What did people eat at Thanksgiving in the 1920s?
In an attempt to find out, I dug through a decade’s worth of Chicago Tribune archives to see what Chicagoans ate at Thanksgiving during the Roaring Twenties. Mostly that meant reading columns by Jane Eddington, who wrote the column “Tribune Cook Book” from 1920 to 1929. Jane Eddington was actually a pen name for editor Caroline S. Maddocks, who wrote up recipes and detailed instructions for everything from canning your own peaches to making a wedding cake. As a more recent Chicago Tribune article states, “the purpose of the food page was to ‘preach daily that that cooking is a noble as well as an ancient duty, and an art and exacting science all in one,’” and that’s equally evident in Eddington’s Thanksgiving articles.
So scroll on down for some tasty historical tidbits—including period recipes—that made Prohibition Era Thanksgiving a little bit different from today’s holiday fare. Enjoy, and happy Thanksgiving! 😀
“One cannot do anything novel about Thanksgiving entertaining and still keep it Thanksgiving,” says one Tribune article, “And one does not want to. This is the only traditional day that is essentially ours, essentially American.”(1)
It’s true that the traditional fare of Thanksgiving hasn’t changed much over time: roasted turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and so on still rules the bill of fare. While this kind of dinner was amply represented in the Tribune articles I read, it seemed there was a trend going on throughout the 1920s as well: reviving “traditional” Thanksgiving foods from the early days of American history. Looking back to the founding of America, many cooks revived truly old staples for their modern Thanksgiving feasts. Article after article declared the virtues of “old timey” Thanksgiving foods, and promoted a return to “traditional” American food. As you might imagine, this led to some interesting recipes you don’t see much today. Here are some of the more interesting ones:
A number of Tribune articles offered this item up as a Thanksgiving appetizer in honor of the Native Americans who shared corn with the pilgrims. What is parched corn? Basically, it’s dried corn that has been gently cooked until it expands and softens, turning it into something sweet and chewy. Different varieties of corn produce different kinds of “parched” kernels (this guide will tell you which to use). It’s a dish that’s been eaten by Native Americans for thousands of years, and now you can make it too.
Here’s how to make it according to Jane Eddington, author of the Tribune’s cookbook section in the 1920s (I have paraphrased her directions):
1 cup uncooked sweet corn
1 tsp butter
Pinch of salt
Directions: Put sweet corn in a strainer set in a dish and pour enough boiling water over it to cover completely. Let stand 5 minutes. Afterwards, let drain for 15 minutes and then pat/wipe dry with a clean, dry cheesecloth. Meanwhile, heat 1 tsp butter in frying pan, then add corn and gently heat over a low flame for twenty minutes, shaking and stirring constantly. You will know it is done when the corn has been thoroughly browned and puffed to the point where some of them have split open. Drain on a paper towel and sprinkle lightly with salt. Serve immediately—the longer it sits out, the more tough and wilted it becomes.
Variations: Add maple sugar and it turns into “praline,” which was the way French explorers handled it, according to Eddington. Or run it through a food processor and add cream to turn it into “a breakfast cereal all your own.”(2)
Hot Cider Vegetable Glaze
While often drunk, cider could also be repurposed as a glaze for a wide variety of dishes, from meat to vegetables to desserts. Rather than offer you a recipe for cider itself, here’s how to use leftover apple cider on beets to create a “wholesome” glaze from a 1924 Tribune article (again, recipe is paraphrased):
1 cup pre-cooked beets
½ cup apple cider
3 tbsp sugar
1 to 2 tbsp bacon fat
Directions: Mix cider, sugar, and fat together in pan and cook for 2 minutes to integrate them. Pour mixture over hot diced or sliced cooked beets.(3)
Meat pies are traditionally an English holiday food, but a number of Tribune articles recommended them for a more “traditional” Thanksgiving. Here’s a recipe for a simple pork filling and crust:
1 ½ lb cooked pork, cut fine
3 small onions, cut fine
1 carrot, cut fine
1 tsp ground pepper
1 celery stem, cut fine
4 medium potatoes cut into blocks
1 tsp salt and “any other seasonings to suit”
3 tsp flour
Directions: stew pork with vegetables except the potatoes and add enough water to cover them well. Cook 20 minutes, then add potatoes. When potatoes are cooked through, drain most of liquid and thicken the rest it with 3 tbsp flour per pint. Cook all ingredients together for a few minutes, then ready pie crust.
2 cups pastry flour
½ cup shortening
4 tbsp ice water
Directions: Work fat into flour until you have reached a sand-like consistency. Gather it into a mound and make a little crater in the top for the water. Pour in the water and mix until you have a dough you can knead, taking care that it doesn’t get too wet. Roll out dough and lay 2/3rds of it for the pie tin, while reserving 1/3rd for the top. Line the tin with the dough, add the filling, then wet the top edges of the pie crust, attach the 1/3rd piece on top, and pinch the edges together to seal. Be sure to leave a hole in the top of the crust so the pie can vent. Brush with egg yolk if preferred. Since the meat is already cooked, bake pie for 30 to 45 minutes until crust is done.(4)
Turkey Stuffing With Lots of “Plah”
There were quite a few different stuffing recipes listed in the Tribune, based on what kind of poultry you were eating. Turns out goose, duck, and chicken were all nearly as common at turkeys on Thanksgiving tables. This recipe from 1923 was sent in to Ms. Eddington by a Mr. Champlin, and is meant for stuffing a turkey. He assures her that it’s so good that “the guests will ask for a second helping”—but given some of the ingredients, I’m not so sure…
Due to the slightly odd nature of these recipe directions, I’m just going to quote it in full:
[Obtain a] sufficient quantity of stale bread. Moisten with hot water. Fry a teacup of sliced onions in drippings until golden brown. Season with salt, pepper, and a small pinch of sugar. Have ready a pound of sausage meat. Mix soaked bread, fried onions, and sausage together. Work with the hands until the mixture is just ‘plah’ and smooth. Mix in an egg not previously beaten, and finely crushed sage and summer savory. A dash of paprika and mustard may also be added. Lastly mix in a good teaspoon of baking powder.(5)
Interesting seasonings, right? Just don’t ask me what “plah” means—I have no idea!
The Best Part of a Turkey?
Just like today, Thanksgiving wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without a turkey on the table. Back then, however, prices varied quite a lot from what we see now. 1923 saw the lowest turkey prices of the decade, ranging from 41 to 35 cents a pound, all the way down to 19 cents per pound. (6)
In 1927, prices rose to 55 cents a pound—meaning an “average sized” turkey for a family would cost only $5! (7)
Many articles also contained directions for processing a turkey: short of killing it yourself (which of course many still did), you would often buy your turkey with a number of feathers still on it, plus the feet as well. Articles provided directions for removing and cooking the feet, plucking and singing off feathers, and loosening and removing tendons. The age of the turkey was something to be considered when buying as well, and many recommended young turkeys, specifically hens, with black feet. Cooking the turkey with a covering of bacon—much as this modern recipe suggests—was another favorite preparation method.
However, one particular article mentioned a part of the turkey—and many other birds, chicken included—that many dismiss when eating or dismantling it, but is actually quite good. These are the “oyster pieces” which are small, delicate bits of tender, flavorful dark meat found in the back of the bird. “These two tidbits are in the hip cavities, or in the hollow of the sidebones, that is, on either side of the backbone, rearwards.” (8) According to the article, “the French have given them a name which means…the part which the fool leaves out.” (9) Those who know about these pieces give them “to the guest of honor or the favorite and favored.” (10) Interested in trying one for yourself? Here are some visual instructions to find these pieces when deboning a chicken. They can be found in the same area on a turkey.
I’d never heard of persimmon pudding, but one of Eddington’s 1925 Tribune articles had this to say about it: “a friend…told me that once when she was sojourning somewhere in central Illinois, all the old settlers wanted to treat her to persimmon pudding…after two or three experiences, she said she tired of it because it was like eating perfume.” (11)
It appears to have been something of a classic, though, because Ms. Eddington got many requests for a recipe. Many readers could remember their grandmothers making it but lost the actual recipe, so they’d ask her for one. Here’s one of hers she got from a friend:
1 quart persimmons
2 cups sweet milk
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1/4th cup butter
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
Directions: “Wash the persimmons and rub them through a sieve. Add the milk and then the dry ingredients and the eggs. Put into a buttered baking dish and bake one hour in [a] 250 [degree] oven.” (12)
Coffee Cream Candies
One of the articles I read discussed how difficult Thanksgiving was for new, young brides who suddenly found themselves cooking for “more than two score of her husband’s relatives” and had no idea how to do so.(13) Eddington recommended that she build up her party food skills by throwing short events for her friends throughout the year, trying new dishes at each one, and so build her repertoire and confidence. One of the easy dishes she recommended for this was a kind of candy that requires no candy thermometer, but still teaches one how to properly cook sugar. It makes about 2 dozen small candies. Here it is:
¼ cup strong coffee
1 tbsp butter
2 ½ tbsp cocoa powder
½ cup chopped walnuts, either fine or coarse
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
¼ tsp vanilla
Directions: Melt the butter in the hot coffee and add nuts, then work in sugar. Roll into balls and flatten with a heavy knife into a round piece. Place a whole walnut on top of each one. Freeze to set if desired. (14)
Pumpkin Pies and Fruit Cakes
Interestingly, none of the articles I read offered an actual recipe for pumpkin pie. Rather, they offered advice or variations regarding spices and crusts. And all of them assumed you were going to make it from an actual pumpkin which you’ve cut up, seeded, and cooked yourself. The most common tip was to scald the milk before adding it to the pumpkin meat. Eddington recommended not spicing a pumpkin pie “strong with ginger, as is common,” for it is “more wholesome and pleasant” if “the flavors of the pumpkin lead.”(15) She recommends “a pinch or two of ginger and cinnamon and a grating or two of nutmeg,” no more and no less.(16)
Another common recipe was for fruit cake. It appears these were popular throughout the holiday season, including Thanksgiving, and it was considered appropriate to serve one along with the pumpkin pie.
One variation of a fruit cake is what Eddington called a “raised dough cake.” Similar to a Mardi Gras king cake, it could be served as a pumpkin pie alternative. It’s a moist cake meant to be cut in thin slices and served with tea. Here’s her recipe, heavily paraphrased:
1 cup bread sponge
¼ cup butter
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
½ tsp baking soda dissolved in 1 tbsp milk
½ cup raisins or other dried fruit
Spices “if you choose”
Directions: Cream the butter and work in the sugar. Separate egg whites from egg yolks. Combine all ingredients except egg whites, with raisins last. Add in egg whites and fold together, mixing completely. Pour batter into a cake pan and let it rise about half an hour before baking it in a moderately heated oven. The time depends on the size and depth of the pan used, but most require about an hour. It can be iced with plain icing if desired.(17)
- Standish, Persis. “THANKSGIVING FEASTS.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 20, 1927. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180845375?accountid=3688.
- Eddington, Jane. “THE TRIBUNE COOK BOOK.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 25, 1928. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180946471?accountid=3688.
- Eddington, Jane. “The TRIBUNE Cook Book.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 16, 1924. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180644011?accountid=3688.
- Eddington, Jane. “THE TRIBUNE COOK BOOK.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Dec 21, 1924. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180596149?accountid=3688.
- Eddington, Jane. “TRIBUNE COOK BOOK.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Dec 05, 1923. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180513163?accountid=3688.
- “TURKEY PRICES BRING CAUSE FOR THANKSGIVING.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 28, 1923. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180516923?accountid=3688.
- Ridgway, Frank. “TURKEYS, CHEAP AND MANY, AWAIT THANKSGIVING AX.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 06, 1927. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180875441?accountid=3688.
- Eddington, Jane. “The TRIBUNE COOK BOOK.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), Nov 20, 1921. http://search.proquest.com/docview/174901731?accountid=3688.
- Eddington, Jane. “TRIBUNE COOK BOOK.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Feb 04, 1925. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180636428?accountid=3688.
- Eddington, Jane. “TRIBUNE COOK BOOK.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 22, 1928. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180951640?accountid=3688.
- Eddington, Jane. “The TRIBUNE COOK BOOK.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Jan 10, 1926. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180715705?accountid=3688.
- Eddington, Jane. “The TRIBUNE COOK BOOK.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 15, 1925. http://search.proquest.com/docview/180719909?accountid=3688.
- Eddington, Jane. “Tribune Cook Book.” Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963), Nov 25, 1929. http://search.proquest.com/docview/181017152?accountid=3688.