Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Ghosts of Thanksgiving Past

Posted By on Wed, Nov 23, 2011 at 8:00 AM

Last Thanksgiving, Gut Check took a trip back in time to revisit the Thanksgivings of the good old days. Well, what we really wanted to revisit was the fabulous spread put on by the Park Avenue Hotel in New York, which started with oysters and continued through eleven courses, serving up delicacies such as "Diamond-back terrapin, Amontillado sherry" and "Sweetbreads in cases with truffles" along with good old "Rhode Island turkey stuffed with chestnuts, cranberry sauce" and "Tomato in surprise." (What could that "surprise" be, we wonder? Aspic?)

Alas, that was not possible. We just stared at the menu for a while and drooled.

St. Louisans ate much more simply. The old Globe-Democrat printed up a sample menu in 1883 that wouldn't be out of place today: roast turkey, mashed potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie. It did, however, reprint a heart-rending tale from Baltimore of a family whose Thanksgiving feast literally crushed the table.

By 1911, exactly 100 years ago, menus hadn't changed much. But Thanksgiving promised to be more depressing that year. On October 1 the Post-Dispatch trumpeted the gloomy headline: "NEARLY ALL FOOD PRICES UP; HOPE IN DRIED APPLES."

In the previous two years, the P-D lamented, the price of coffee had doubled. The cost of rice had gone up, too, and sugar and canned peas and tomatoes. But there was even worse news:


The P-D attributed the increase in the cost of brooms to a failure of the broom-corn crop. Fortunately, there was a surplus of apples that year. Mmmmm...dried apples.

Fortunately, the rising cost of food didn't deter Herman Mack, owner of the Cambridge Court Cafe at Seventh and Locust streets, from putting on his annual free Thanksgiving dinner for the city's newsboys.

"There is nothing meager about Mack's bill of fare," the P-D reported on Thanksgiving morning, November 29. "Oyster soup, turkey, cranberry sauce, celery, roast beef, pig, apple pie and mince pie and coffee will provide a feast that will live in the memories of the feasters for many a day."

But what kind of stuffing did the turkey have? According to one anonymous critic in a piece published November 20, stuffing just wasn't what it used to be. (See also some dubious examples of early twentieth-century "humor.")


Gads! Perhaps our sad writer wasn't traveling in the right circles. According to Last Dinner On the Titanic: Menus and Recipes from the Great Liner, a cookbook by Rich Archbold and Dana McCauley that came out last year, the chefs on the ill-fated ship prepared their turkey stuffing with marjoram.

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