A Friendly Feast

Family at dinner table, Thanksgiving, by artist Edward Penfield for Collier's Weekly. Nov. 25, 1901. Prints and Photographs Division.

Family at dinner table, Thanksgiving, by artist Edward Penfield for Collier’s Weekly. Nov. 25, 1901. Prints and Photographs Division.

This Thanksgiving, I’ll be celebrating “Friendsgiving” – a thankful gathering for those of us unable to spend the holiday with our families. The veritable smorgasbord of dishes everyone is bringing got me thinking about everyone’s food traditions, since Turkey Day usually revolves around sharing a meal. I imagine my friends’ dishes come from old family recipes or include eats that are a staple at their home celebrations.

I’ll be missing my mom’s oyster dressing this year, but I’ll be channeling my Southern roots with a big pot of slow-cooked collard greens.

Although early Thanksgiving days were spontaneous celebrations, by the mid-19th century an annual fall Thanksgiving meal was customary throughout much of the nation. During the gold rush, miners far from home observed a day of thanks. On Dec. 1, 1850, Alfred T. Jackson of Litchfield County, Connecticut, describes his California Thanksgiving.

“All we did was to lay off and eat quail stew and dried apple pie. I thought a lot about the old folks and would like to have been home with them, and I guess I will be next year…”

Ralph Lifshitz, a poultry purveyor in 1939 New York, talks about his work and customers, with sentiments that can resonate even today.

“This past Thanksgiving – not a Jewish holiday, of course – but I believe more Jews bought turkeys than ever before. Why? In my opinion, it’s due to particular world relations at this time, to conditions of oppression abroad and the desire to give thanks for living in America.”

Mr. T.L. Crouch, a Rogerine Quaker, preparing to carve the Thanksgiving turkey. Photo by Jack Delano, Nov. 1940. Prints and Photographs Division.

Mr. T.L. Crouch, a Rogerine Quaker, preparing to carve the Thanksgiving turkey. Photo by Jack Delano, Nov. 1940. Prints and Photographs Division.

Holiday meals on the plantation were “nothing to get very much excited over,” according to Mrs. C.G. Richardson, who grew up during the Civil War.

“There was always extra preparation made in the kitchen, although there was always so much food on the plantation. Turkey was not just a treat for Christmas and Thanksgiving then, for instance, for there were droves of turkeys on the Brunson plantation and they were eaten whenever anybody felt like having turkey.”

Much like “Friendsgiving,” Thanksgiving celebrations weren’t always just a family affair.

The Jan. 20, 1855, issue of the North-Western Democrat (Minneapolis), featured a letter from an enthusiastic Minnesotan, who was grateful for Minnesota hospitality and Minnesota climate.

“Rarely does it fall to the lot of a traveler, when far from home and among strangers, to have an invitation to attend the welcome anniversary of Thanksgiving among a large circle of friends; but such has been my happiness. … There were present on this occasion from 80 to 90 of the most healthy, intelligent and enterprising people I ever met with … Large plates of roast venison of the finest quality first met my eye, and in close proximity were several of the squealing, bristling tribe, stretched at full length and stuffed with condiments that pamper the appetites of the most dainty. Next came the pheasant and chicken pies, with grouse, and the more honored of the feathered tribe, served up in every variety of style. The more common dishes, beef and pork, I need not mention. I came near losing myself in the countless variety of pastry of every description …”

Thanksgiving dinner at the house of Earle Landis. Photo by Marjory Collins, Nov. 1942. Prints and Photographs Division.

Thanksgiving dinner at the house of Earle Landis. Photo by Marjory Collins, Nov. 1942. Prints and Photographs Division.

Frank G. O’Brien recalls a Thanksgiving gathering in Maine during the mid-19th century.

“The big clock that stood like a sentinel in the corner and reached from the floor almost to the ceiling, indicated that the time was only 10:30 when the guests began to arrive. They all came in sleighs, as the winters in those days were not trifling, but meant business from November to March. … Every crack and crevice in the house was penetrated with the aroma of roast turkey and goose, boiled onions, and a medley of other edibles … At precisely a quarter to three, the horn was blown, as the signal for all to proceed to the dining room, where long tables were groaning under their heavy loads, temptingly arranged for the nearly-starved assembly.”

Both recollections can be found in the Pioneering the Upper Midwest: Books From Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin, ca. 1820-1910 presentation.

In the Nov. 24, 1901, issue of The San Francisco Call writer Emma Paddock Telford recounts a suburban town’s Friendsgiving from a couple of years prior.

“At the old homestead where the dinner was served the turkey was roasted, the vegetables cooked and the coffee made. One housekeeper whose bread and pastry had achieved more than a local reputation brought the wheaten loaves, the golden pumpkin pies and the flaky cranberry tarts to grace the feast. A second furnished a big pan of luscious scalloped oysters, with crispy ringed celery and home-made jelly. A third, who had inherited her gift for dainty cookery from a line of famous Dutch hausfraus, brought a delectable salad, a store of wondrous home-made pickles and cakes that would melt in your mouth, while a fourth – a bachelor maid – supplied the fragrant coffee and the salted almonds. Home-made bonbons and artistic menus and name cards were the gift of another, while all brought happy faces, contented hearts and a store of overflowing good humor, that made the co-operative dinner a function long to be pleasantly remembered.”

How will you be celebrating Thanksgiving?

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