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A newspaper article with the bolded words "Thanksgiving menu"
The New Evening World (New York, N.Y), November 26, 1888.

Where’s the Turkey? Activities for Exploring a State-by-State Historical Menu

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This post was written by Alli Hartley-Kong and Sarah Peet, educational specialists in the Library of Congress’s Informal Learning Office.

In the Library’s Informal Learning Office, we find ourselves sifting through digital versions of primary sources every day to identify collections materials we want to connect children and families to. Every so often you find a primary source that really gets the wheels going. One single primary source can open a world of discussion—not just for students or scholars, but for families as well. As you gather with friends and family this holiday season, we invite you to dig deep into a primary source that has prompted many conversations among our team over the last few weeks: an 1888 New York Evening World article written “to afford its readers an idea of the kind of festivities that is in prospect for the coming Thursday in all parts of the country.” Fanciful language aside, what this article did was share with us what hotels—the five-star restaurants of the day—were planning to serve for the holiday across the country, creating a state-by-state mapping of a familiar meal with some twists for the unfamiliar historical context.

Below, we took a deeper dive into four of the menus shared.

A newspaper article containing a hotle menu from Albany, New York.
The New York Evening World (New York, N.Y), November 26, 1888.

Albany—Oysters Abound

One thing that surprised us about these menus was how often oysters were mentioned, especially in places far away from the ocean or saltwater lakes. The 1888 book “Oysters and Fish” answered some of our most pressing questions—namely, how people eating oysters in the middle of the country avoided food poisoning. From this book we learned that oysters were transported alive, “so long as the oyster retains its natural juices, it will live out of water, provided the changes in the temperature are not too sudden” (Page 12).

The book also offered practical advice about preparing and cooking oysters for people living in places unaccustomed to them, such as cautioning readers against smashing oysters and spilling their shells into their cooking. According to this book, the oyster trade business at the time of publication in 1888 was 5 billion dollars!

What other primary sources can you find related to oysters? We encourage you to liven up your (perhaps oyster-less) Thanksgiving celebrations by searching for mentions of oysters in the Library’s collection. Narrow the search to “Photos, Prints, & Drawings” in the drop-down menu. What do you learn about oysters?

A stylized advertisement for fresh oysters with a pink background and a large oyster.
Fresh oysters–Thos. J. Myer & Co., Baltimore, Lithograph by A. Hoen & Co., Baltimore, circa 1870. (Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress)
A newspaper article containing Trenton's Thanksgiving Theories
The New York  Evening World (New York, N.Y), November 26, 1888.

As a proud daughter of New Jersey, Alli was happy to see both northern and central New Jersey represented in this map. But while this recipe posits that it is “Trenton’s idea of what a Thanksgiving dinner should look like”, nothing about the recipe seemed specifically “New Jersey” to her own family cuisine of Italian-inspired Thanksgiving meals. As we looked at the above menu, Alli reflected how her ancestors—and likewise, their food—had not made it to New Jersey by 1888. Looking at this state-by-state menu made us wonder what a similar article might look like today. You can use Chronicling America, a Library of Congress resource that provides access to select digitized newspaper pages, to explore trends in culinary history. Search a food term, then sort by date. Do you see any trends?

A newspaper article sharing the
The New York Evening World (New York, N.Y), November 26, 1888.

Kansas—Using Context Clues for Unfamiliar Terms

This menu from Kansas—besides advocating for oysters on the prairie—contained many terms we didn’t recognize. “Greengage” or as we learned, a variety of plum, was unfamiliar word to many members of our team (at least those of us not from Great Britain). While Alli remembered her grandparents encouraging her to roast “filberts” in foil packets on the stove for holidays, Sarah didn’t know that phrasing. A quick search of the Library’s catalog led us to Filbert Growing on the Puget Sound, a “treatise” on the nut which confirmed our childhood suspicion that filberts were actually hazelnuts.

With your family, look for any terms you don’t recognize. Search for these terms on loc.gov or in Chronicling America—while remembering that some primary sources contain terminology, language, and ideas that we consider outdated today. How can context clues help you figure out the meaning of words? Did any recognizable foods go by different names in the late nineteenth century?

A newspaper article sharing a menu from Saratoga
The New York Evening World (New York, N.Y), November 26, 1888.

New York—Celebrity Fare on Thanksgiving

In upstate New York, we were especially interested to see “filet de boeuf larded à la Sarah Bernhardt”, a dish named in honor of the very famous 19th century French stage actress who appears across the Library’s collections. We wondered what the preparation of beef filet Sarah Bernhardt-style would entail, but our efforts to find out via Chronicling America were not successful. We did, however, find a Washington Times article from 1938 where her name was again associated with a food item, this time with a description. “Les Belles Angevines Givrées Sarah Benrhardt” was explained as chilled pears stuffed with almond cream and pistachio ice cream. Are there any foods associated with celebrities that you know of today? If you are looking for a fun holiday dinner prompt, you can spend some time discussing what turkey—or any other Thanksgiving meal—prepared “à la” your child’s favorite celebrity might look like.

ACTIVITIES

As you reflect with your family on Thanksgivings in the distant past, the following activities can connect you to your own unique food heritage, and to the Library’s collections:

  • Look for your state in the full menu printed in the New York Evening World (bear in mind—it’s two pages!) If you can’t find your state here—or if you’d like additional resources—visit the rich resource guide the Library of Congress published for our community cookbook collection. Pick one particular recipe or food. How do these recipes confirm what you already know about your state’s cuisine?
  • What ingredients or culinary traditions do you would consider part of your state’s heritage (such as eating crabs in Maryland or pork roll in New Jersey)? Try searching for them in Chronicling America by narrowing the field to your state, and sorting results chronologically. What do you learn about the evolution of your state-specific cuisine? Did you find any sources in different languages, like we did when we searched for “sfogliatella”—an Italian pastry Alli’s family enjoys at Thanksgiving?
  • Visit the American Folklife Center’s listing of research guides, and scroll until you find your home state. Some of our team’s favorite culinary-inspired oral histories that we’ve used in past digital and onsite programs include this 1994 oral history from Paterson, New Jersey from A & E Soul Food and this oral history about paw-paws from the Coal River Life collection.
  • Contemporary oral histories in the American Folklife Center’s occupational folklife projects explore foodways in a variety of professions. Stories collected as part of the Ethnic Grocers in the Urban Midwest project explore the ways that immigration has changed food culture in the region, and the Asian American Farmers in Contemporary America project charts how farmers incorporate their own food traditions into their work.
  • Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to conduct oral histories, but what if the topic of the oral history is Thanksgiving itself? Use the Library of Congress’s oral history resources for families and this blog post about family history to get started. Ask questions such as “How is our Thanksgiving meal similar to holiday meals growing up?” to help learn your family’s culinary history.

Finally, if hotel food from 1890 just isn’t doing it for you, “Three Hundred and Sixty Six Dinners” from 1892 has a menu for the average family for each day of the year—and one more, since evidently 1892 was a leap year. Unlike the state-by-state Thanksgiving newspaper article with menus from extremely fancy hotel restaurants, this shares what the average American would have eaten. Apart from all the seafood (again with the oysters!) some items may be present on your table this week.

A page from a book with elegant, special text reading "November 26" and presenting a menu for that day
Three hundred and sixty-six dinners, written by Mary E. Nicol, published by New York, London, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1892, page 166. (General Collections/Library of Congress).

What Thanksgiving foods do you feel are unique to your state, or your own particular families? Feel free to share in the comments below.

Comments (2)

  1. What fun! Thank you for this!

    • Thanks Alison for reading and commenting!

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