Everyone has heard of the First Thanksgiving, the three-day feast at Plymouth in 1621. But how did the American harvest festival end up the national holiday we all know and love? Of course, harvest celebrations are nothing new, but in the New World, pioneers were eager to create a holiday of their own. George Washington attempted to set up a Thanksgiving holiday, but the day didn’t gain much momentum until 1846, when Sarah Hale, editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, began a letter-writing campaign to establish the last Thursday in November as National Thanksgiving Day. It took 17 years, but eventually her pleas fell on the ears of President Abraham Lincoln, who issued a proclamation on October 3, 1863, designating Thanksgiving Day.
So, how would your characters have celebrated the holiday? Why, with a feast, of course. Menu items from restaurants to home tables would have included many of the traditional favorites we still enjoy today, such as turkey, cranberry sauce, and mince, apple, or pumpkin pies. Hotels in Kansas City, Missouri outdid themselves in 1888. Their menu included Blue Point oysters, little neck clams, calf’s brains, buffalo tongue, red snapper, black bass, salmon, capon, turkey duck, ribs of beef, veal, quail stuffed with truffles, elk, squirrel, opossum, shrimp, pompano, asparagus, artichokes, puddings, pies, ice cream, macaroons, and Roquefort and Edam cheeses.
The New England Economical Housekeeper, and Family Receipt Book of 1845, by Mrs. E.A. Howland, urged readers to serve the following Thanksgiving Dinner: Roast Turkey, stuffed; A Pair of Chickens, stuffed, and boiled, with cabbage and a piece of lean pork; A Chicken Pie; Potatoes; turnip sauce, squash; onions; gravy and gravy sauce; apple and cranberry sauce; oyster sauce brown and white bread; Plum and Plain Pudding, with Sweet sauce; Mince, Pumpkin and Apple Pies; Cheese.
The Golden Lamb in Ohio, served a Thanksgiving menu that included several oyster dishes (including plain oysters), such as consommé oysters as well as turkey stuffed with oysters. Other dishes were whitefish, roast beef, chicken croquettes, wild duck, broiled quail, celery and lettuce (plain or with mayonnaise), plum pudding, mince pie, pineapple with “De Brie cheese” and Charlotte Russe (a dessert of sweet cream and sponge cake popular during the Victorian and Edwardian periods).
And in Buckeye Cookery, Estelle Woods Wilcox suggested that the perfect Thanksgiving dinner included oyster soup; boiled fresh cod with egg sauce; roast turkey, cranberry sauce; roast goose, bread sauce or currant jelly; stuffed ham, apple sauce or jelly; pork and beans; mashed potatoes and boiled onions, salsify, macaroni and cheese; brown bread and superior biscuit; lobste4r salad; pressed beef, cold corned beef, tongue; celery, cream slaw; watermelon, peach, pear, or apple sweet-pickles; mangoes, cucumbers, chow-chow, and tomato catsup; stewed peaches or prunes; doughnuts and ginger cakes; mince, pumpkin, and peach pies; plum and boiled Indian puddings; apple, cocoa-nut or almond tarts; vanilla ice-cream;; old-fashioned loaf cake, pound cake, black cake, white perfection cake, ribbon cake, almond layer cake; citron, peach, plum, or cherry preserves; apples, oranges, figs, grapes, raisins, and nuts; tea and coffee.
So your characters would have eaten well on the holiday, even if their meal wasn't exactly what we'd serve today. Much of their Thanksgiving feast would have included whatever they could catch or raise, which may or may not include turkey. But you can certainly have your characters celebrating with a feast.