What I discovered was a capsule history of the past 140 years of this most American holiday. In the 1897 announcement that the clerks of the federal government had been given a half-holiday on the day before Thanksgiving, I thought I saw the early stirrings of the American labor movement. I saw large social shifts, too, as the paper’s Thanksgiving coverage slowly adjusted its focus. In the early decades, food was generally mentioned only glancingly, except for fairly regular features tracking the price of turkeys. It was clear that even back then, food was at least as important to the holiday as religion, but The Post either assumed women didn’t read newspapers or thought they all knew how to cook. The Thanksgiving coverage tended toward sentimental fare such as sermons from local ministers, editorials urging charity toward the poor and moderately bad sentimental poetry. (“A Thanksgiving Hymn” in 1896, dedicated to President-elect William McKinley, began: “O Lord! we thank thee for this glorious land; / United, faithful, beautiful, and grand.”)
By 1920, America was less religious and less sentimental, and newspapers had discovered something that would become a driving force in many 20th-century industries: the buying power of women. The Post seized on that market opportunity, devoting more and more column inches to helping homemakers Do Thanksgiving Right. Recipes, which in the earliest years tended to be scant and distressingly hazy on the details, became numerous, and firmed up into something the modern reader would recognize. Explicit instructions were accompanied by standard measures instead of approximations such as “butter the size of a walnut.”
Many of these recipes tracked the economy and geopolitics. In 1889, in the wake of the Russian flu pandemic, The Post reported that “Russian cookery, Russian servants, Russian clothes, and Russian what-not” had a hold on “every one and everything in the United States.” In this spirit, we offered a recipe for Russian Cream, though I suspect this was “Russian” in the same sense that “french fries” are a particularly Gallic delicacy. When World War I, followed by the Immigration Act of 1924, halted the importation of cheap domestic servants, you can see menus getting simpler, a process that accelerated in the 1930s as food budgets shrank.
During those hard times, The Post looked for ways to help readers economize, such as serving chicken instead of turkey. In the 1940s, we helped cooks cope with war rationing and concoct treats to send to soldiers overseas. And in the postwar era of abundance, we offered low-calorie and low-salt tricks to help readers combat the diseases of dietary excess.
The paper’s food writing also reflected a century of advances in food-processing technology. The invention of inexpensive powdered gelatin brought previously luxurious molded salads to ordinary Thanksgiving tables. It was also combined with its less aggressive cousin, cornstarch, to create the modern marshmallow, which reigned over everything from canapés to casseroles, before shuffling off to become the dowager empress of the sweet potatoes.
Canned goods and box mixes advanced into every corner of the Thanksgiving menu and then retreated as flash freezing, and then container shipping, made fresher ingredients affordable year-round. The invention of the continuous casting process for aluminum foil in the 1950s made it a ubiquitous presence in American kitchens, and so naturally, we began advising readers to wrap their turkeys in the stuff to keep them moist. Those turkeys were also apt to be flash frozen, an innovation that largely put an end to worries about their high cost.
The Post’s archives showed food fads rising and falling like ancient empires, including serial flirtations with Asia in the form of now-problematic and distinctly un-Asian recipes, such as the “Stuffing Oriental” from 1968, a bland concoction of packaged stuffing mix, onion and celery, which was probably not much improved by the addition of water chestnuts. America’s midcentury adventures in Europe also brought novelties such as fondue. The paper, not quite mastering this newfangled European cookery, suggested pairing bubbling cheese sauce with … steamed Brussels sprouts.
As with all the best journeys, on this trip I also discovered something about myself.
Maybe I’m not quite as fond of yesteryear’s Thanksgivings as I had thought. Perusing the acres of vintage Post recipes, I decided that most of them ought to be buried as deeply as possible in the ash heap of history.
In fairness, it usually wasn’t the recipes’ traditionalism that was the problem, but the all-too-modern thirst for novelty.
Though there were exceptions. Since The Post’s founding in 1877, stuffing has been unquestionably improved from its bready, flavorless origins. So has turkey-cooking; early recipes start with singeing off the “pin feathers” that were too small to pluck. And most American Thanksgiving tables have shed some time-honored stalwarts that I can’t bring myself to miss. Like giblets, or mincemeat, which was once so central to the holiday that during the 1920s and ’30s, the paper ran recipe after recipe for making mincemeat at home. (I’m told it’s actually delicious, though I’ve never quite worked up the courage to try this traditional combination of dried fruit, fat, liquor and beef.)
But mostly when I found myself saying “They put what in their mouths?” I was looking at some long-ago attempt to be au courant with the latest food fashions. For some reason, cranberries were disproportionately involved. The writers may have felt the cranberry was getting bored being everlastingly stewed with sugar, year after year. So they tried to get it interested in all the new opportunities that modern life had to offer. The result was … rather like trying to teach your grandparents to use Gmail.
The Post awarded a prize in 1936 to a reader-submitted recipe for some frightful concoction called “Cranberry Bananas” — I’ll spare you the details. In 1950, the cranberry was again ready to “branch … out on its own” into unsavory sidelines such as Jell-O molds and the new boxed cake mixes. In 1952 it was “dressed up” by being forced through a manual food chopper — along with celery, nut meats and a whole seeded orange.
The cranberry wasn’t the only ingredient mauled by modernism. In 1936, when pineapple was still the new-new thing, we suggested making it into a canape, along with, incredibly, olives and Roquefort cheese. In 1938, the paper advocated topping pumpkin pie with cheese, meringue, coconut or marshmallow “for variety.” We tried for decades to remake the pumpkin pie — with gelatin, with ice cream, with unusual flavorings — always to unappetizing effect. In general, if any recipe was offered as “unusual,” “exciting,” or “new,” it was a good sign that you were about to be invited into a criminal conspiracy against some perfectly innocent foodstuff.
And yet this historical tour also confirmed my faith in America. Food writers kept trying to entice readers into new experiments, and maybe they went along for a while — but mostly, Americans have stubbornly returned to the same Thanksgiving dishes served in 1899. Turkey and stuffing, cranberries and pumpkin pie, with no meringue or coconut distractions. When experimentation paid off, as it obviously did with dressing, it was incorporated into the holiday. And when it didn’t (as was usually the case), Americans abandoned the recipes and forgot about ever having tried them.
It’s been said that America is an essentially conservative nation; it’s also been said that America has an unholy fascination with progress. After surveying a hundred years of food writing, I suspect that perhaps both of these observations are a little bit true — I also think that Americans have wrestled these opposing instincts into a most pleasing synthesis in their Thanksgiving menus.
Those of us whose ideology tracks rightward recognize that progress has brought the nation many of the things we now wish to conserve. We therefore must be open to innovating, even within the most cherished traditions.
But we also recognize the value of the familiar things that have weathered the test of time. We are willing to try, but we also recognize that trying means opening yourself up to failure — and that when you fail, as you often will, the thing to do is immediately cut your losses and go back to what works.
Americans today are better cooks than their great-great-grandmothers were, and have better ingredients to work with, better technology for cooking them and more diverse palates. While we will be putting roughly the same meal on the Thanksgiving table as they did, we will labor less and enjoy it more. And what could be more quintessentially, traditionally American than that?