Early American Thanksgiving: a labor of love


STURBRIDGE, Mass. – Thanksgiving dinner in early colonial days was much more labor-intensive than coordinating the family’s travel plans and defrosting the turkey.

Certainly everyday meal preparation in general was more hands-on than modern folks can imagine, but Thanksgiving in particular was a time when pioneer women put in many extra hours to create a special feast for their families – even though the menu really hasn’t changed that much over the course of 160 years.

“Thanksgiving Dinner was truly a labor of love for early New Englanders,” said Deb Friedman, history interpreter and coordinator of historic foodways at Old Sturbridge Village. “Putting extra work into meal preparation for this occasion was a form of expression, a way to treat the family and impress the guests.”

The basic early 19th-century menu – a roast, potatoes, bread, a pie – didn’t differ fundamentally at Thanksgiving, but each component took a good bit more work.

Pluck and singe. “Preparing a roast turkey involved a lot of labor for not a lot of meat,” said Friedman. “This was well before the days of the 20-pound frozen Butterball, when a turkey might have been purchased live from a drover on his way to market in Boston.”

Dressing, plucking, and singeing were all time-consuming chores for a yield of a mere 8 or 9 pounds of meat.

One measure of a good meal was an abundance of meat on the table, so the turkey would have been supplemented by other dishes, perhaps a joint of beef or mutton – boiled or roasted – or a mince or chicken pie.

Alongside the meat in the early 19th century, there might have been potatoes, perhaps boiled in the same pot with the meat.

To make a special dish for Thanksgiving, however, potatoes would have been peeled, boiled, then mashed with cream and butter – a labor of love even to this day.

“A favorite early New England receipt (or recipe) added pureed turnips to this dish,” said Friedman.

Bread was commonly prepared family-style, as loaves. At Thanksgiving, the family was often served with individual rolls, each of which would be rolled out by hand – an additional step in the baking process.

Pie was often part of an early New England meal, with still-traditional favorites like pumpkin pie and apple pie the most popular. At Thanksgiving, however, five or six pies would have appeared on the table at once, representing a full day or more of baking in advance of the holiday.

Marlborough Pudding. Along with apple and pumpkin pie, Thanksgiving tables boasted chicken pie, mince pie, and Marlborough Pudding – actually a pie with a filling made of pureed apples, lemons, cream, eggs, spices, and sherry.

“Modern folks are surprised to learn is that pies were served along with the rest of the meal, not saved for the end, what we would call ‘dessert,'” said Friedman.

Mincemeat. Mincemeat, now available ready-to-serve from a jar, was probably the most labor-intensive of the holiday dishes. To save work, it was made in large batches as a way of preserving a sizable quantity of meat and used throughout the year.

The process involved chopping boiled meat and suet very fine, peeling pounds of apples and chopping them very fine, preparing several types of spices, many of which arrived at the country store in whole form, and stoning (removing the seeds from) pounds of raisins.

Another important ingredient in the preservation process was brandy, an investment more of capital than of time.


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