Monday, November 25, 2019

Thanksgiving Dinner: 1900-1950

by Erin Doane, Curator
By now, just three days before Thanksgiving, most people have already planned out their feast. But, if you are among those who are still looking for menu ideas, why not look back to the first half of the 1900s for inspiration? I was curious about how Thanksgiving dinners changed over the years, so I searched through the Elmira Star-Gazette from 1900 through 1950. It turns out that the menus are not all that different from what we eat on the holiday today. After all, a traditional dinner is traditional for a reason. Yet, it was interesting to see how the meals changed during hard times like the Great Depression and both World Wars.
Elaborate dinners have long been a Thanksgiving tradition.
Star-Gazette, November 11, 1908
There were a few dishes that were staples of Thanksgiving dinners over the full span of the 50 years. Nearly every single menu I found had turkey as its centerpiece, which was not a surprise at all. It was, however, sometimes replaced by other meats (particularly during the Great Depression). Almost all the menus also included pumpkin pie. Again, no surprise there. I was a little surprised to see how common oysters were as part of the meal, and delighted to find whole celery (a product of Horseheads in the early 1900s) was also quite popular.

Cranberries were also part of the vast majority of menus I found. There was cranberry sauce, cranberry jelly, cranberry sherbet, cranberry pudding, cranberry pie, or some other cranberry dish on nearly every table in homes and in restaurants for Thanksgiving dinner. Many newspaper articles included new ways to cook cranberries. Click here to find a collection of some of those recipes. But, in 1917, just seven months into the United States involvement in World War I, cranberry sauce was declared taboo on the Thanksgiving menu. There was a sugar shortage because of the war, so the New York Food Conservation Commission discourage people from serving cranberry sauce at their dinners.

Wartime shortages were common again during World War II. In 1943, articles reminded people that despite having to trim their feasts, there were still plenty of traditional dishes that could be made with slight modifications. Stuffing could be made with margarine instead of butter and sweet potatoes could be cooked with molasses rather than sugar. And don’t forget the green tomato pickles made from your own Victory Garden! Just after the end of the war, articles continued to urge people to be respectful of what food they had and not waste a single bite. They also provided a grand array of recipes for leftover turkey.

Use your leftover turkey in a casserole, in a biscuit roll, in a salad,
or in another dish listed in the Star-Gazette on November 24, 1947.
The Great Depression seemed to have had the greatest effect on the holiday menu. During that time, the specific foods served at Thanksgiving dinner took a backseat to the overarching tradition of families getting together for a hearty feast. The dishes at the feast had to be modified, sometimes significantly, because of financial situations. Even turkey had to be given up by many as a luxury. It was replaced by pork, chicken, or beef.

In 1932, an article described a series of menus with price points from $4.50 (about $85 today) to $0.75 (about $14 today) for a family of six. The top-end menu included mushroom or tomato soup, toast sticks, celery, roasted turkey with corn stuffing, giblet gravy, spiced peach relish, mashed white potatoes, onions with nut stuffing, glazed squash, whole wheat and white bread, rosy apple salad, pumpkin ginger pie or pumpkin custard for children. The least expensive menu was a pot roast of beef cooked with apricots, baked potatoes, creamed onions, and squash pie.

Despite the financial troubles of the time, the Community Coffee
 Shop offered an elaborate Thanksgiving dinner with the choice of
eight different entrées and multiple sides and desserts in 1932.
Star-Gazette, November 22, 1932
A Thanksgiving tradition that I’m sure we’re all familiar with popped up at the end of the 1932 article with the various menus – the kids’ table. Miss B. Dorothy Williams, an agent of the Chemung County Home Bureau, stated that, “undoubtedly the children will enjoy the meal more if they have a separate table then their conversation can proceed without interruption and both groups will have a better time.”

Another Thanksgiving tradition that many of us still honor today is a full day of eating, rather than just one large sit-down dinner. It seems that as soon as all the dishes are put away after the initial feast and the kitchen is cleaned up, someone starts taking leftovers out of the fridge for round two. If you would like to add a little more structure to your all-day feasting, here are a couple of menus for Thanksgiving breakfast, dinner, and supper you might enjoy.

Try this all-day Thanksgiving menu from the Star-Gazette on October 18, 1912.
Or this all-day menu from the November 24, 1936 Star-Gazette.
Happy Thanksgiving!

No comments:

Post a Comment