In 1846, Sarah Josepha Hale started a letter-writing campaign to set aside a fixed date for a national holiday of thanks giving. Over the next 17 years, Sarah wrote to five different presidents pleading her case. Finally in 1863, and in the midst of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln agreed with her and passed an executive order with a proclamation that the fourth Thursday of November should be set aside for “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise,” thus beginning the annual observance of the holiday.
Historically, celebrations to give thanks marked the end of the harvest season, the start of a fallow period in the agricultural calendar, and certainly a time for gratitude and sharing. Days of thanks giving were also found throughout the calendar to mark other occasions including gratitude for the end of droughts or for military victories.
Although the origins of Thanksgiving are not as straightforward or as full of love and joy as we were taught in elementary school, there is little dispute that the food has always been the main event. Thanksgiving’s dishes have served as a delicious shibboleth—tell me your Thanksgiving dinner and I’ll tell you what your heritage is.
Here in Ohio, that could mean drawing on New England sensibilities as settlers migrated from the east, on Irish heritage as the canals were dug, or absorbing foodways from Native Americans, but the core components seem immutable and predominantly New England-based.
Thanksgiving is a continuation of the traditional harvest feast, adapted to the ingredients at hand. Spices would be rare and luxurious additions, and there was no nipping off to the local shop for raisins—dried cherries would have to do, and try as I might, I cannot imagine how a mincemeat pie—de rigueur on 18th and 19thcentury Thanksgiving menus—made with cherries would taste.
As early as 1779, the expected menu appeared much as it does today: turkey, stuffing, creamed onions, potatoes (sometimes sweet, sometimes white), raw celery, pumpkin pie, apple pie, and Indian pudding. Early Ohioans would also have served a wide selection of game, particularly venison and waterfowl, fish, and sometimes salsify (also known as oyster plant or vegetable oyster), a mild and now uncommon root vegetable that could be served roasted, creamed, or pickled. The sheer bounty of the early menus was staggering—they read like potluck menus where everyone just decided to bring all their best dishes, regardless of how many items anyone else was bringing. Hence, leftovers!
In talking with chefs about favorite holidays, Thanksgiving usually tops the list. It is the one holiday gathering for friends, family, and strangers that is all about the food, not the presents, not the decorations, nothing else, just the food, the preparing, sharing, and honoring of that which binds us.
Chef Larkin Rogers has cooked in restaurants all around the world, but makes Northeast Ohio her home. She’s a private chef and caterer, and has served as a culinary storyteller though her delicious work with The Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Read more about Larkin in our Spring 2018 issue.
If you haven’t settled on a dessert yet, give this one a try!