A Throwback Thanksgiving

22, November 2016
Scan of early 1900s Thanksgiving postcardEarly 1900s Thanksgiving postcard. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Unlike 2015, there’s no shortage of turkeys this year! By the looks of it from the November 27, 1890, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, past St. Louisans would be jealous:

Roast pig for Thanksgiving dinner! Pig, goose and duck usurping the place of that noble bird Ben Franklin would have had the United States prefer as its emblem to the eagle. It is a degenerate day enough with no snow anywhere, and the art of making pumpkin pies has gone quite out of the Western housewife’s ken and the cranberry crop a failure. The English plum pudding has year by year pushed the pumpkin pie farther and farther out of sight and now the turkey has deserted the tables of the many. The multitude to-day must stuff itself on pig and beef and birds of lesser value than the gobbler of the walk.

Perhaps it is too early to lament the abandonment of turkey on this day. It may be that the idol is only temporarily off the pedestal and the new gods of goring are but the substitutes of the moment. By Christmas the bird of good cheer may again be restored to its position—but then Thanksgiving will be passed, the festival of that saint will be gone, and a new feast will be here. To-day the one turkey day of all the year the bird is scarce, and the price is high.

Those St. Louisans who were fortunate enough to have a turkey at their table for Thanksgiving 1890 may have had their work cut out for them when it came to preparing it. Far from selecting their pre-prepared organic, free-range turkey at the grocer, they were more likely to need instructions like these, courtesy of The White House Cook Book, written by Mrs. F. L. Gillette and White House steward Hugo Ziemann (“at one time caterer for that Prince Napoleon who was killed while fighting the Zulus in Africa”):

Scan of roast turkey recipe from The White House Cook Book, 1890Things to add to your thankful-for list this year? Pre-prepared turkeys! Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Contrary to the Post-Dispatch reporter’s observance, pumpkin pie was still a highly recommended Thanksgiving dessert in 1890. For example, it was the first dessert listed in The White House Cook Book’s suggested menu for the holiday:

Scan of Thanksgiving menu from The White House Cook Book, 1890Turkey was on the Thanksgiving Day menu twice in the 1890 White House Cook Book—fortunately not for breakfast. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

Perhaps if more folks followed the cookbook’s tip to include a tablespoonful of brandy as “a great improvement,” pumpkin pie could have competed with the alcohol-imbued plum pudding that seemed somewhat more common by the mid-1890s?

Scan of Thanksgiving menu from The Housekeeper Cook Book, 1894The 1894 Housekeeper Cook Book's menu for Thanksgiving features some surprising components. Missouri Historical Society Collections.

One thing’s for sure for us oyster-phobes: The fact that the so-called pearls of the sea have fallen off the typical Midwestern Thanksgiving menu is a relief!

—Jen Tebbe, Editor

Membership appeal