Ask anyone in food media about the annual jokes and dread about Thanksgiving. What on earth are we going to do differently this year? How many ways can you possibly roast a turkey? And it never happens, but anyone who denies they’ve never even fantasized about skipping coverage of the holiday entirely is probably lying.
I’ve been on The Washington Post’s Food section team going on 10 years now, so I can personally attest that the struggle is real to come up with something unique and brand new. Was it always like this? Am I just one small cog in a long line of food writers constantly trying to reinvent the wheel?
Because I’m a history buff and because doing a little time-traveling seemed like a fitting escape in these unsettled times, I decided to go through 143 years of Post Thanksgiving food coverage, as far back as I could research from my humble home office/bedroom.
The experience was enlightening, not to mention fun. It also confirmed two inevitable cliches: Everything old is new again, and the more things change, the more they stay the same. No matter the era, people always found ways to talk about how to cook the turkey (or not to cook a turkey at all!). There were the sides, the pies and, naturally, the leftovers. In fact, just about every type of Thanksgiving story you can think of has appeared in The Post, likely many times over. Naturally, patterns began to emerge. Here’s a sampling.
What politicians eat and cook
In this contentious presidential election year, Americans were yet again transfixed by what political leaders were doing, saying and, of course, eating. Election year or not, that has always been the case. Pore over the archives and you’ll find all kinds of mundane and even downright inane coverage of the culinary habits of the people in charge.
Our pages are peppered with tales of the size and origins of the birds that graced presidential tables. In 1887, Grover Cleveland received one from Connecticut. “On one side was the monogram of the President surrounded by ‘Thanksgiving, 1887,’ in a semi-circle …” The Post reported. “This work was done by pricking the flesh with hot needles, an idea which originated in the head of a North Stonington schoolmarm.”
In 1889, fascination with the wives of prominent Washingtonians reigned. “The society women of Washington often market for themselves, and you bump against the wives of Cabinet ministers, Supreme Court justices, and leading Army officers in buying your daily provisions,” one breathless writer observed. “The leading ladies of Washington shine in their kitchens as well as their parlors, and there are few among them who cannot play a tune on the cooking stove, and play it well.” Recipes in the piece include a “famous bouillon” from first lady Caroline Scott Harrison and a chicken salad from Mary Matthews, widow of Supreme Court Justice Stanley Matthews, “which would tickle the palate of [famed French epicure] Brillat Savarin.”
Not all first ladies were inclined to cook, as my colleague Manuel Roig-Franzia reported back in 2012. Michael Reagan, the adopted son of Ronald Reagan and first wife Jane Wyman, had this to say about Nancy Reagan: “Nancy? We didn’t let her boil water.” Instead, Ann Allman, the Reagans’ longtime California housekeeper and cook, was in charge of the meal. Two favorite dishes stand out as particularly unique, not to mention tempting: persimmon pudding and monkey bread.
In 1992, The Post assembled a dazzling panel to analyze the typical holiday menu served by president-elect Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. The experts included cookbook legend Julia Child, New York Times restaurant critic and food editor Craig Claiborne and Miss Manners herself, Judith Martin. Among the insights: Child declared the giblet gravy with chopped boiled eggs “a good idea,” and Martin expressed shock that the president-elect (who now mostly eats vegan) would carve the turkey and nibble as he went. “What? You don’t mean to suggest he’s leaning over the turkey. He puts a little on his plate, I’m sure.”
Of all the topics covered over the past century and a half, few dominate as much as what to do with the dang turkey. This gem from 1883 titled “A Dissertation on Roast Turkey” sets the scene:
“For one day in a year at any rate the American people pay homage to a strutting king. The lords of politics, capital, labor and the professions throw down their staves of office and power to do King Gobble homage. Alive he is the object of admiration for his audacity and pride; dead, he is adored, and love — love sharpens appetite and, against all tradition, King Gobble falls a victim to the esteem of his subjects. Strutting about his Turkeydom he is the object of fear, but lying calmly there on the Thanksgiving day dinner table, robbed of his plumes, unwattled, bound fast and beheaded, love only possesses the breasts of all who regard him.”
It’s all not flowery language devoted to fowl (though you might be surprised at how often limericks and poems appeared in our pages). Practical tips for the home cook abound, and some of them were shared for years and then rejected. Perhaps turkey’s reputation for dryness came about because the recommended doneness temperature for so long was 180 degrees. Now, it’s 165. No one thought twice about stuffing the turkey, until 1996, when we reported an advisory from the USDA that warned, “Improperly cooked stuffing can cause serious illness or even death.” We were on the case again a few months later, when the agency retracted that a bit: “In its latest advisory, the agency recommends sticking a meat thermometer into stuffing to make sure it reaches 165 degrees, enough to kill bacteria from the turkey or eggs used in the stuffing.”
What else has gone from trends to trash? Count basting and washing the turkey among the discarded conventional wisdom. And if there’s a method for roasting the turkey that we haven’t covered, I’d be shocked. In a bag, flipped partway through, low and slow, high heat, in a salted dough, butterflied. Cook just the breast, a whole bird (should it be a heritage breed?), confit the legs.
Both love and loathing of leftovers are as old as Thanksgiving itself. A piece from the Chicago Herald reprinted in The Post in 1888 quoted one skeptic:
“I’d like to know if a man has ever tried to eat turkey for a month. I’m at it now. Had a big turkey [at] Thanksgiving, and we got away with about an eighth of it. Since then that turkey has been appearing on our boards in its entire repertory — turkey hash, turkey soup, boned turkey, giblets of turkey, minced turkey, turkey salad, eggs a la Turk, turkey croquettes, etc. I’ve tried to escape it at the restaurant, but we are having the bird in all its disguises up at Kinsley’s. I shall never be able to look a turkey in the face again.”
I can only imagine the conversation he might have had with Post staffer Renee Schettler, who went on record in 2002 about her love of leftovers. Even after roasting 20 birds that year and untold more in previous years, “I never tire of them,” she said. Her less-expected ideas included adding leftover turkey to a miso soup with sugar snap peas, sautéing it straight-up in butter and tossing “with cooked pasta and garlicky braised greens.”
Other suggestions over the years: turkey cakes with cream and eggs dipped in breadcrumbs (1935); turkey supreme made with toast, cheese sauce, asparagus and chopped almonds (1954); and Curried Couscous With Turkey, Chickpeas and Golden Raisins (2013).
You don’t need a turkey!
Setting aside the paeans to turkey, it is not uncommon to find alternatives. This was especially relevant during the Great Depression and World War II. In 1934, five years after the stock market crash that helped trigger the Great Depression, food editor Dorothea Duncan wrote, “A baked ham or a standing rib roast of beef can be served for the Thanksgiving dinner at less cost than a turkey, and if ham is used the result is more meat to the pound (because there is no bone).”
Because they can be just as enlightening as the articles, the display ads at the time provided additional insight. At the A&P, turkeys were 28 cents a pound; at the Piggly Wiggly, prime rib roast was 23 cents. In 1943, turkeys were especially scarce because of a combination of weather, labor shortages caused by the draft (“turkeys are too heavy for women to handle”!) and the sheer volume of meat being sent abroad to service members. Menus that year and the next included options for roast capon (rooster), pork loin roast and roast duck.
Turkey replacements weren’t limited to wartime, though. Menus in 1966 featured duck, Cornish hens and ham, and one writer in 1974 recommended a roast leg of pork.
More recent dishes have been just as eclectic, including Grilled Venison in Sumac With Black Walnuts (2014), Cuban Roast Pork (2012), Mincemeat Pie (2011), Holiday Goose (2008) and Root Beer-Glazed Black Ham (2005). Of course, there’s always the meatless options, which brings us to …
The vegetarian conundrum
The way we’ve addressed people who don’t eat meat has progressed — from total silence to wariness to acceptance of a still-stressful oddity (1992: “Will my brother bring his vegetarian girlfriend?”) to mainstream. In 1984, staff writer Carol Sugarman noted that “a meatless Thanksgiving needn’t ignore traditional holiday flavors or colors, and can certainly be as festive a menu as one with a main course of poultry.” Her menu included a butternut squash soup and “rich and fruity lentil loaf” with hazelnuts and grated Swiss cheese. By 1999, the tide had turned on the loaf: “Before you desperately start seeking recipes for lentil loaf, consider that by modifying your menu just a bit, you may be able to satisfy all the hungry diners gathered at your table.”
Strategies shifted from making a meal with really good sides and vegetable dishes where the vegetarians simply avoid the turkey (1976) to the advancements of faux meat (I’m still smarting from a taste test we did in 2011) to disregarding all pretense and presenting stunning meatless entrees, such as Roasted Portobello Mushroom, Pecan and Chestnut Wellington (2015), Biryani Stuffed Pumpkins (2017) and Pumpkin, Walnut and Sage Crostata (2019).
Meatless and vegan meals aren’t the only modifications that have been tackled. The diet-crazed ’80s saw a flurry of stories on different nutritional needs, including low-sodium in 1981 and 1982. Suggested adjustments: low-sodium cheese and baking powder and boiling potatoes for mashed potatoes with onions, then seasoning with vinegar. In 1983, a 500-calorie spa-food holiday featured cranberry-raspberry mousse and poppy seed bread. By 1984, the calorie count in one health-conscious story had been cut to a paltry 400, with a menu highlighting sesame chicken breasts and winter squash with cranberries.
Technology and advancements for the home cook
One can only imagine the incredible burden put on the people responsible for preparing the Thanksgiving meal — servants or housewives — before the arrival of modern conveniences. Looking back, many of the developments seem quaint, but at the time, they were huge. In 1890, there were tips on what to feed your turkey (“chopped turnips, cabbage, and parsley, varied with cornmeal, boiled rice and chopped celery tops, impart a peculiar gamey flavor, which to many persons is very desirable”), and in 1915 an article advised that you shouldn’t kill the bird after it’s fed. By the 1930s, buying an already dressed bird was fairly common, and frozen turkeys were entering the scene. “This is a new type of preservation that has revolutionized large-scale marketing,” food editor Jean Green wrote in 1937. “The food is frozen quickly so that the flavor and taste remain unchanged.”
More revelations included:
- 1932: “An excellent cranberry sauce sells two cans for 29 cents, with interesting printed recipes for using the sauce tucked under the cans’ label. The grocer who sells this sauce is explaining to the housewives a method of opening the can so that the firm, jellied sauce will slip out in perfect shape.”
- 1955: An emphasis on convenience: packaged stuffing; canned or frozen vegetables; and packaged roll mixes or frozen rolls. Heck, even the men can help! “Packaged pastry mixes make Thanksgiving dinner easy, even for John,” wrote food editor Elinor Lee (generic couples were often referred to as John and Priscilla).
As far as equipment, the ’30s also saw numerous references to “small modern ovens” (and the downsized turkeys that fit in them) and hot plates. Moving forward in time, we come across references to grills (1978), deep fryers (2000), sous vide (2016) and Instant Pots (2018).
Thanksgiving has always been tinged with nostalgia. The story of the pilgrims’ encounter with Native Americans (or arguments about where and when the first Thanksgiving actually took place) is a common theme. So are menus pegged to the past. In 1939, an “early New England Thanksgiving menu” included oyster soup, venison, cornbread and plum pudding with brandy sauce. In 1966, The Post again returned to New England of old, with the same article sharing a menu from Theodore Roosevelt’s home at Sagamore Hill, highlighting onions in cream, roast turkey with chestnut stuffing and vanilla ice cream.
The draw of nostalgia has been especially powerful in times of crisis. “Going back to the simple, hearty Thanksgiving traditions will add much to the day’s meaning,” the women’s pages advised in 1942. “Get together as many relatives as you can this year and share the work and expense for a fair and fun-making family reunion … that’s the best way to keep faith with your men who are off to the wars.”
The sentiment was not much different decades later. “In unsettling times, the pull of tradition can be so strong that people find themselves unconsciously going back to the comforting rituals of their childhood,” Candy Sagon wrote just two months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. One woman who had been a vegetarian for decades suddenly felt a need to have a roast turkey on the table.
Looking to other cuisines, cultures and regions for inspiration
Centering meals on a particular culture or geographic location is one recurring strategy for introducing the immigrant experience and a wider array of dishes into an otherwise predictable meal. As a small sampling, themes have included Japan (1971), Pennsylvania Dutch (1984), India (1985), Morocco (1991), Mediterranean (1995), New Orleans (2005), Hawaii (2011), Cuba (2012) and Native American (2015).
About this story
Design by Audrey Valbuena. Illustration by Dana Smith for The Washington Post; Original pages and images from The Washington Post, including by Deb Lindsey, Tom McCorkle, Melina Mara, the White House, Associated Press and iStock. Photo Editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory