over. It also signaled the cultural triumph of New England and in general the industrialized North over the Old South.
The origins of the holiday as we now know it are generally traced to a 1621 feast held by the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians. Unfortunately, what they ate that day is not documented beyond wild fowl and venison.
While some historians attribute the fall feast to the American Indians (who most certainly had their own harvest observances), the real origins of the day lie in Puritan theology and what might be called the “ancient customs” of rural England, which evolved out of medieval Church practices. Whatever the reasons given for the first Thanksgiving, its ulterior purpose was to replace the observation of Christmas, which the Puritans disdained as “Popish” and worldly.
The Puritan Thanksgiving did not fall on the fixed date we recognize today; rather it shifted somewhat according to local custom in various parts of New England. The important point is that fall butchering in medieval England occurred between St. Martin’s Day (November 11) and the Feast of St. Philip (November 14), thus initiating a meatless period of fasting until Christmas.
The American Thanksgiving evolved out of this secular observance, which in the village culture of rural England was a period of great importance, since it meant laying up meat for feasting from Christmas to Twelfth Night and beyond. It was also a time of the year when villages celebrated the Harvest Home, a Christianized observation rooted in pre-Christian customs.
As a result, Thanksgiving as practiced by the early New England Puritans took the place of the High Church observances of Harvest Home and Christmas and dispensed with the idea of the Advent or Winter Lent.
In practice today, we now have two types of Christmas feasts placed close together on the calendar: the secular Puritan feast of Thanksgiving and the feasting that takes place on Christmas Day.
Because of its secular nature, Thanksgiving is generally observed by all religious groups in the United States, both as a sign of cultural assimilation to the American way of life and as a holiday with a strong domestic focus. It is perhaps the most family-oriented of all American holidays, more so even than Christmas.
This brings us to the matter of menu, which is a hotly debated subject because no early Thanksgiving menus survive. Just the same, the meal appears to replicate in most details the format of the High Church Christmas dinner, with a roast fowl (goose or turkey) as the focal point, and innumerable side dishes to fill out the meal.
The most important item was the meat, all the rest was subsidiary to it. However, by the 18th century, and especially in the 19th century, we have considerable evidence about those side dishes: mashed potatoes or mashed turnips, some form of stewed cranberries often as a sauce for the meat, succotash (a mix of corn and beans), mincemeat pies, pumpkin pies (actually a type of pudding baked in a tart shell), and a variety of dishes made from apples — apple sauce, pies, puddings, even fritters.
Most of this food reflected the frugal style of life on a typical New England farm. Yet the menu could be enhanced or greatly enlarged according to one’s economic means, as was often the case with the fancy Thanksgiving dinners supplied by American hotels.
Mining the Menus
In the world of menu collecting, one consistent pattern emerges: an overwhelming number are Thanksgiving menus, and this tells us something about eating habits years ago. Namely that people did not eat out often, but when they did, it was for a special occasion like Thanksgiving or Christmas.
This pattern was especially true for households that were too small to hold large family gatherings, as was often the case for folks living in urban row houses. That pattern seems to have held true even in Chester County, where farm families entertained at home, while well-to-do townies often ate out.
The content of the old menus is invariable, with the classic selection of dishes codified in 18th-century New England, except for a few local nuances, such as the addition of parsnip dishes, always something connected with oysters (especially stuffing for the turkey), and white potatoes or white sweet potatoes mashed and baked in pies resembling cheesecake in texture and flavor, and inevitably in the Philadelphia region, a first course consisting of terrapin. For a typical menu, see the 1901 silk souvenir menu from the Wanamaker Restaurant (last photo on this page). And to learn more about the importance of parsnips, “Chester County’s Old-Time Vegetable,” see County Lines, November 2007 article on this topic.
Mincemeat at Center Stage
Mincemeat pies moved close to center place quite as important as the roast itself. On festive occasions, mincemeat pies were doused with brandy and set aflame more or less serving as a countrified counterpart to English plum puddings.
In the 19th century, both the pies and the pudding could be purchased in local markets. The most famous brand was that of English-born Frederick B. Atmore (1815-1879) who built a veritable mincemeat empire in 19th-century Philadelphia. He supplied the nation with some of the best mincemeat and plum puddings money could buy. The 1870s trade cards pictured in this article show the classic mincemeat pie as a large, flat round pastry with filling no thicker than a Fig Newton so that the pies could be eaten out of hand as snacks. They were also sold by street vendors in the same easy-to-eat shape.
Keep in mind that while Atmore’s mincemeat was made with beef (and no small amount of suet) a fair amount of the mincemeat in rural Chester County was made with pork or a mix of pork and beef. In some areas in the northern parts of the county where deer could be found, venison mincemeat was considered a great delicacy. But we also have reports of groundhog mincemeat, squirrel mincemeat, and even green tomato mincemeat (totally vegan), so country cooks were always open to using whatever ingredients they had on hand.
Stored in crocks, mincemeat was meant to last all winter and quite aside from Christmas or Thanksgiving, it was probably one of the most common Chester County cold weather dishes eaten for breakfast, dinner, or even as snacks in the field or barn.
Marvelous Mincemeat, the Vegan Way
With all this talk of mincemeat, how about a good old-time recipe that you can make for Thanksgiving or Christmas or anytime you feel the need for a power surge of energy before tackling the snow in the driveway or other holiday chore?
Mincemeat pie is always good with strong coffee, but a little shot of cognac never hurt either, especially if you stick to the holiday rule of one shot for the pie, two for the cook!
Chester County Green Tomato Mincemeat
This can be made ahead in the summer when there’s an abundance of green tomatoes or in the fall to salvage those that will not make it past frost.
For added flavor and a more interesting texture, add 1 cup of chopped walnuts. Yield: Five 12-oz. jars (three 9-inch pies).
8 C. green tomatoes, cut into small dice
2 C. brown sugar
1½ Tb. unsulfured molasses
2½ C. raisins
¼ C. red wine vinegar
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 C. pared, diced tart apple
¼ tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
grated zest of ½ orange
1 Tb. freshly grated ginger
Put all the ingredients except the apple, spices, orange and ginger in a deep preserving pan and cook covered over a medium heat for 40 minutes. Add the apple and remaining ingredients and continue cooking for 15 minutes.
Pour into hot, sanitized jars and seal. Add cognac, apple jack or calvados to the pie filling when it is baked. Don’t forget to pour a glass for the cook! -CL-
Images in this article are turn-of-the-century trade cards, courtesy of the author’s Roughwood Collection.