The Mother of Thanksgiving

Sarah Josepha Hale, engraving from Library of Congress

Mary had a turkey browned
From three hours in the oven
Her guests were drooling all the while
For gravy and the stuffin’

Hale’s famous poem, variation by kajmeister

Perhaps Americans would still have invented Thanksgiving without Sarah Josepha Hale. After all, proclamations of Thanksgiving had been declared by the Continental Congresses by Samuel Adams and John Hanson and the like:

It being the indispensable duty of all nations, not only to offer up their supplications to Almighty God, the giver of all good, for His gracious assistance in a time of distress, but also in a solemn and public manner, to give Him praise for His goodness in general, and especially for great and signal interpositions of His Providence in their behalf; therefore, the United States in Congress assembled, taking into their consideration the many instances of Divine goodness to these States in the course of the important conflict, in which they have been so long engaged and so on and so forth etcetera etcetera etcetera…

November 1782, text for the Thanksgiving or National Prayer Day observation (Wikipedia)

That seems a rather dry plateful of harvest to start with, taking some 250 words until it even gets to the Thanksgiving part of the equation. Why, there’s hardly any gravy at all, although there does seem to be quite a bit of lard in it, so maybe the pies were flaky.

Perhaps there would have been a harvest festival in the fourth week of November without Mrs. Hale. There was a dinner with pilgrims and with food supplied by the Wampanoag, although it didn’t involve turkey or stuffing, and it might not have been so friendly as the children’s stories maintain. Yet harvest feasts–giving thanks for the bounty of the earth–is a tradition that goes back through much of human history. Surely, those happened without Sarah Hale.

And maybe, Mary went to school with her little lamb without Ms. Hale, and Bunker Hill Monument might have been funded and Vassar founded and abolitionists would have done their work. And yet, maybe not. Because Sarah Josepha Hale was a very busy woman.

A National and Fixed Union Festival

Hale thought the idea of an annual Thanksgiving holiday, celebrated on the same day across the states, was a critical one. She had been writing presidents for fifteen years, advocating for a formally recognized “federal holiday” to join the two that existed at the time, Washington’s Birthday and Independence Day. She wrote presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan before her letter to Abraham Lincoln found a home for persuasion. There might have been editorials in various newspapers; Hale wrote a lot.

Letter from Sarah Hale to President Lincoln
Sarah Hale’s letter to President Lincoln, photo from wikipedia

The harvest meal, the commemoration of a Thanksgiving, was taking place in many states, particularly in New England and the north. Other states claimed their own ownership and history of settlers and thankful meals, so there’d been disagreement on the day and the food. Sometimes the day had happened in November; sometimes late in the month. But in 1863 many states were doing their own thing and shooting at each other for the right to preserve doing their own thing. Although by November–after Gettysburg, Vicksburg, and Chattanooga–by November 1863, the tide of the war was turning for the Union.

Lincoln was trying to bring people together after hardship and thought a national holiday, celebrated by everyone on a fixed day, might be a way to do it. Hale’s idea, probably not hers alone but hers as advocated and described, did take root.

Eventually, President Grant signed the national Holidays Act, which included New Years, Christmas, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving. Over time, the final Thursday in November was settled on for Thanksgiving, as a way of recognizing formally in the United States, the freedom and bounty that people had after the stress of a turbulent and trying year.

An Original American Influencer, 1822- 1879

Hale, born and raised in New Hampshire, was a schoolteacher who married a lawyer at the age of 25. She bore him five children, though he died by the time she was 34. She wore black in mourning for the remainder of her life, dying at aged 90. Maybe that’s where Queen Victoria got the idea from. Hale had a lot of ideas that caught on.

Sarah was raised by parents who educated both their children, although her brother went to Dartmouth and she was home-schooled. She was eventually the editor of Godey’s Ladies Book , for forty years overseeing an influential magazine of essays, poems, stories, and ideas. In its time, Godey’s was the largest publication of its type, with 15,000 readers. Godey’s also published fashion and home plans which were copied.

log cabin pictured with quote
Hale wrote many quotables in Godey’s, example and picture from

Hale was also an abolitionist, advocating for an end to slavery. She was one of the first women novelists and the first to write a novel about slavery, Northwood: Life North and South. She also believed strongly in both employment and education for women, and used her magazine to pen essays on the topic. Over time, the idea of colleges for women became slightly more acceptable, and she was able to help fund Vassar College.

Sarah Also Wrote a Poem, Whose Fleece Was White As Snow

Hale, in one of her 50+ books of essays, stories, and poetry, wrote the original poem, “Mary had a little lamb.” As a schoolteacher, Hale claimed that the incident with a young student and pet barnyard animal took place. She wanted to teach a moral:

And you each gentle animal,
In confidence may bind,
And make them answer to your call,
If you are always kind.”[2]

Rarely-read stanza of the famous poem, cited in Wikipedia.

Of course, royalties and credit claiming being how it is in our wild and free country, another Mary showed up a few decades later to claim ownership of the incident and the poem. Mary Tyler of Sudbury, Massachussetts said in 1876 that she was the originator of the little story because she had, in fact, brought a lamb to school. Supposedly a young man named John Roulstone wrote the poem down after observing the commotion and handed it on a slip of paper to Ms. Tyler. Naturally, she didn’t still have the slip of paper but recalled this all by memory.

This all becomes too American. The town of Redstone recognized Tyler’s claim, despite there being no evidence to support it and Sarah Hale’s poem in a book published many years earlier. So there was naturally a schoolhouse/monument/tourist site, purchased by Henry Ford who did such things to bring in tourists and their dollars and to be patriotic. (For example, Ford did purchase Rosa Parks’ bus, and it does sit in his Greenfield Village patriotic tourist attraction.) Meanwhile, Mary Sawyer, the claimant with no evidence, lived in a house which was added to the National Register in 2000. The house was–somehow fittingly–destroyed by arson in 2007.

Sarah wrote the poem. Sarah also helped fund Vassar, raised funds to support Mount Vernon and the Bunker Hill Monument, edited one of the most influential magazines in America, advocated for the end to slavery and the beginning to women’s colleges, and helped create the holiday that we celebrate today.

FDR fixed the national holiday on the fourth Thursday in November, rather than the last holiday in November, hoping that there would be more time for Christmas shopping. In the hard times of the 1930s, merchants needed all the help they could get, as they do now. Black Friday and Cyber Monday apparently also have deep American roots.

Turkey wasn’t at the original meal, and possible not stuffing or cranberries, nor was Thanksgiving originally on the final Thursday. Yet the main point of Thanksgiving, to look back over the trials and tribulations of a stressful year, whether 1623 or 1863 or 2020, and to remain grateful that we who are celebrating are still here and can hope for a better tomorrow–all of that is part of tradition. We are in the middle of pandemic surge, but we have at least put some of the worst of the political tribulations behind us, so we are better positioned to conquer our current challenge together.

Lincoln’s Proclamation, as written in part by William Seward, puts it well:

The population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom. … these great things…. should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.

Lincoln proclaiming Thanksgiving

Eat what you want. Celebrate however you can. I am certainly grateful for you, gentle reader.

Mary had a Little Blog
She Wrote with All Her Heart
May this Year End Well for You and Yours
And the Next Be a Brand New Start

Stuffing and Variations

two bags of to-be-delicious sourdough stuffing
You can never have too much…. photo by kajmeister.

I was pondering when the first cook might have stuffed a turkey way back when… because there’s plenty of time to ponder these days, what with all of us being indoors and on our own so much of the time. Let’s not limit it to turkey, though. Who might have been the first person to stuff an animal, which is to say to take the innards out of an animal and replace it with other stuff, then cook it?

The noun form of “stuff” probably emerged from the verb “stuff” which came from the French otoffer meaning to cram things in other things. (See also “stop” and “plug” and suddenly I’m thinking about Drano.) Anyway, the noun “stuff” really does emerge from the verb, such that when we refer to “our stuff” or “bunch o’things” we mean bunch that could be crammed somewhere. When we are such “stuff” as dreams are made on, as Shakespeare’s Prospero said, he meant a motley bunch of craziness out of which we will go, after death, into some truer reality. This year certainly seems the “stuff” that dreams are made of, so I’m ready to decide we should cram 2020 somewhere else. I have suggestions about where, but you probably don’t want to hear them.

This raises a whole host of ancillary questions. What is the (brief) history of cooking stuffed things, i.e. what was stuffing about during the heyday of say Henry VIII? Compared with the 1950s, for example? Did the pilgrims stuff their turkey? (my guess is no, let’s find out). Why is it for some oddball reason called “dressing” in other places? And what are the weirdest things people want to do with their stuffing, (G-rated only, please)?

a toast to the turkey, family photo from 1965
Holiday dinner 1965, photo by kajmeister’s Dad.

My mother knew how to cook one kick-ass turkey. She wasn’t the world’s greatest cook, but her stuffing and gravy were the best. Apparently, we also ate peas and carrots and Very White Mashed Potatoes on a very white tablecloth with white fine German china underneath. It was the Midwest in the 1960s, what can I say? That’s my uncle Delano on the right, named for FDR, before my uncle changed his name to Lamont then Lavont then Levitar, which was the eye in the pyramid. All that is another story. It was still good turkey.

The History of Sticking Fire Under Dead Things to See What Happens

One of the reasons fire was such a great invention is that aside from scaring away predators and allowing humans to survive in colder climates, it also led to cooked food. Grains, in particular, are often toxic unless cooked, so fire allowed humans to eat crops that they could grow rather than running after their food. Also, cooked meat has more nutrition and can be chewed and digested more rapidly; chewing and swallowing raw meat takes all day. Once the ability to make fire on demand was discovered, it wasn’t hard to rig some sort of spit to turn meat to be evenly cooked. However, stuffing an animals would pose the technical problem of how to tie it shut.

The Sumerians and Egyptians didn’t have turkeys (western hemisphere) or chicken (China) but they did cook duck and goose, and they did make rice-based stuffing for vegetables. Early civilizations would often cook things in animal stomachs–hey, if you don’t have enough pottery, you use what you have! So, while we don’t have recipes for rice-stuffed roasted goose, it’s not impossible to imagine.

Turkeys evolved in the Americas, and the Aztecs definitely had them, although they only roasted them on rare ceremonial occasions. They had a turkey god called Chalchiuhtotolin, but they apparently appreciated the turkeys more for their feather production and as a pesticide vs. as dinner. The conquistadors wondered why these natives had half-plucked dinners running around everywhere and the Aztecs wondered why these foreigners would want to eat a beast that was still producing ceremonial garb and keeping the insects off the crops.

Aztec turkey god
Cited in Turkeys Part I

The Evolution of Cooking Things with Other Things in Them

One of the earliest dudes to create a cookbook was a Roman named Marcus Gavius Apicius. (The Internet says he was the cook, although Wikipedia said he was the diner. Whichever he was, his name is on the cookbook.) Apicius was fond of fish, sauces, and exotic ingredients like flamingo tongue and camel toe. He stuffed all sorts of things, with dozens of recipes for sausages as well as stuffed chicken, hare, and dormouse. Those of us who know our Alice in Wonderland know that the dormouse is very fond of treacle.

turkey menu from the movie "Christmas in Connecticut"
Barbara Stanwyck’s menu from Christmas in Connecticut. Photo from Pinterest.

One type of stuffing very popular in the Tudor era that recently surfaced was stuffing meat inside other meat, a process called engastration. The Turducken is a recent version of this, a chicken inside the duck inside the turkey. A Tudor Christmas pie involved putting a giant crust over a turkey stuffed with a goose, stuffed with partridge, stuffed with pigeon, kind of like a Russian doll version of food. The Tudor era led to stuffing many things into other things, which we might think is silly, except that modern fancy foodies eat stuffed chicken wings and stuffed quail eggs, and all manner of stuffed foods that require an eye dropper.

Even for a regular bird-stuffing project, consider the alternatives, as described in a recent Thanksgiving recipe:

Yield: 20 cups, enough for one large turkey, 2 to 3 geese or 8 chickens.

Recipe from the New York Times

That tells you all you need to know. Why make eight chickens, when all you need is one decent-sized turkey? eight chickens stuffed is … what’s the point of stuffing them? that would be like a half-cup of stuffing each. Also, who has geese? When was the last time you saw a goose at the supermarket? That’s right. Never. This is why it’s always “fun” to read recipes written by wealthy people with nothing better to do with their time than troll around open-air markets, looking for two or three geese to stuff.

On the other hand, if you’re a chicken farmer as my grandfather was, and you have your nine alphabetically-named adult children to dinner, then maybe all you have is chicken legs. But I still think a turkey or two might have been just as efficient.

When you have eight adult children & you’re a chicken farmer. Minnesota @1960, photo via kajmeister.

Engastration By Any Other Name

Stuffing has had other names throughout the years and cultures. It was also called “forcemeat,” from the French “farcir” which also means…you guessed it… to “stuff.” Forcemeat, used by both ancient and Enlightenment cooks (circa 1658) was made by grinding up meat, usually pork, and fat with some other meat. Then cubed, seasoned, cured, “rested,” and placed–i.e. crammed–into the other vessel, which might be a meat. Imagine grinding up pork meat with quail meat, and shoving it all into a deer. And you thought hot dogs were mystery meat!

The Victorians, who wanted to put fig leaves on Renaissance paintings and covered their table legs so that they wouldn’t be too erotic, were the ones that invented the alternate word “dressing” as a substitute for “stuffing.” Dressing is the more customary term in the southern U.S., so I might speculate it arose from that genteel background? I understand also that in the south, dressing is customarily made with cornbread. Out here in San Francisco, stuffing made with sourdough bread rocks the house. All kinds of bread sound good to me. Of course, not every variation will sound as good.

Weird Stuffing: No Accounting for Taste

My mom used to say “Yes, No or in a Barrel…” so here would be an evaluation of what might be unusual but still acceptable, all things I’ve read in recent recipes to “shake up your stuffing”…

YES: Rice. Mushrooms. Sausage. Spam sounds weird, but if it’s rendered down hard, it would be just like bacon.

NO. Oysters. Ground beef, Parmesan. Eggs? inside a turkey? what the heck, that’s just making meatloaf? Corn chips? wrong consistency. Stuffing really shouldn’t be crunchy. Cheese: no, what is with Americans wanting to put cheese on everything? If you just want melted cheese, make a sandwich. Otherwise, leave it out of your turkey. Cheese & Gravy? oi. Uncooked Spam (or uncooked bacon). Pepperoni (oh no). Popcorn would seem to defeat the purpose. If you need corn flavor, just use cornbread or… corn. Blue cheese and walnuts? Honestly, I think recipe-writers sometimes just try to throw oddball ingredients together to see if we’re paying attention. White Castle Sliders and Twinkies? … now, you’re just drunk.

IN A BARREL (i.e. maybe). Figs. Apples/raisins. I’d try it. Crackers instead of bread. Could work, was apparently Extremely popular in the 1950s. Hard cider (vs. turkey stock? maybe) or Whiskey. I see where this is going. Plantains? not my cup of tea, but I bet if someone knowledgeable made them, I’d like them. Smoked salmon/bagels could be interesting baked on its own, but inside the turkey?

The Stuffing That Dreams Are Made On

Here are the basic keys to stuffing:

BREAD: Needs to be stale or toasted a little. You don’t want goo, and if you use fresh bread, the stuffing will end up the like mashed potatoes. It needs to absorb the gravy, not be the consistency of the gravy.

VEGETABLES: Celery and onion are the savories which pair well with turkey and with almost any other good combination of all the unique ingredients above. If you saute the veggies first in a little butter and chicken stock, then they will be the right kind of tender, and the house starts to smell good, even before the turkey is cooking.

LIQUID/FAT: The bread, vegetables, and Other (rice, figs, whiskey, whatever) need to cling together a little, so that when you cram it in the cavity, it doesn’t immediately fall out. A little melted butter or turkey stock will do it. Or whiskey, I suppose. A classic process of making the stock is to boil the turkey innards, the neck and giblets with some onion and celery ahead of time, then strain it. That gives you plenty for the stuffing and gravy.

So, Praise to Stuffing! All Hail to Thee, Fine Stuffing! Practically anything else can be substituted in your Thanksgiving/ Friendsgiving/ harvest meal–goose or soy for turkey, yams for potatoes, brussel sprouts for green beans, pecan for pumpkin for apple pie–but you Must. Have. Stuffing.

Hooray for Stuffing! photo by kajmeister circa 2003

The Potato that Circumnavigated the Globe

A potato, a yam, and a sweet potato were sitting in a bar. The sweet potato said, I think I’ve had a few too many… better call me a Tuber….

Fozzie Bear: What is the potato’s least favorite day of the week? Fry-Day! I’ll be here all week. Photo from pinterest.

Did you know that yams and sweet potatoes are not the same–oh you did? Did you know that potatoes and sweet potatoes are not the same species–oh you did? Ok, did you know that sweet potatoes sailed to the Polynesia? Gotcha there.

Also, potatoes once made Queen Elizabeth ill, while yams rule the world. And, since those bastard potato plants pretty much destroyed an entire country and created a big chunk of a new one, that makes the lowly potato pretty down powerful. Yep, I started poking around to find out why potatoes and sweet potatoes aren’t related and I found all sorts of interesting stuff. We’re goin’ in!

Continue reading “The Potato that Circumnavigated the Globe”

Turkey Flow Redux

Author’s Note: Today, in time for you to plan your Thanksgiving, I repost one of my most popular entries, the turkey preparation process flowchart, with some handy 2019 updates.

Perhaps someday I’ll write a book that is nothing but flow charts. They fascinate me! My Turkey Dinner flowchart encompasses everything you really need to know about preparing the meal from three days out, including a logarithmic scale. But, wait– I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take this step by step.

You can start with a simple set of process steps, which I show below to use as a building block for what is to come. When I show you the full, unadultered version, your head will explode.  Bear with me.

Turkey cooking flowchart
Turkey specific flowchart, by kajmeister.

Clearly, everyone has their own T-day traditions, whether it’s deep-frying the turkey (dangerous but popular) or serving crab (very San Francisco) or canned cranberries (really?). I will map out the standard meal with the basics: a stuffed turkey, gravy, and ancillaries to put the gravy on. Maybe a few vegetables, too.

In our house, we brine the turkey–which has its supporters and detractors I know–and we saute fresh green beans and mushrooms, rather than bake them in a soup. Plus deviled eggs because it’s not T-giving without deviled eggs. By the way, if you don’t waste spend loads of time watching cooking shows as I do, you should know that “sous chef” is short hand for all the prep work that you do which doesn’t involve heating or freezing the food–chopping, measuring, mixing, and making room in the trash and compost for all the potato peels, onion skins, and turkey liver. No, you don’t eat the liver. I don’t care what your grandmother did. Gizzard, neck, and heart, ok; liver, no.

Continue reading “Turkey Flow Redux”