An Ode To Thanksgiving Dinner Preparation Past And Present

I recall last year’s Thanksgiving preparations. I noted my dining room was not “Thanksgiving dinner” ready. My dining room was a sewing and craft room at that moment.

My kids had decided that I am their tailor, so I was fixing clothing. The sewing supplies needed to be put away to make way for holiday visitors unless they could hem some pants between menu courses.

As I studied my cluttered dining room, I looked for a home for my new treasure. I had spent a few days in Washington, D.C., where I picked up a replica of an 1894 White House cookbook, created during the administration of Grover Cleveland.

Our Thanksgiving dinner was not “White House fancy” by a long shot, but you always can learn from the traditions of the past. I was fascinated by my new “old” cookbook for the historical references and glimpse of earlier times.

If I were sewing clothing in the late 19th century, this cookbook would have taught me some wardrobe tricks, too. For example, I could learn how to wash the decorative feathers on a fancy hat, if I had one.

The book also taught me how to make incombustible dresses just in case I got too close to my wood-fired oven during holiday food preparations. I just need to starch my cotton dress and add “sal ammoniac.”

I’d have to go online these days to find that chemical. I’m glad fabrics and fashions have changed.

Many of the etiquette rules of yesteryear are the same as today. Who likes to watch someone chew with his/her mouth open? No one did in 1894, either. You needed to sip soup silently and butter your bread properly, too.

Yes, the book also has lots of recipes, but the measurements perplexed me. I could guess what a “coffeecupful” would be (about a cup). However, I had no idea how much was in a “gill.” A gill is a coffeecupful, by the way.

Back then, spices added flavor but also covered the off-flavors of less-than-fresh food. Most of the recipes contained a lot of butter, lard and salt. In fact, according to a comment by the modern-day author, obesity and gout were signs of wealth and prosperity.

The foods served in the winter were to be served on warmed plates. Each place setting included a finger bowl with water and lemon to clean your fingers between courses.

You were not to proclaim that the wine you served was excellent. Boasting never has been in style, I guess.

Most foods were “locally raised” because refrigerated transportation was not readily available. You prepared the food you could access.

Let’s flash forward to modern times. Eating locally grown food is popular. We do not have to cover spoiled-food flavors with spices because we know a lot more about safe food handling.

No one wants his/her Thanksgiving dinner to be memorable because people became ill, so here are a few reminders. Be sure to follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidance for safe Thanksgiving dinner celebrations. Because turkey is the usual centerpiece for the holiday, be sure to follow these guidelines:

  • Thaw the turkey safely in a refrigerator or under cool water (about 70 F).
  • If you decide to stuff the turkey, mix the stuffing ingredients right before placing them in the bird. Be sure to stuff the bird loosely to allow for proper heating. Remove all of the stuffing after baking. However, for optimal safety, cook the stuffing in a separate dish. Be sure the stuffing reaches an internal temperature of 165 F.
  • Roast the turkey in an oven set at 325 F. Measure the temperature of the turkey in the thickest part of the breast and also the inner thigh. The turkey should reach an internal temperature of at least 165 F; however, many people enjoy the doneness of birds roasted to 180 F, the former temperature recommendation. Allow about four hours to cook a 14- to 18-pound turkey. Keep in mind that adding stuffing may increase the cooking time.
  • Alternatively, with proper equipment, you can grill, smoke or deep-fry turkeys, too. Follow the manufacturer’s directions when using special equipment.
  • After dinner, refrigerate leftovers promptly in shallow containers. Use leftover turkey, stuffing and gravy within four days.
  • If preferred, freeze leftover turkey in recipe-sized amounts in freezer containers, freezer bags or freezer wrap. Frozen food stays safe as long as it is solidly frozen. For best quality, use frozen turkey within six months.

Here’s a recipe I first tasted in a food preparation class many years ago. A variation of this recipe was one of the modern-day recipes in the 1894 White House Cookbook. It is a tasty relish to add to your holiday traditions.

Orange-Cranberry Relish

1 medium-sized orange (with peeling)
3/4 pound fresh cranberries
1 c. sugar
1/4 c. chopped nuts such as walnuts or almonds (if desired)

Rinse the orange and slice into fourths. Remove any seeds. Place half of the cranberries and half of the orange slices in a food processor. Process until they are evenly chopped. Place the chopped mixture in a bowl. Repeat with remaining orange slices and cranberries. Stir in sugar and mix thoroughly. Add chopped nuts if desired.

Makes 12 servings. With walnuts, each serving has 100 calories, 1.5 grams (g) fat, 1 g protein, 22 g carbohydrate and 0 milligrams sodium.

(Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., R.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.)