If you had the opportunity to invite your great-great-grandmother over for Thanksgiving dinner, it's likely she would feel right at home with what you bring to the table. Your roast turkey might startle her — turkeys in her day were typically eight to 12 pounds max — but of all our holidays, Thanksgiving may be the least changed since the Civil War.
While Thanksgiving Day has been around in New England for close to 400 years, early French Detroiters never heard of the celebration, or at least didn't observe it. (Fortunately, Detroit did have Christmas, which the Puritans rejected.) The earliest official declaration for Thanksgiving in Detroit was set forth by Territorial Gov. Lewis Cass on November 25, 1824. He was originally from New Hampshire and as more and more New Englanders emigrated to Detroit and Michigan, he felt it was time to bring Thanksgiving to Detroit.
Every year the governor would officially declare a day in November as "Thanksgiving." In 1834 the declaration was made by Michigan's "boy governor," Stevens T. Mason, who at that time was Secretary of the Territory:
"I do hereby appoint Thursday, the Twenty-seventh of November next as a day of thanksgiving and prayer; that contemplating with reverence and resignation the dispensations of the Supreme Ruler of the Universe in the destructive pestilence that has visited our territory [in 1834 Detroit suffered from a cholera epidemic that killed seven percent of the population], we may present our prayers of gratitude for being permitted still to enjoy a participation in the blessings of his providence…."
Early on, Thanksgiving was a Puritan religious holiday rooted in the English Reformation. Days of Thanksgiving were declared in response to acts of "special providence," such as the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, while natural disasters like drought or plague would call for Days of Fasting. It continued to be a religious holiday in Detroit until the Civil War.
"Thanksgiving-day was celebrated in this city with rather more than usual spirit," the Detroit Free Press wrote in the edition of Nov. 26, 1859. "Business was very generally suspended, and in the forenoon the various churches that were open for Divine services were quite well filled. … After the services the general onslaught on fat turkeys and plum puddings commenced at the various home circles."
Wild vs. domesticated turkeys
Turkeys were domesticated very early and taken to farmers markets by wagon or simply herded up the street. One farmer in 1782 described his turkey farm in New York. "Some of our wives are famous for raising of turkeys, in which you know, we abound in the fall of the year. The great secret consists of procuring the eggs of the wild sort then in-cross the breed. In that case we are always sure of a hardier and heavier bird. …
"Here [turkeys] hate confinement; in the most severe of our freezing nights, they will reach the utmost limbs of our highest trees and there boldly face the north-west wind." - J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer, 1782
Turkeys enjoyed in French Detroit were small wild birds, ten pounds or less. They were cleaned, seasoned and suspended by a stout cord in front of a hearth fire, where they were slowly turned and basted. The expression of the times about turkeys was: "Too much for one, not enough for two."
Rhode Island and Connecticut were famous for turkeys by the latter 19th and early 20th century. The flavor of wild turkey was widely preferred to domestic birds. Horace Vose of Rhode Island, nicknamed the "Turkey King," provided U.S. presidents with the annual White House turkey beginning with President U.S. Grant in 1873. Vose would buy wild toms (males) from Kentucky and Virginia to father his nationally famous Narragansett grade turkeys. The wild strain also made the turkeys much hardier since domestic turkeys were prone to diseases.
Fresh fowl at the market
Along with turkey, people of the day served roast chicken, capon (a fattened, castrated rooster) or duck. It was reported that Canadians preferred the more British roast goose to turkey.
In 1890 at the Central Market in Detroit, birds arrived live from farms within a hundred-mile radius. Some were sold from their crates on the floor of the market, while others were inspected and then put onto a freight elevator to an upper floor, and there kept caged until needed, along with the cages of geese, ducks and chickens.
When signaled that a bird was needed, a butcher selected the bird, decapitated it, and sent it down a chute to another floor where people in a dense fog from tanks of boiling water scalded the body to loosen the feathers. The bird was plucked, cleaned and rinsed in a sink, then sent on to the counter for sale. The feathers went into a ringer to be washed, rinsed and sent through a drying room, where they were bagged to be sold to upholsterers.
Production at Thanksgiving was intense as large companies gave presents of dressed turkeys to employees every year; it was not uncommon to get orders for 500 turkeys.
Of course the real Thanksgiving action was on the floor of the market:
"There was a flavor of Thanksgiving in the air with the hustling, jostling throngs of good housewives out with their huge baskets replenishing the family larder," read a story in the Detroit Free Press in 1890. "The housewife strolled to her heart's content among the squawking geese, the cackling hens, and the gobbling turkeys, feeling, pinching, sniffing, testing trying in vain to find a good fat hen at a good lean price. … The stall keepers made it a gala day. Never such a delicious arrangement of pumpkins, turnips, and onions; big barrel-bursting red apples, to say nothing of potatoes, oranges, lemons, mince meat, golden butter, fragrant cheeses, eggs and sauerkraut!"
The game course
Wild game was popular to serve as a separate course at Thanksgiving. Typically it was a leg or haunch (the loin) of venison, but it might also be fish, quail, pigeon, grouse or rabbit.
One of the biggest wild game dealers in the country was H.T. Phillips and Company, located on Michigan Avenue in downtown Detroit. A popular menu item for hotels and homes was roasted black bear. In 1881 a reporter talked to Bob Baker at Phillips, where a wagon had just dropped off a killed bear:
"Hello, Bob! What are you going to do with your bears?"
"I wish I had more of them. That fellow over there goes to the Russell House, that one to the Brunswick, and that one to the Griswold. This one has just come in and hasn't sold yet. He'd make a fine roaster for some private family wouldn't he?"
"How much does he weigh?"
"Three hundred and fifty [pounds]."
"How much per pound?"
"Send him up!" — Detroit Free Press, Nov. 28, 1882
Oysters were another Thanksgiving treat that seemed to be everywhere in the 19th century. Settlers on the prairie 2,000 miles from the ocean ate oysters twice a week. Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were renowned in Springfield, Ill., for their oyster shucking parties. A popular turkey stuffing was oyster stuffing, featuring oysters chopped with mushrooms and other vegetables. Detroiters also loved side dishes of oysters such as oyster stew, oysters on toast, oyster fritters, scalloped oysters, or oyster pie, which was oysters, butter, milk and spices cooked in a crust like a chicken pot pie today.
Cooking your turkey from scratch
An advice column recommended women select a clean, wholesome bird and avoid buying "overly blue or disconsolate" turkeys. Smooth black legs with short spurs denoted a young bird, long spurs and red legs meant an old bird not fit for roasting. A freshly killed turkey had full clear eyes and moist feet. Women were advised to have the turkey killed at least two days ahead of roasting.
It was important to pluck the feathers carefully so the skin was not broken, then singe the pin feathers with a piece of burning paper. The inside was washed repeatedly and wiped out with care, so as not to break the gall sack, which would give the turkey a bitter taste and ruin it. Once you chopped off the neck and broke the legs below the knee joint you were ready for trussing your bird onto a spit. It was then stuffed, strategically covered with strips of bacon and a buttered sheet of white paper and set in the hearth to roast.
One old Detroiter reminisced fondly of turkey cooking on the hearth in his childhood: "The great kitchen fireplace presented a very cheerful appearance compared to a black stove of today. It was six to eight to ten feet wide, with a great chimney. In many houses you could stand by the warm coals in the hearth and look up the chimney and see the stars on a winter night. …
"The roasting was done in a big 'tin kitchen' which stood before the fire of which meats or poultry were held by a large iron spit, which could be revolved before the blaze … A little door in the rear of this tin kitchen gave access for basting the meat. In the large trough at the bottom the gravy was caught. No boy of that day will think there is any flavor like that of those roast turkey cooked by these open fires." — Detroit Free Press, 1898
Not everyone roasted their turkey; some preferred boiled turkey. It was not really boiled but rather poached at a low simmer in a large pot of water with lemon, mace, bay leaf, onions and a half pound of butter. Oyster sauce was commonly served with boiled turkey.
Tackling the pumpkin
"The best pumpkin pie I ever tasted was not much different than the worst pumpkin pie I ever tasted." — Garrison Keeler
Just as now, everyone had opinions on pumpkin pie in the 19th century. The pumpkins were not quite as orange and round as they are today. A column from 1875 gives directions on selecting pumpkins:
"Don't pick the biggest but be sure to pick the yellowest, and a crinkly one if you can. If you happen to be a carpenter's wife, take it to the shop, put it in the vise and peel it with a draw-shave. … If you're not a carpenter's wife you will have to take it to the kitchen, cut it into rings and peel it with a butcher knife."
Pumpkins were cut up and stewed in iron pots for hours. The color of the pie after long stewing was dark brown, not orange, but apparently the flavor was worth the effort.
"… When it gets cold give your husband a piece. Not a prim little acute-triangle piece on a China plate with a silver fork. … Coax him into the kitchen and give him a whole quarter. He won't 'speak cross' to you for a week."
(And maybe he'll forgive you for using his draw-shave to peel pumpkins.)
The Victorian Thanksgiving
From the Civil War to the 1910s, the Victorian Thanksgiving became increasingly lavish. A very popular national woman's writer and editor in the 19th century was Sara Josepha Buell Hale. It was Hale who at age 74 wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln on September 28, 1863, urging him to have the "day of our annual Thanksgiving made a National and fixed Union Festival." Whether or not Hale's letter was the impetus, Lincoln that year declared Thanksgiving a nationwide holiday, to be observed on the last Thursday of every November.
In 1854, Hale described an ideal Thanksgiving, starting with a damask cloth covering a table surrounded by a large family, the roasted turkey at the head of the table. "At the foot of the board a sirloin of beef flanked on either side by a leg of pork and a loin of mutton seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter. A goose and a pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the table; the middle being graced as it always is on such occasions by that rich burgomaster of the provisions called a chicken pie … covered with an excellent puff paste. …
"Plates of pickles, preserves, and butter and all the necessaries for increasing the seasoning of the viands to the demand of each palate filled the interstices of the table, leaving hardly sufficient room for the plates of the company, a wine glass and two tumblers for each with a slice of wheat bread lying on one of the inverted tumblers. A side table was literally loaded with the preparations for the second course. …"
Victorian holiday dinners were four hours long or more, serving course after course of food. Here is a Thanksgiving menu (or as they called them, "bill of fare") from Detroit in 1876:
Baked Fish, Brown Sauce with Wine
Sweetbreads with Cauliflower
Potatoes, Squash, Onions, Tomatoes, Turnips, Cauliflower
Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding and Horseradish Sauce
Roast Turkey with Cranberry Sauce
Ducks or Venison with Current Jelly
Partridges or Quail, larded
Salad: Chicken or Lobster
Mince Pies, Squash or Pumpkin Pies
Charlotte Russe Cake
Confectionary Nuts and Raisins
Turkey Day football
Of course, what's Thanksgiving without a football game? Football games played on Thanksgiving Day date back to 1876, when Yale and Princeton began an annual tradition of playing each other. The University of Michigan also made it a tradition to play annual Thanksgiving games, participating in 19 such games from 1885 to 1905. The Thanksgiving Day games between Michigan and Amos Alonzo Stagg's University of Chicago Maroons in the 1890s have been cited as the true beginning of Thanksgiving Day football.
Before the final game of the 1898 season, Chicago was 9-1-1 and Michigan was 9-0; a game between the two teams in the Windy City decided the third Western Conference championship on Thanksgiving Day 114 years ago. Michigan won, 12-11, capturing the program's first conference championship in a game that inspired student Louis Elbel to compose Michigan's fight song, "The Victors."
Hail, hail to Thanksgiving Day.