Friday, November 23, 2012

Literary Leftovers: An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving

I’m fascinated by all descriptions of food in literature. So this Thanksgiving I found myself reading a lot about traditional Thanksgiving feasts, which I enjoyed very much, even though I am a lifelong vegetarian who has never tasted a turkey. I thought that I would spend part of yesterday writing about my favorite Thanksgiving story, Louisa May Alcott’s “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving.” But I was wrong, because this story is all about food, and after my own Thanksgiving feast, I couldn’t even think about more food. Today, on the other hand, everything in “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” sounds appetizing again.

This story is in volume six of Aunt Jo’s Scrap-Bag, a six-volume set of short stories that Alcott published between 1872 and 1882. The stories in this volume are for small children, and are fanciful tales of talking animals or dolls, or moral stories in which children learn to behave (although there is at least one story, “Poppy’s Pranks,” about a little girl who continually gets into trouble and never learns her lesson). “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” is different from the other stories, though. It’s longer, it seems to be written for a slightly older audience, and it’s a nostalgic story of life in the 1820s.

(The 1929 edition of Aunt Jo's Scrapbag, from this website.)

“An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving” is about a family of eight children growing up in a New Hampshire farmhouse. It’s one of Alcott’s stories – like An Old-Fashioned Girl – which is about how much better country life is than city life, and how much better the ways of the past were than those of the present. The appeal of this story is in the quaintness of the New Hampshire children’s lifestyle, in the happiness of their family life, and in the trouble they get into when they are unsupervised. The parents have to leave unexpectedly at the beginning of the story, and the children decide to make Thanksgiving dinner themselves. (So basically the same plot as “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” but with better food.) Another appealing thing about this story is the abundance of delicious food that it describes:

“November had come; the crops were in, and barn, buttery, and bin were overflowing with the harvest that rewarded the summer’s hard work. The big kitchen was a jolly place just now, for in the great fireplace roared a cheerful fire; on the walls hung garlands of dried apples, onions, and corn; up aloft from the beams shone crook-necked squashes, juicy hams, and dried venison – for in those days deer still haunted the deep forests, and hunters flourished. Savory smells were in the air; on the crane hung steaming kettles, and down among the red embers copper sauce-pans simmered, all suggestive of some approaching feast.”

(Harvest abundance in a Victorian Thanksgiving card.)

It was so interesting to read this story after reading Sarah Josepha Hale. The Good Housekeeper (written about forty years before the Alcott story was published) has recipes for all of the food mentioned in “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” including cider apple-sauce, hasty pudding, Indian pudding, brown bread, baked apples, and roast turkey. If Tilly and Prue, the two oldest girls in “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” had owned a copy of Hale’s cookbook, they would have known that poultry should be stuffed with parsley, sage, winter savory, and marjoram. But, going on their memory of the dish, they stuff the turkey instead with catnip and bitter wormwood. It’s particularly funny to read this passage after reading what Hale has to say about stuffing: “It is needless to repeat over again the ingredients for stuffing, way of making gravy, &c. A female who has sense enough to cook a dinner will manage these things to her own liking and means. It is not necessary to good cooking, that every one should season alike.”

Tilly and Prue also ruin their plum-pudding, which turns out “as hard and heavy as one of the stone balls on Squire Dunkin’s great gate.” But if you believe Hale, plum-pudding is terribly unhealthy, so maybe that’s just as well. Hale says, “The custom of eating mince pies at Christmas, like that of plum puddings, was too firmly rooted for the ‘Pilgrim fathers’ to abolish; so it would be vain for me to attempt it. At Thanksgiving too, they are considered indispensable; but I may be allowed to hope that during the remainder of the year, this rich, expensive and exceedingly unhealthy diet will be used very sparingly by all who wish to enjoy sound sleep or pleasant dreams.”

(Cozy scene illustrated in the 1929 edition of Aunt Jo's Scrapbag.)

Fortunately, Tilly and Prue make enough successful dishes to give their entire family a satisfying Thanksgiving feast. Their menu features turkey with stuffing and onions, cranberry-sauce, mince pies, nuts, apples, oranges, and “vegetables of every sort.” This is the basic Thanksgiving menu suggested by Sarah Josepha Hale (although hers is fancier and includes more meats), and the same Thanksgiving meal that Alcott portrays in other books of hers; Little Men, for example. Hale was the driving force that made Thanksgiving a national holiday, but I think that Alcott must have played a role in popularizing its traditions. Except for the mince pies and plum-pudding (and the catnip stuffing), my family had a Thanksgiving dinner very similar to the one in “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving.” I think that we have both Alcott and Hale to thank for that.


  1. Catnip and wormwood stuffing! (I keep thinking about how Anne of Green Gables creates culinary confusion.) However those juicy hams and copper pans are lovely - I love these descriptions of bountifulness in books. Larders full of pies, etc.

    1. Yes, it does remind me of Anne's liniment cake! It's funny how drawn I am both to descriptions of good and plentiful food, and of dishes gone horribly wrong.

  2. I was trying to think of Thanksgiving scenes or stories in books, and I could only come up with a short list, starting with the dinner in Little Men. I haven't come across any of the volumes of Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag yet, though I've seen references to them.

    1. Yes, I can't think of too many Thanksgiving scenes in books either. Why is that? There are a couple more references to Thanksgiving in Louisa May Alcott books, including one very disturbing story from Aunt Jo's Scrap Bag in which Thanksgiving is seen from the perspective of the chickens and turkeys. But that scene from Little Men and "An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving" are the only ones I can think of that really focus on the food and the festivity of the holiday.