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American Thanksgiving traditions are typically traced back to the Pilgrims and the country’s earliest days. But the holiday’s unique place in American culture came much later– in the decades before and after the Civil War. We track the evolution of Thanksgiving across American history, and explore how government and politics shape our culinary traditions.
- Alice Kamps Curator, National Archives and Records Administration
- Andrew F. Smith Author, "Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine" (Columbia University Press); Executive Editor, "The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America" (Oxford University Press)
Read an Excerpt: “Eating History” by Andrew Smith
Excerpted from “Eating History” by Andrew Smith. Copyright (c) 2009 Andrew Smith. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press:
What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?
Running through January 3, 2012 at the National Archives, this exhibit explores how government policies have affected our eating habits and food traditions.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe true story of Thanksgiving stretches back deep into American history, but it's different than the one about the Pilgrims and the funny hats and the Indians sitting down to feast in Plymouth. It's a story of food culture and politics that really begins in the 19th century. The idea of a national Thanksgiving holiday was first championed by Sarah Josepha Hale, a trailblazing poet and publisher writing in the 1830s and 1840s. It was made official in 1863 when Abraham Lincoln enshrined it on the last Thursday in November.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd in 1864, it became a rallying cause across the Union as communities across the north sent tens of thousands of turkeys, livestock and other food stuffs to Union troops laying siege to Petersburg. Over the years, our food culture has evolved in response to politics, pop culture and government policy, and so has our Thanksgiving food spread. Joining us to discuss this is Andrew Smith. He is the author of "Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine," and executive editor of the "The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America."
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHe joins us from the Argo Studios in New York. Andrew Smith, thank you for joining us.
MR. ANDREW F. SMITHThank you for inviting me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd we -- you can also find an excerpt of eating history on our website, kojoshow.org. With us in our Washington studio is Alice Kamps, curator at the National Archives and Records Administration. She curated the "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" exhibit currently on display at the archives, which now explores how government -- which explores how government policies influence our eating habits. Alice Kamps, thank you for joining us.
MS. ALICE KAMPSMy pleasure. Thank you.
NNAMDIIt's a conversation that you, too, can join by calling 800-433-8850. Do you have any questions about the origin of our Thanksgiving dishes and traditions? 800-433-8850. Andrew, the idea of Thanksgiving existed before the United States was born.
NNAMDIWe know that colonists celebrated the fall harvest with feasts in Jamestown and in Plymouth. But the holiday itself, as we know it, is actually the product of unique forces in the lead-up to the Civil War. Where did Thanksgiving come from?
SMITHWell, Thanksgiving, initially, was a day of -- a religious day. It was a day that you spent in church. You didn't do frivolous activities like fixing food for anybody. So that was the origin. It's a religious holiday. It becomes secularized in the late 18th century, and what we know of as Thanksgiving was celebrated in New England in the early 19th century. One of the people that really loved it was a woman by the name of Sarah Josepha Hale who, in a novel, writes this account of a New England Thanksgiving, which is published in Northwood.
SMITHAnd she thinks that's a really great holiday that everybody should be celebrating. And when she becomes the editor for Godey's Magazine, she starts this campaign in 1840s that will end up with President Abraham Lincoln declaring Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. But she really thinks that the nation that can sit down and have a dinner together at the same day on Thanksgiving would stay together. She didn't succeed with that, but it certainly creates lots of traditions that would come out of the Civil War. So the Pilgrims aren't associated with this at all until 1841, and we know...
NNAMDINow, what do we know about how the Pilgrims actually celebrated Thanksgiving and what they ate?
SMITHWell, there are days of Thanksgiving that the Pilgrims celebrated, but they're religious days. They didn't eat anything.
SMITHThere is a fall harvest in 1621 that does appear in a single letter that is published in England in 1622, that does talk about the Indians getting together with the Pilgrims and the Indians going out and getting deer and that they ate some fowl. And that's all we know. But they didn't consider that a Thanksgiving then. They didn't celebrate it thereafter, and it really isn't even mentioned until 1841. And then the letter is recovered and reprinted in America.
SMITHSo you've got this nice story that ends up after the Civil War in the school textbooks. So that's why we all ended up, you know, playing Pilgrims and playing Indians and having a nice sit-down dinner and having a good time. So it really is a myth.
NNAMDIWell, up until 1863, we had only two national holidays, Washington's birthday, the 4th of July. As you mentioned, Thanksgiving was celebrated in different ways and at different times across the country. But in October of 1863, at the height of the Civil War, it was enshrined as a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln. Why then?
SMITHIt's right after the northern victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and Lincoln felt that we had something to be thankful for the North. And so, therefore, with the pressure from Sarah Josepha Hale, who pressures one with the cabinet members of Lincoln's cabinet. And he then writes this proclamation, gives it to Lincoln. Lincoln makes some changes in it and then issues that out. So it really is a strange way of becoming a national holiday.
NNAMDIWell, it's my understanding that a massive mobilization took place across the North when Union and Confederate troops were at a stalemate in Petersburg, and that mobilization was about sending food down to the soldiers in the trenches in, I guess, 1864.
SMITHThat's correct. That's the following year when you had massive casualties of the Union Army trying to box in Robert E. Lee in Petersburg and Richmond. And the civilians -- starts in New York, but it goes to every other northern city -- said, we need to show support for our troops. And so they began this campaign of sending down turkeys and cranberry sauce, if you can believe it, and pies and you name it. So for a manner of about three weeks ahead of time, all this was sent down to the troops in Petersburg and Richmond, and also for the Navy that was in the northern part of the federal fleet.
SMITHSo you had this huge campaign, and soldiers wrote really nice notes back to the people who sent foods saying, the food was good. We appreciate that very much, but it was the thought that counted.
NNAMDIAlice Kamps, the exhibit "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" currently on display at the National Archives traces how American food ways have been influenced by our government, and one of the big themes is wartime. In the exhibit, there's a letter by a Union soldier talking about what he's eating or, more precisely, what he is not eating in his ration.
KAMPSYeah, I would guess he was probably really grateful for those turkeys when they came. This letter is by a man named Benson. He's writing to his mother to explain why the amount of pay that he's sending her is much less than he had hoped. And he said that it's because he's been spending a great deal of his pay on extra food. There were places called sutlers where the soldiers could supplement their meals and purchase food.
KAMPSAnd he writes about how much it costs to buy eggs and cheese and butter and a can of tomatoes. And he is also promising her that he is going to try to resist his voracious appetite next time so that he can send her all of his pay.
NNAMDIWhy did the Archives decide to arrange this exhibit?
KAMPSWell, it was something that we had wanted to do for a long time. Chris Smith, our director of exhibits, has worked at the Archives for many years, and she kept coming across records about food and thought it would just be wonderful to share this with the public 'cause it's not a topic that people generally associate with the National Archives. And the time just seemed to be right. It's certainly something on a lot of people's mind, and we thought we could add a great deal to the conversation.
NNAMDIAlice Kamps is a curator at the National Archives and Records Administration. She curate the -- curated the "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" exhibit currently on display at the Archives. It explores how government policies influenced our eating habits. She joins us in studio. Joining us from Argo Studios in New York is Andrew Smith, author of "Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine." He's executive editor of "The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America."
NNAMDIYou can find excerpts of eating history on our website, kojoshow.org, where you can also go to join the conversation if you have questions or comments. Does your family have any unique traditions that reflect the local culture of the places you grew up? 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com. Andrew, if food took on a big role as a morale boost for the North, it was actually a cause of major unrest and disaffection in the South, right?
SMITHIt was indeed. Throughout the Civil War, the South had problems feeding its own troops and also feeding the civilians in cities. But once they saw that the Union soldiers have gotten all this food in 1864, they decided they were going to have a dinner just like the North would. And their -- the civilians were going to support their troops just like the North did, and it was a bust. And it turned out to be a morale disaster, and you had literally tens of thousands of soldiers from the Army of Northern Virginia deserted in the last few months of the war, in part, because they didn't have food.
NNAMDIPost-Civil War, many Southerners refused to celebrate Thanksgiving because of its roots in the northeast and its association with the Union and Lincoln. Is that correct?
SMITHYes. Well, there was even a concern before the Civil War. And the large part of it was ministers in New England would use Thanksgiving as a day to attack slavery. And so many of the Southerners associated Thanksgiving, even before the Civil War, as an anti-slavery holiday, so there was lots of dissention and disagreement with celebrating Thanksgiving before the war and after the war. Many people in the South did not celebrate Thanksgiving for decades.
NNAMDIAlice Kamps, various wars have affected our food culture in more subtle ways. In this exhibit, you detail how expectations from returning soldiers ended up affecting what Americans ate for dinner after wars.
KAMPSYes. During World War II, malnutrition was a great concern. There were many draftees who were considered ineligible for service because they were malnourished. So the government was very, very careful about providing enough nutrients for soldiers. In fact, the nutritionist who devised their menus allotted 5,000 calories a day for these men. A great portion of their meals was meat, especially beef.
KAMPSSoldiers ate probably three times as much beef as your average American during that time, and they also drank a great deal of milk with their meals. It was the favorite beverage during World War II, whereas coffee was the favorite during World War I. And nutritionists were very proud of that fact. But I expect they came home with perhaps some expectations of what a meal consisted of after getting used to those types of meals in the -- in wartime.
NNAMDIAndrew Smith, what were the meals like for soldiers in the Civil War?
SMITHThe Union did an extremely good job of organizing commissary departments. And they obviously didn't know anything about calories, but they did know some things about nutrition. And they had a very balanced diet. Now, it's absolutely true that many soldiers used their money in order to buy food. But some of them bought whiskey and other alcoholic beverages, and they might not have wanted to report that back home.
SMITHSo there was a massive amount of food that was available in the North, although there were certainly a few exceptions. In the South, it was exactly the opposite, at least for the armies east of the Mississippi. They had no organized commissary system as the North did, and so many of the soldiers suffered from malnutrition throughout the war.
NNAMDIAnd you mentioned earlier the role of Sarah Josepha Hale -- author, poet, publisher -- crusading for the national holiday for Thanksgiving. How did she ultimately envision the holiday taking shape?
SMITHShe envisioned the way the holiday would take shape in 1826 when she wrote "Northwood." And it's the family gets together and invites all of their extended family. And if there are a few neighbors that can't quite have a family of their own, they're invited over. And you have a large turkey right in the middle of the table, and you've got your stuffing. And you got your cranberries, and you've got your gravy. And you've got pies at the end, which would have included, historically, pumpkin and apple pie and whatever other pie that you could get.
SMITHAnd that was what she thought was really important to get a family together. And it is really America's own family secular holiday if you start looking at this, so -- and it was -- as you pointed out earlier on, it was the only fall holiday at the time. So it worked in very nicely.
SMITHAnd that was the image that she conveyed in her articles in Godey's magazine and in numerous letters that she wrote to others. And then women started this campaign to have every single state, to begin with, have a Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday in November. And that's what she started pressing President Lincoln for and which she succeeded at.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on the political and culinary history of Thanksgiving. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Any questions about the origins of our Thanksgiving dishes and tradition? Does your family have unique traditions that -- about Thanksgiving, especially, that reflect the local culture and the places in which you grew up? Call us at 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about the political and culinary history of Thanksgiving with Alice Kamps, curator at the National Archives and Records Administration. She curated the "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" exhibit currently on display at the Archives. It explores how government policies influenced our eating habits.
NNAMDIAnd Andrew F. Smith is author of "Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine." He's also executive editor of the "The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America." Andrew, you've written a whole book on the history of turkey. Why has turkey been the traditional centerpiece?
SMITHIt's certainly American. I mean, people, think of the turkey, and certainly as the American bird. And it's really one of the few foods that we consume that originated in North America. So I think that's part of it. But, more importantly, it's big, and it's relatively low cost. It's the least costly of all the traditional meats that you have available. And it can serve a lot of people. And I think those are some of the reasons on why the turkey ended up there. But it was 100 years and -- from the beginning of the Thanksgiving meals until the time that turkey became the dominant centerpiece.
NNAMDIOne of the quirks of history, Thanksgiving, it turns out, is intimately linked to the origins of the TV dinner, Andrew?
SMITHWell, yes. For those of us that could remember the TV dinner in the 1950s, the man, C.A. Swanson, who owned a company tried to corner the market on turkeys, and he succeeded in the 1950s. And the problem was, at that point, you only ate a turkey in the fall, particularly at Thanksgiving but, to a lesser extent, at Christmas. So you had a problem. If you couldn't sell your turkeys, what do you do with them?
SMITHWell, they had a lot of freezer storage areas, and so he put his turkeys that he couldn't sell into that and then tried figuring out something else to do with them. And one of the things that one of his salesmen came up with was this idea of creating an aluminum with three components and put turkey in the middle and put your stuffing off to the side and put a vegetable or something else off to the other component. And that they started off in 1963 as the television dinner, and they put the cover looking like a television in the 1950s.
SMITHAnd at that point, television was a new technology, and it -- people thought that they were supposed to eat this TV dinner in front of watching television, and that's exactly what we did in my youth. So it really becomes one of America's most incredible food inventions in the 1950s, 1960s.
NNAMDIYeah. I remember TV dinners with not a great deal of affection. Alice, government has shaped what we eat in a variety of direct and indirect ways. One of the most powerful ways is through dietary advice and guidelines. From a government perspective for most of our history, we were apparently trying to get as many calories into people as possible, huh?
KAMPSYes, that's right. Malnutrition, as I mentioned before, was a great concern in the '20s and through World War II. And so the nutrition guides were geared towards encouraging people to get enough nutrients. We have a wonderful nutrition guide from World War II which has seven food groups, and we really like it because butter has its own food group. And it's on equal footing with green and yellow vegetables and all the other food groups that they list. And also because, at the bottom, it says after you've had some of each of these foods, eat whatever you want.
NNAMDIAndrew, the key issue here, I guess, is our lifestyle not just what we put in our bellies, what we do with that energy. For most of our history, this was a rural-agrarian country, and we needed a high-calorie count to do the hard work of farming, didn't we?
SMITHThat's correct. The best estimate is that Americans, prior to 1900, at least in the rural areas, would have consumed 5,000 calories a day during the summer. And so you would have had a huge amount of calories being consumed, but, as you well know, weight gain is based on not just calories in but also calories out. And so when we have a sedentary culture as we do today, sitting in front and watching television, eating our TV dinner or sitting in front of our computer, then you don't expend the calories that you need.
SMITHAnd so, consequently today, the best estimate is we should be consuming 1,800 calories if you're a female and 2,100 calories if you're a male. So you have this exchange between calories in and calories out, and, obviously, that matters with how much exercise you get.
NNAMDIHere is Joanne in Silver Spring, Md. Joanne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOANNEHi. Thanks for taking my call. This isn't really Thanksgiving related, but it does have to do with the Archives' exhibit about Uncle Sam. I have an old cookbook that had belonged to my aunt. It was published between 1938 and 1944. It's the victory edition of the "American Woman's Cookbook." And on the inside page, it tells you that it's the wartime edition with victory substitutes, economical recipes to use during rationing to make delicious wartime meals.
JOANNESo I thought that was sort of related to not necessarily the government putting this book out, but just how in those times of war that people could still have a cookbook.
KAMPSWell, the government did, indeed, put out cookbooks and recipes to help people to work with the foods that were available to them because rationing did, of course, limit what they had to work with.
NNAMDIAnd, Alice, during World War II, every soldier was allotted 5,000 calories a day, and cooking culture within the military and outside was all about maximizing calories by reusing leftovers, right?
KAMPSYeah. Well, we do have a poster that was designed for military cooks, and it advises them to use leftovers. And we imagine that if they were trying to get 5,000 calories into those soldiers every day, they probably had to use leftovers to get there.
NNAMDIAnd this may not have anything to do with what we're discussing, but I couldn't help noticing that in "Eating with Uncle Sam," there's a recipe taken from the manual for Army cooks in 1879, published by the U.S. government, for something called baked beef head without cooking utensils. How does that work?
KAMPSI'm not sure I can explain that. I've read the recipe. It...
NNAMDIDig a hole in the ground of sufficient size and build a fire in it. After the fuel has burned the coals, put in the head, neck downward. Cover it with green grass, earth and coals. Build a good fire over the buried head and keep it burning for about six hours. You get the idea.
KAMPSThere are actually some wonderful recipes in there that people might actually want to try. We have Hoover's favorite mashed sweet potato recipe and the Reagan family's pumpkin pecan pie recipe as well.
NNAMDIAndrew, have you ever tried anything like baked beef head?
SMITHI haven't, although I must admit I have had horse head. So that's not quite the same, but I ate that in Kazakhstan.
NNAMDIOn to Hassan (sp?) in Alexandria, Va., who brings us back to our topic. Hassan, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
HASSANHello, Kojo. Thank you. Kojo, I'm just curious. When Americans put this huge turkey on the table to eat, whom really they are thanking for? Are they thanking the Indians that are pushed in concentration camps and they're drunk and they have nothing from this wealthy country? Or they're thanking God? I'd just like to know.
NNAMDIAndrew, I'm -- I mean, Hassan, I'm assuming that this is a serious question and that you're not seeking simply to make a political point, correct?
HASSANWell, not really. It's not political point, but...
NNAMDIOkay. Well, allow me to have Andrew Smith answer.
SMITHWell, there is a political point there, and a large number of Native Americans believe that Thanksgiving was not their holiday. And many of them refuse to celebrate it.
SMITHAnd I think that there is an important part that is -- another part of that story that needs to be told, and they've been doing their best to tell it. And that started, by the way, when -- in the 1830s. So it wasn't something that just came up in the 1870 -- 1970s that it became popularized. But Native Americans have had real concern about Thanksgiving and the way that mainstream Americans have celebrated it. So I think that's an important issue. Another...
NNAMDIIn response to Hassan's question...
NNAMDI...is it more about who we are thanking or what people are giving thanks for?
SMITHI think it's probably more about having good food with family and friends, and I'm not sure that there is much of a religious tradition that's left. And so -- not that it shouldn't be, only that it often is not.
NNAMDIHassan, thank you very much for your call.
HASSANThank you, Kojo. Bye.
NNAMDIAndrew, how have our food traditions evolved over the years? What kind of geographic variations do we tend to see in the Thanksgiving feast that people prepare?
SMITHWell, I mean, you know, all -- the American food system changes during the American Civil War. And it changes -- after the war is over, you had canning, as Alice mentioned, becomes common as a normal food group. You begin to take a look at the national system that emerges from distribution standpoint. You have the railroads that make it possible to ship oranges from California and later from Florida. And so you have a national food system that evolves out of that.
SMITHAnd all of this will have then an effect on how we celebrate Thanksgiving because it moves from the foods that you have local, and they would have been different foods in New England that you would have had in the American South, for instance, at -- in November to a national menu that has a lot of consistency based on commercial products that come out of the Industrial Revolution.
NNAMDIWhat are some of those differences?
SMITHWell, I mean, historically, you would have had yams and sweet potatoes in the South and white potatoes in the North, and that now has certainly blurred. You -- in -- my family is actually from the South, and we always had dressing. We never had stuffing. And the dressing in this case is what you added to it. In the North, they would typically have put in oysters and virtually anything else that you could have acquired that would have been available, and in the South, it ends up bread -- cornbread stuffing.
SMITHSo you end up with really a very different type of meal. Cranberries would historically have been only in -- available only in New England. And with the Industrial Revolution, the canned cranberries are available virtually anywhere. So that's a shift that occurs. In the South, turkeys were not as important as they were in the North. And so, historically, you might well have had pork and beef that would have been part of the meal.
SMITHAnd that changes over time so that the turkey, once it's distributed nationally, you can raise it virtually anywhere, and that becomes standard by 1900. So you have these shifts and changes that are going on. Cornbread, of course, in the South, and you have all sorts of other Southern traditions that would have been there, that would have been part of the meal.
SMITHToday, immigrants who are coming into America often do celebrate Thanksgiving. And it may be that the turkey is the centerpiece, but then they bring in their own culinary traditions to the meal. And so it's no longer just the stereotype of what Sarah Josepha Hale saw as the way to serve Thanksgiving dinner.
NNAMDIAlice Kamps, Thanksgiving is a harvest holiday, and, in a sense, the things we eat and our expectations of what's in our -- what's on our Thanksgiving table kind of mirrors the evolution of our food culture. One of the ways our government has most directly affected our food culture has been through our agricultural policies. At various times, we've been encouraged to grow our own food or encouraged to eat as much as we can from industrial agriculture.
KAMPSIndeed. And one of the ways that government has affected agriculture was through plant exploration. In the early 1900s and up to about 1930, the government -- the Department of Agriculture sent explorers to the far corners of the earth to bring back seeds and plants to test in our soils and breed with plants here for certain desirable traits. And they did -- went a long way in diversifying what we have available to us and also in creating breeds of plants that could survive harsh climates and diseases.
NNAMDIAndrew, we got this email from Elizabeth. "Just FYI: There's a great book for kids about Sarah Hale and how she lobbied intensely for years to get Thanksgiving to be a national holiday. She went through a lot of presidents before Lincoln finally said yes. Sarah Hale is also credited with writing 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' by the way. This book might be worth a mention. It's called 'Thank You, Sarah: The Woman Who Saved Thanksgiving.'" Andrew Smith?
SMITHI think her story is a great story. It's not been told well. I'm not familiar with that book, but I will go out and buy it very quickly as soon as we finish here on the radio.
NNAMDIAndrew F. Smith is the author of "Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine." He's executive editor of "The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America." Andrew Smith, thank you for joining us.
SMITHThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou can find an excerpt of "Eating History" on our website, kojoshow.org. Alice Kamps is curator at the National Archives and Records Administrator -- Administration. She curated "What's Cooking, Uncle Sam?" the exhibit currently on display at the Archives, which explores how government policies influenced our eating habits. Alice Kamps, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd that exhibit runs through January. Is that correct?
KAMPSJan. 3, that's right.
NNAMDIJan. 3. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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