Chapter-To Serve Turkey and Cranberry Sauce
"Thanksgiving has, of course, always been the time par excellence for food in new England, with roast turkey the traditional piece de resistance of the feast. Even the puritans forgot their fear of sensualism at Thanksgiving, abandoning themselves with gusto to the pleasures of the table, though there were times when the country was a desert island for food, and the colonists, like castaways, were in no danger of overeating.
There seems, however, to have been an abundance of provender at the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621, which was not an affair of a single day, but lasted a whole week, and, contrary to what many persons think, was without any religious significance. It was simply a period of relaxation and recreation following the gathering of the first harvest.
Edward Winslow wrote to a friend in England on December 11, 1621, in which he said:
'Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four killed as much fowl as with a little help beside served the company about a week. At which time among other recreations we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoyt with some ninety mean, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer which they brought and bestow'd on our governor, and upon the captains and others.'
Other writers of the period have told of the great flocks of wild turkey that inhabited the oak and chestnut forests of New England. So common were they that in the 1730's, dressed wild turkeys sold for only a penny and a half a pound in western Massachusetts. The price, of course, increased as the wild turkey population decreased , and by the close of the eighteenth century they were bringing fourpence per pound. In 1820, when these great game birds were rapidly vanishing, the price had risen to twelve and a half cents a pound and it became less common to see wild turkey wings used as hearth brushes in New England homes."
By the end of the eighteenth century the wild turkey of New England, which had been retreating steadily westward, reached the line of the Connecticut River, where they made their last stand. There were flocks of them in the Berkshires and the mountainous regions of Vermont and among the hills of the Connecticut Valley. In the lifetime of the writer's grandfather, there were still wild turkeys around Mount Holyoke and Mount Tom. During the winter of 1850-1851, the last one was shot on Mount Tom. A turkey killed on Mount Holyoke in 1863 is thought to have been a fugitive from a barnyard.
Before the wild species was exterminated, they sometimes visited their civilized relatives of the barnyard. In the mating season a wild turkey cock would fly in and strut and gobble and fight the domestic cock for the favors of the females. The wild gobbler always won, and in this way the domestic species was invigorated and kept up to scratch.
In the olden times the New England housewife never had to worry about the Thanksgiving turkey being too large to fit her oven because she cooked it over an open fire. Families were larger then, and big birds favored. But the oven problem brought about an annual Thanksgiving invocation just before the festival of 1945. This was the sale of split turkeys occasioned by the great number of extraordinarily large birds coming into the market. Raised to meet the requirements of the armed forces, these birds were released for civilian consumption as a result of the sudden end of the war.
Marketmen, knowing that many housewives had ovens too small to accommodate such whopping birds, split the oversize turkeys in two, and the housewives, agreeing that half a turkey was better than none, bought the bisected, although they were uncertain how to prepare half a bird for the table and were apprehensive that it might dry unduly while cooking. All apparently turned out well, but in the future smaller turkeys will probably be the rule.
Pie, especially pumpkin pie, was considered as essential to the old-fashioned New England Thanksgiving dinner as turkey and cranberry sauce.
A want of molasses with which to make pies was more than once the cause of a New England town postponing its observance of the day. Once at Newberry, Vermont, when the minister read the Thanksgiving proclamation, a worthy deacon, who was not unmindful of the earthly pleasure to be derived from a good dinner, rose and said that as there was no molasses in town and his boys had gone to Charlestown, New Hampshire, to get some, he would move that Thanksgiving be postponed a week.
When the boys did not return, the day was put off again, until finally the people fo Newberry had to go without their molasses, and, since there was no 'sweetnin', presumable also without the customary pumpkin pies. Once can only guess what happened to the boys. Similarly, at Colchester, Connecticut, the celebration of Thanksgiving was delayed a week beyond the appointed day because a sloop from New York with a hogshead of molasses for pies failed to arrive.
An amusing account of a public dinner given in 1714, at which bear meat and venison were eaten, has come down to us from the pen of the Rev. Lawrence Conant of Danvers, Massachusetts, who was evidently not averse to eating game that had been killed on the Sabbath.
'When ye services at ye meeting house were ended,' he wrote, 'ye council and other dignitaries were entertained at ye house of Mr. Epes, on ye hill near by, and we had a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner with bear's meat and venison, the last of which was a fine buck, shot in ye woods near by. Ye bear was killed in Lynn woods near Reading.
After ye blessing was craved by Mr. Garrick of Wrentham, word came that ye buck was shot on ye Lord's day by Pequot, an Indian, who came to Mr. Epes with a lye in his moth like Ananias of old. Ye council therefore refused to eat ye venison, but it was afterward decided that Pequot should receive 40 stripes save one, for lying and profaning ye Lord's day, restore Mr. Epes ye cost of ye deer, and considering this a just and righteous sentence on ye sinful heathen, and that a blessing had been craved on ye meat, ye council all partook of it but Mr. Shepard, whose conscious was tender on ye point of ye venison.'
Thanksgiving did not immediately become a fixed annual festival in new England after the first Pilgrim observance, but it made headway steadily. It proved popular because it was a substitute for the festival of Christmas, which the Puritans had banished. It was as if they said, 'If we can't have Christmas, we will have our own feast.' The idea of a Thanksgiving Day for the Lord's bounties gradually spread throughout the country until this old New England custom became a national one."