Thanksgiving use to be celebrated as a bigger holiday than even Christmas. They even had Thanksgiving cards! Victorians loved to celebrate the feast day with a traditional Thanksgiving meal, including turkey and all the trimmings.
The tradition of serving turkey (rather than venison, duck or other wild game) for the holiday mean began almost as soon as Thanksgiving was declared a national holiday in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln.
The turkey was served in memory of the early settlers and Pilgrims who found wild turkey to be a primary source of game. The earliest recipes for turkey dinners usually involved using what one had on hand including stale bread, cornmeal and seasonings mixed with the roasting pan juices of the bird.
But Victorians, being Victorians, became more creative and lavish. Stuffing for the Thanksgiving turkey might include sausage, chestnuts, various dried fruits, such as cranberries or apples, oysters and other flavorful items. What became included depended greatly on what was fresh and local, since refrigeration was still a luxury few could afford.
For the most authentic recipes from the era, look into your grandmother’s recipes or find those in cookbooks from the era. Here’s one from the Fannie Farmer Cookbook originally printed in 1896:
Sausage and Sweet Potato Dressing
Cook until brown
1 pound pork sausage meat
6 cups dry bread cubes (1/4 inch)
2 tablespoons minced onion
Salt to taste
1 teaspoon pepper
2 tablespoons minced parsley
1 cup finely cut celery
5 cups mashed sweet potatoes
Stuff and cook in bird. Makes enough for a 14-16 pound Turkey
Serve it with fresh local vegetables, such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, beans, turnips or carrots. (Personally I like my carrots cooked with butter, honey, ginger and just a touch of salt. Very yummy.) And of course, don’t forget to top of your dinner with another very Victorian favorite – a delicious pumpkin pie! If, however, you are in the mood to try something decadent and equally delicious, consider an Amish Cream Pie (the recipe is up today over at my regular website www.theresameyers.com on the blog).
Just like we enjoy our leftovers today, so did the Victorians. They were frugal enough to ensure that the meals following Thanksgiving used Turkey in lots of different ways including “Turkey Pot Pie”, “Deviled Turkey” and “Turkey in Savory Jelly”. My family likes just digging into the leftover stuffing, mashed potatoes, turkey and gravy, but you could also try Turkey a la King or Turkey Tetrazzini.
Whatever you do for your Turkey day, be grateful for those you have around you and enjoy!