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A Colonial Thanksgiving. November 21, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, and no, I’m not talking about the First Thanksgiving, that iconic meal of stewed or roasted pumpkin, dried corn, fish, and game—including, of course, wild turkey—shared by the Wampanoag people and the Pilgrims. Instead, I’m flashing forward to the Founding Fathers and what George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and their countrymen might have eaten for Thanksgiving. Would it be fun to recreate a Colonial Thanksgiving, I wondered, or would the meals be so elaborate or disgusting to our modern tastebuds that we’d be better off just reading about them?

Not only was America’s first capital city Williamsburg, but many of our early presidents and patriots—including Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason, Patrick Henry, and “Lighthorse Harry” Lee—were Virginians. So it seemed like a good idea to start with the Thanksgiving menu in the Favorite Meals from Williamsburg cookbook (recipes compiled and adapted by Charlotte Turgeon and the Staff of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1982).

Their menu, for Thanksgiving Dinner in Tidewater Virginia (the Tidewater is a region, not a city), looks delicious: corn bisque, roast tom turkey with giblet gravy, oyster dressing, cranberry and orange relish, honey and cinnamon-candied yams, green beans with Surry County peanuts, pumpkin muffins, and Virginia apple custard tart. But I just had to wonder about the authenticity. Green beans with peanuts sounds good—a regional take on that crunchy fried onion topping—but I suspect that peanuts didn’t make it onto planters’ tables until considerably after the Revolution. Cranberries way down in Colonial Virginia? And pumpkin muffins?! Clearly, more research was needed.

But first, let me share their recipe for oyster dressing with you, since it’s a Southern tradition to this day. My own mother made it every year, and my brother’s family still maintains this tradition, though how his fussy kids manage to eat oysters in anything is beyond me! (Mama made a second, crunchy dressing with no oysters and baked it separately for her brood of three, and that’s what I make for our Thanksgiving table here at Hawk’s Haven.)

                   Williamsburg Oyster Dressing

1 cup butter

1 1/2 cups onion, chopped

1 1/2 cups celery, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

1 teaspoon salt

3/4 teaspoon pepper

2 tablespoons poultry seasoning

16 cups stale white bread cubes, lightly toasted

1 quart oysters

Melt the butter in a large heavy skillet. Add the onion, celery, and parsley and saute over medium heat until the vegetables are tender. Do not brown. Add the salt, pepper, and poultry seasoning. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Place the bread cubes in a large bowl. Add the sauteed vegetables. Mix well. Drain the oysters on paper towels, reserving the liquid. [Say what? Perhaps “Drain the oysters, reserving the liquid, then pat dry with paper towels”?!—Silence] Chop the oysters coarsely. Add to the mixture, tossing gently to mix well. Add a little of the reserved oyster liquid if the dressing seems too dry. Taste for seasoning. Stuff and truss the turkey. Place any leftover dressing in a buttered casserole. Bake in the oven with the turkey for the last 30 minutes of roasting time.

Next, I pulled Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery (Karen Hess, editor, Columbia University Press, New York, 1981) from my shelf. Could I find recipes for our first president’s Thanksgiving table? Alas, no. There was not one recipe for turkey, pumpkin (or any squash), or corn to be found. However, there was a sauce recipe for roasted turkey, and another for  oyster-stuffed capon (capons were castrated roosters, which were fat, succulent, and prized like today’s tom turkeys).

There may have been no turkey recipe because, in Martha’s day, everyone knew that turkeys were spit-roasted in a tin reflector oven with its open side facing the enormous cooking hearth. Someone had to sit there and turn the crank, basting the bird often with the drippings which fell from it during roasting and were caught in the bottom of the “oven.” Often, the tedious task fell to a small child, but ingenious inventors of the day also devised a setup that employed a dog to turn the spit! Anyway, here are the two recipes:

               To Make Sause for Foule [Fowl]

For turkeys…take gravie [presumably the drippings from the bird] & strong broth & leamon, minc’d, & grated bread, a spoonefull or 2 of claret wine & a little butter. & if you have an anchovie. give all a boyle together.  

                 To Roste a Capon with Oysters

Take a fat Capon & pull & draw it [pluck and remove the innards], yn stuff ye body wth raw oysters, yn truss & lay it to ye fire, & set a clean dish under it to save ye gravie. yn make a sauce for it, with water yt [that] cometh from ye oysters, & a little clarret, a little pepper & vinegar & ye gravie, & rub an ounion up & downe ye sauce, yt it may taste well of it. when it hath boyled a little, put in some butter & mince in some leamon and leamon pill [peel, i.e., zest], then serve it up with slyced leamon on ye capon & round about ye dish.

So much for Martha. What about the gourmet of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson? I finally struck gold in Thomas Jefferson’s Cookbook (Marie Kimball, University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA: 1976). Here at last were recipes for turkey (with the apparently inevitable oyster sauce), corn pudding, Indian pudding (made with cornmeal), even sweet potato pudding and pumpkin soup.

Mr. Jefferson also served his turkey boiled, with a variety of garnishings; stuffed or braised; in a galantine, jellied; as filets of turkey breast, larded and jellied; and as a Colonial version of Buffalo wings: turkey wings “crumbed, broiled or baked, with mustard sauce.” And he preferred his green beans not with peanuts, but with sweet herbs or in a white sauce. Here’s his recipe for pumpkin soup:

           Monticello Pumpkin Soup

Take half a small pumpkin, peel [and remove seeds], cut in small pieces and put on the stove with half a glass of water. When the pumpkin is tender, drain, and pass through a colander. Add 3 tablespoonfuls of butter; sugar, salt, and pepper to taste. Let it simmer for fiteen minutes. Add 4 cups boiling milk, stirring well while pouring it in. When well mixed, pour over croutons, made by cutting three slices of bread in small cubes and browning well in butter.

Next on my list was Revolutionary War Period Cookery (Robert W. Pelton, Infinity Publishing.com, Haverford, PA: 2003), which serves up a heaping helping of Founding Fathers family favorites. From Ben Franklin’s homely winter favorite, Mashed Turnips and Potato Dish, to Mrs. John Jay’s thrifty Thanksgiving Leftover Turkey Pot Pie to Molly Pitcher’s Cranberry Muffins to another Franklin fave, Ben Franklin’s Favorite Honey Cookies, all the Founders and their preferred dishes are here.

Colonel Timothy Pickering’s favorite, Pumpkin Custard, and the Sampson family favorite, Pumpkin Pie with Cheese Crust, both look delicious. I especially love the idea of a rich pumpkin pie filling in a Cheddary crust, and may feature this recipe—and the story of its creator, Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War—in a future post.

But for now, I’ll share another recipe that no Southern table would be without at Thanksgiving or Christmas: pickled crabapples. Like pickled peaches, these are staples of the Southern holiday table, served every year in my family home (and in our friend Ben’s). I had no idea that they dated back to Revolutionary times! This recipe was served at the table of Brigadier General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina, Aide-de-Camp to General Washington.

                 Pinckney Family Crabapple Pickles

4 cups vinegar

8 cups sugar

1/2 teaspoon whole cloves

4 cinnamon sticks

8 cups crabapples, pared and quartered [nowadays, most often found pickled whole—Silence] 

Blend together in cooking pot or kettle [a large cooking pot, like a stock pot, not a tea kettle] the vinegar, sugar and cloves. Bring to a boil and drop in the cinnamon sticks. Let cook for 6 minutes while continually stirring. Add quartered crabapples and allow to simmer until tender. Pack in sterilized jars. Fill jars to 1/4 inch to top with syrup from kettle and seal.

In today’s germ-conscious world, I’d advise you to either refrigerate your pickled crabapples or preserve them in a hot-water-bath canner, following directions in a book like The Ball Blue Book.

The next book I picked up was The Lewis & Clark Cookbook: Historic Recipes from the Corps of Discovery and Jefferson’s America (Leslie Mansfield, Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA: 2002). I’m delighted to have this book in my cookbook library, but the title notwithstanding, I can’t quite see dishes like Creamed Turkey with Corn and Bacon over Polenta, Duck Breasts with Pear Eau de Vie Sauce, or Venison Roulade Stuffed with Mushrooms and Smithfield Ham as standard fare for the starving Corps of Discovery.

However, it warmed my heart to see creamed turkey listed among the recipes. As a child, I loved our Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys. I loved the turkey sandwiches we’d have after the big meal. But for me, the most special part of all was the creamed turkey my Mama made from the bits of leftover turkey that were too small to slice for sandwiches. She’d pull them off the carcass and add them to a hot, thick sauce of heavy cream, butter, salt, and white pepper, then spoon them up over toast. To my youthful, pre-vegetarian soul, this just had to be heaven!

Finally, I took a peek at The Early American Cookbook (Hyla O’Connor, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: 1974). Specializing in Colonial cooking, this cookbook is a treasure-trove of traditional dishes that could grace today’s Thanksgiving tables, including Pumpkin Soup, Farmers’ Corn Soup, Corn Chowder, Apple Corn Bread, Corn Pone, Original Plymouth Succotash, Simmered Turkey, Fricassee of Turkey Wings, Sour Cream Pumpkin Pie, Pumpkin Pickles, and warming beverages like Hot Flip and Fish House Punch.

From this wonderful book, let me share a classic American dessert, Apple Brown Betty, so easy to make, so satisfying on a cold autumn or winter day:

            Apple Brown Betty

4 cups large bread crumbs

1/2 cup melted butter

3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

pinch of salt

3/4 cup brown sugar

4 cups chopped cooking apples [McIntosh, Jonathan and Rome are classic cooking apples, but I think a tart, crisp apple like Granny Smith makes a wonderful Betty—Silence]

Grease a 1 1/2-quart baking dish. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Combine bread crumbs with butter, cinnamon, salt, and sugar and toss lightly. Make alternate layers of crumb mixture and apples in baking dish, ending with bread crumbs. Bake about 1 hour, or until top is a rich golden brown and apples are tender. Serve warm with heavy cream.

That’s it for today! I hope you’ve all been inspired by the wealth of Colonial recipes, and are eager to try out your own Colonial Thanksgiving. Trust me, I haven’t even scratched the surface. Let’s hope I find time to share more!

                ‘Til next time,




1. orlando seo - November 25, 2010

Do you mind if I borrowed a bit of your template design for my own blog? I always ask first! Thanks!

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