Thanksgiving Dinner, Civil War Style

candle burningWe cannot, alas, just go to one of our many period cookbooks and reprint the section on "Thanksgiving Dinner." They did not have a Thanksgiving holiday in anything resembling the way we do now. Despite claims of antiquity going back to the Pilgrims and all, it really wasn't until the 20th century that the notion of having a holiday on (usually) the last Thursday of November was carved in stone.

So what we will do instead is look at the individual dishes common to most modern American Thanksgiving dinners, all of which were known and most of which were quite common in the 19th century (The dinner-rolls-in-a tube lay many decades in the future, but nearly everything else was there, even the ground-vs-jellied cranberry sauce debate which leads to so many holiday hilarities, and sometimes assault and battery, or at least agreements to visit different in-laws next year.)

The major holiday meals were Christmas (although even that was given a major makeover into its present day form by Charles Dickens in the postwar years), New Years and Easter. Which, if you think about it, are all seasonally-based solstice-and-equinox holidays, the observance of which goes back for thousands of years. Starting as pagan celebrations, they have been given new overlays as new religions have come and gone, while still retaining their nod of thanks to the forces of nature as the path of the sun makes its annual wobble across the sky.

Thanksgiving is the Great Harvest Festival, the time to note that the frantic work of growing the food that will sustain us through the harsh winter months has now been packed away and it's time to relax and enjoy some of the bounty.

To Begin:

peasPea Soup

Put one quart of split peas to soak over night in soft water; the next morning wash them out, and put them into a soup-pot with two carrots, two onions, a stalk of celery, and four quarts of water; let this boil four or five hours; have boiling water at hand to add, as the water boils away much faster in pea soup than any other kind; strain the soup through a very coarse sieve; have a piece of salt pork boiled in another pot one hour; then take it out and skin it; put the sop and the pork back into the pot, and boil it gently one hour, frequently stirring it with a large spoon. Great care should be taken that it does not scorch. (From Mrs. Putnam's Receipt Book and Young Housekeeper's Assistant, New York, 1860)

Appetizer: Battered Oysters

Make a light batter of three eggs, a dessert-spoonful of butter, a little wheat flour, pepper and salt to the taste. Drain your oysters from the liquor, and stir them into the batter; then drop the mixture from a ladle into boiling lard, and let the fritters cook until they are of a rich brown. This batter is sufficient for a quart of oysters. (From The Carolina Housewife, Sarah Rutledge, Charleston, South Carolina, 1847)

pumpkingrinAppetizer: Pumpkin Chips

Cut slices from a high-colored pumpkin, and cut the slices into chips about the thickness of a dollar; wash them, dry them thoroughly, and weigh them against an equal weight of sugar; add to each pound of sugar half a pint of lime or lemon-juice, boil and skim it, then add the pumpkin; when half boiled, take the slices out of the syrup and let them cool; then return them, and boil until the pumpkin becomes clear. The peel of the lemons or limes, pared very thin, boiled until tender, and added to the chips when nearly done, is an improvement. (From The Carolina Housewife, Sarah Rutledge, Charleston, South Carolina, 1847)

The Beast: Roast Turkey

Tips on Turkey Trimming:

The sharpness of the breast bone, which is a defect in the appearance of a fowl on the table, may be remedied in the following way: When preparing it to be cooked, take a small sharp knife, and pass it it up the body, cut off the little slender bone which join the hug-me-close* to the side. Then push down the breast bone by pressing heavily upon it. A little practice will make it easy to do this.

*This is the bone on each side of the neck of a fowl, which answers to the collar bone in the human frame.

Modern editor's note: We call it the "wishbone" today, but find the term "hug-me-close" for this object just cute beyond words. Other books refer to it as a "merrybone" which is also entirely charming.

The Actual Roasting:

turkeydumbTake out the inwards, wash both the inside and outside of the turkey. Prepare a dressing...fill the crop [neck] and body of the turkey with the dressing, sew it up, tie up the legs and wings, rub on a little salt and butter. Roast it from two to three hours, according to its size; twenty-five minutes to every pound, is a good rule. The turkey should be roasted slowly at first, and basted frequently. A little water should be put into the dripping pan, when the meat is put down to roast.

 (Both the above items from The Young Housekeeper's Friend by Mrs. Cornelius, Boston, 1863)

The Inwards: Stuffing

Stuffing for Roast Turkey, Fowl, Veal, &c.

Mince a quarter of a pound of beef suet (beef marrow is better,) the same weight of bread crumbs, two drachms of parsley leaves, a drachm and a half of sweet marjoram or lemon thyme, and the same of grated lemon-peel and onion chopped as fine as possible, a little pepper and salt; pound thoroughly together with the yolk and white of two eggs, and secure it in the roast with a skewer, or sew it in with a bit of thread. Make some of it into balls or sausages; flour the, and boil, or fry them, and send them up as a garnish, or in a side dish.

N. B.: This is about the quantity for a turkey poult; a very large turkey will take nearly twice as much. To the above may be added an ounce of dressed ham; or use equal parts of the above stuffing and pork sausage meat pounded together.

 (From The Cook's Own Book; Being a Complete Culinary Encyclopedia by "A Boston Housekeeper" (Mrs. N. K. M. Lee), Boston, 1832)

Modern editor's note: A drachm is an actual quantity, but for purposes of brevity you may substitute the terms "pinch," "smidgen," "skosh," or "just a bit" and use as much of each as seems proper to you.

Side Dishes: Sweet Potato Pudding

Take half a pound of sweet potatoes, wash them, and put them into a pot with very little water, barely enough to keep them from burning. Let them simmer slowly for about half an hour; they must be only parboiled, otherwise they will be soft, and may make the pudding heavy. When they are half done, take them out, peel them, and when cold, grate them. Stir together to a cream, half a pound of butter and a quarter of a pound and two ounces of powdered sugar, add a grated nutmeg, a large tea-spoonful of powdered cinnamon, and half a tea-spoonful of beaten mace. Also the juice and grated peel of a lemon, a wine glass of rose water, a glass of wine, and a glass of brandy. Stir these ingredients well together. Beat eight eggs very light, and stir them into the mixture in turn with the sweet potato, a little at a time of each. Having stirred the whole very hard at the last, put it into a buttered dish and bake it three quarters of an hour. Eat it cold. (From Miss Leslie's Complete Cookery: Directions for Cookery by Eliza Leslie, 1851 edition, reprinted 1863, originally published 1837, all in Philadelphia.)

The term "pudding," despite its nearly-universal reference to a dessert food today, was a meat or vegetable side dish during the Civil War period. As to measurements, Miss Leslie says in her Introduction that "four table-spoonfuls or half a jill, will fill a common wine glass; four wine glasses will fill a half-pint, or common tumbler, or large coffee-cup." Since a jill (or gill) was half a cup, half a jill is a small quantity indeed. Rose-water, which is water in which vast numbers of rose petals have been soaked, is tedious to make and difficult to buy outside a city large enough to support a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern market. Four tablespoons of plain water with just a drop of vanilla or almond extract would be a creative substitute here. One nutmeg, grated, is anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon of the powdered form so use as much as you think diners are likely to prefer. The "powdered sugar" called for here is not the modern form of this item either, and regular granulated sugar may be used. Mixing the spices into the sugar first assures that they will be evenly distributed through the dish.

A final tip: Let the parboiled potatoes cool a bit before peeling; the skin comes off quite easily but the term "hot potato" is used for dangerous situations for a reason. (Owwww.)

Side Dish: To Boil Green or French Beans

These beans should be young, tender and fresh gathered. Remove the strings with a knife, and take off both ends of the bean. Then cut them in two or three pieces only; for if split or cut very small, they become watery and lose much of their taste; and cannot be well drained. As you cut them, throw them into a pan of cold water, and let them lay awhile. Boil them an hour and a half. They must be perfectly tender before you take them up. Then drain and press them well, season them with pepper and mix into them a piece of butter. You may boil with the beans a little bit of nice bacon, to give them a bacon taste--take it out afterwards. (From Miss Leslie's Cookery, above.)

This looks at first glance like the sort of vegetable cookery on which many of us grew up, in which the poor defenseless pods are boiled into near decomposition. Modern taste calls for much shorter cooking time, and a certain crispiness to the tooth known as al dente. Much of this will depend on whether the cook is dealing with fresh, frozen or canned beans as well. Deal with this as best suits the tastes of the diners, and follow the rest of the instructions to produce a proper historic replication.

Side Dish: Beets

Wash the beets, but do not scrape or cut them while they are raw; for if a knife enters them before they are boiled they will lose their color. Boil them from two to three hours, according to their size. When they are tender all through, take them up, and scrape off all the outside. If they are young beets they are best split down and cut into long pieces, seasoned with pepper, and sent to table with melted butter. Otherwise you may slice them thin, after they are quite cold, and pour vinegar over them. To stew beets, boil them first, and then scrape and slice them. Put them into a stew-pan with a piece of butter rolled in flour, some boiled onion and parsley chopped fine, and a little vinegar, salt and pepper. Set the pan on hot coals, and let the beets stew for a quarter of an hour.

(From Miss Leslie, above.)

Dessert: Pumpkin Pie

Take out the seeds, and pare [peel] the pumpkin or squash; but in taking out the seeds do not scrape the inside of the pumpkin: the part nearest the seed is the sweetest; then stew the pumpkin, and strain it through a sieve or colander. To a quart of milk for a family pie three eggs are sufficient. Stir in the stewed pumpkin with your milk and beaten-up eggs till it is as thick as you can stir round rapidly and easily. If the pie is wanted richer, make it thinner, and add sweet cream or another egg or two; but even one egg to a quart of milk makes "very decent pies." Sweeten with molasses or sugar; add two teaspoonfuls of salt, two tablespoonfuls of sifted cinnamon, and one of powdered ginger; but allspice may be used, or any other spice that may be preferred. The peel of lemon grated in gives it a pleasant flavor. The more eggs, says an American authority, the better the pie. Some put one egg to a gill of milk. Bake about an hour in deep plates or shallow dishes, without an upper crust, in a hot oven. (From Godey's Lady's Book, 1860. This magazine, one of the most popular of the period in both North and South before the outbreak of the war, printed recipes sent in by readers. )

Some recipes, alas, go so far to be flexible that they fall over the edge of the cliff of incomprehensibility. We think this one manages to teeter along the edge, but it does take some careful reading. Of course there is one more element needed for a proper pie...

Dessert: Pie Crust

A Common Paste for Pies

A pound and a half of sifted flour
Three quarters of a pound of butter, washed
This will make one large pie, or two small ones

Sift the flour into a pan. Put the butter into two equal parts. Put one half of the butter into the flour, and cut it up as small as possible. Mix it well with the flour, wetting it gradually with a little cold water.

Spread some flour on your paste-board, take the lump of paste out of the pan, flour your rolling-pin, and roll out the paste into a large sheet. Then stick it over with the remaining half of the butter in small pieces, and lad at equal distances. Throw slightly, and roll it out again. Then fold it up, and cut it in half or in four, according to the size of your pies. Roll it out into round sheets the size of your pie-plates, pressing rather harder on the rolling-pin. Butter your pie-plates, lay on your under crust, and trim the edge.

Some think it makes common paste more crisp and light to beat it hard on both sides with the rolling-pin, after you give it the first rolling, when all the butter is in. (From Seventy-Five Receipts, for Pastry, Cakes and Sweetmeats by A Lady of Philadelphia, published Boston, 1828. In fact the "Lady of Philadelphia" was none other than our Eliza Leslie noted above. This was her first book and the work which launched her career as the premier cookbook author of the 19th century.)

Making a full scale Thanksgiving dinner for a gathering of any size at all, is enough of an undertaking in itself. To anyone contemplating the further effort of making it "a Civil War Thanksgiving" we send our compliments, our admiration, and our permission to cheat with a pie crust from the grocer's freezer or dairy case if circumstances demand. But try it Miss Leslie's way sometime when things are more relaxed and time is available. It is truly terrific and not really that hard.




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