The Thanksgiving day menu from the Fall of 1621, when the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Tribe feasted in gratitude for the newcomers first harvest, has gone through profound changes. Yes, turkey was on the menu but not the main dish. Turkeys in the early part of the 17th century were probably not unlike the drab, skinny, aggressive birds roaming the inner suburbs of Boston, terrorizing small dogs, children, and on occasion even postal workers. These urban turkeys do not resemble the plump fowl we’ve come to expect for our contemporary Thanksgiving meal, and it is easy to see why duck, venison, lobster, oysters, and clams had pride of place, along with squashes, berries, and a baked cornmeal-like bread. They did not yet have wheat.
A century later, Alexander Hamilton proclaimed that turkeys should be eaten at Thanksgiving (maybe the turkeys in his neighborhood were better looking) but it wasn’t until the mid-19th century, when Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday, that turkey rather than lobster, venison or pot roast, for that matter, became the traditional dish.
Today’s Thanksgiving day menus barely resemble the foods eaten in the early 17th century: the Pilgrims should be thankful that marshmallows had not yet been invented, and they might have been perplexed at how they could stuff those scrawny turkeys with a soggy mass of bread , celery, apples, chestnuts, raisins, and sausage. If they had followed contemporary cooking fads and fried their turkey, Massachusetts might have been set on fire, and turkey made out of tofu would have sent many early settlers scrambling to get back to England, where birds were not made from soybeans.
As our country became regionally and culturally diverse, so did the Thanksgiving menu. Years ago, I was invited to a Thanksgiving meal at the matriarch’s home of a large Sicilian family, and if there were turkey on the table, it was hidden by the bowls and platters of lasagna, sausage, escarole, meatballs, and fried eggplant. This one dish of stuffing, aka dressing, is our continental consistency, however, and its ingredients are a prime example of our regional and national diversity: in the South, cornbread is the main ingredient but in other areas stuffing came be made from white, wheat, or rye bread. Additional ingredients include oysters, apples, chestnuts, raisins, celery, sausage, and even cheese and raw eggs.
Now home cooks are facing new challenges to their Thanksgiving Day meal that go beyond whether to put marshmallows on the sweet potato casserole, or how to separate Aunt Mary from nephew Sam so they won’t spend the entire meal arguing politics. These issues pale before the problem of: What can I serve to satisfy the never ending food issues of the guests? Should I have asked them to fill out a food preference list a few weeks ago so their specific needs will be addressed?
Attending to the foods likes and dislikes of family members and friends is as probably old as Abraham serving goat (or maybe lamb?) to the three angels who appeared before his tent. An older relative always had beef and chicken dishes available at any dinner party she hosted in case, as she always told me, “What if someone doesn’t like brisket?” My response, to serve them cornflakes, was ignored. But now, the needs of guests have expanded far beyond food allergies, low salt or low fat diets, and a persistent hatred of Brussel sprouts.
Sensitivity to lactose, the sugar in dairy, must be noted before adding evaporated milk to the pumpkin pie, or butter (it contains milk solids) to mashed potatoes and string beans. Those adhering to the Paleo aka The Caveman Diet, should be given their turkey more or less raw with perhaps a hunk of wooly mammoth as dessert. The high fat advocates? They will want to skip the vegetables, unless they are saturated with butter and cream, but will ask that the layer of turkey fat on top of the gravy not be skimmed off before being poured over their meat. And of course the gluten-free folk will find foods compatible with their need to avoid this wheat protein, but only if the menu is kept as simple as that of the Pilgrims. Boiled squash, pumpkin, ground corn, and berries, along with the turkey should be a safe for them to ingest, and they must be warned away from touching the biscuits, cranberry bread or pies, as eating them will surely cause distress. (I suspect not eating those luscious pies should also cause them some distress.) The easiest guests to feed are those following the Cleanse Diet; just give them a glass of warm water and lemon juice.
Thanksgiving is a meal commemorating the survival of the plucky Pilgrims through the harsh winters, cold springs and uncertain summer harvest. They made it, thanks in large part to the help of the Native Americans with whom they shared this feast. Their meal, lavish in relation to what they had to eat daily, was a feast and they gave thanks to the abundance of food before them. Now, living in a society with a daily over abundance of food, it is not strange that for many, today’s Thanksgiving meal is a testimony to what we cannot eat rather, than being grateful for what we have been given?