To recap the story we all know, in 1620, 106 religious separatist (Pilgrims) set sail from England on the Mayflower. After 66 very difficult days, they landed off the coast of Cape Cod.

They’d hoped to reach Manhattan Island, but the winds had other ideas. After setting up a colony near Massachusetts Bay, winter appeared and most of them died. That spring, with the help of a Pawtuxnet native named Tisquantum, the remaining settlers were able to plant corn, fish, forage, collect maple sap, and hunt. This was a remarkable gift of kindness considering that years earlier Tisquantum–aka Squanto–had been kidnapped by a sea captain and sold into slavery. After escaping to London, and learning English, Squanto was able to find his way home again. If it wasn’t for Squanto, historians agree that the settlers never would’ve survived another winter. In gratitude, the settlers and Native Americans served a feast that lasted three days.

There are enough written sources describing the first Thanksgiving feast that we know there were turkeys and other fowl, fish, corn, deer, fruits, nuts and breads. We also know that the celebration took place sometime between September 21 and November 9. (Queen Elizabeth pinged between the Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar so sometimes exact dates from this time period are hard to pinpoint).

But that traditional feast, which resembles our own feast today, took an interesting turn during the Victorian and Gilded Ages. For some reason, the meal around the turn of the twentieth century became an event of epic proportions and beauty. First, eating dinner in a restaurant or hotel was all the rage and everyone wanted to be seen in the poshest places. Restaurants and hotels would have lavish menus and offered ten course meals. Even for the less-well-to-do, the meals were much fancier than we eat today. Quite a feat, too, since refrigeration was still a strange idea to many people. After dressing in formal clothes, people would attend lavish meals at the most expensive places (if they could get a reservation). Once seated, this is the typical menu they would have been served:

Oysters on the half-shell with cocktail sauce in pepper shells

Elaborate vegetable plates with radishes, celery, salted nuts, & carmalized nuts

Clear consommé soup with tapioca served on the side

Filet of flounder with pimentos and olives served with dressed (vinegar) cucumbers

Roast turkey & giblet gravy

Cranberry jelly in small, individual molds

Creamed chestnuts & glazed sweet-potato

Cider frappé in turkey sherbet-cups

Quail in bread croustades with dressed lettuce.

Blazing mince pie

Cheese with almonds & graham wafers.

Angel parfait in glasses, small cakes, & coffee

I have to be honest. I don’t know what all of those dishes are. But this kind of Thanksgiving lasted until the Great Depression. As the economy went into a downturn, so did the way people feasted. It wasn’t until after WWII, during the 1950s, that what we consider the “more typical” Thanksgiving dinners came into being. Mostly thanks to the Good Housekeeping magazines and cookbooks. Now, of course, our feasts are as varied as our backgrounds. And it’s such a joy to see so many different types of foods and recipes that people include in their meals.

As an aside, I was researching Creamed Chestnuts and what I found wasn’t at all pretty or appetizing. But I did find a recipe for Creamy Chestnut Soup with a homemade chestnut puree. I tried it a few times, adapted it, and below is the recipe that my family ended up loving. I hope you enjoy it as well!


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