Thanksgiving in Northwood

By Sarah Hale, 1827

In her 1827 novel Northwood, Sarah Hale explains that the first Thanksgiving was to celebrate the arrival of a ship from England laden with provisions at a time when the early settlers of Boston were nearly out of food.  No mention of friendly Indians in this version.

She adds Thanksgiving is not to celebrate that event, but rather “a tribute of gratitude to God, an acknowledgement that God is our Lord, and that as a nation we derive our privileges and blessings from him.”  She notes that we have no national religion because “our people do not need compulsion to support the Gospel.”

Hale’s campaign for a national Thanksgiving holiday had begun when she wrote this novel.  In Northwood she says that “when Thanksgiving will be celebrated together across the nation it will be a grand spectacle of moral power and human happiness such as the world has never witnessed.”

Regarding charity on the holiday, she mentions that it is an occasion of “good gifts as well as good dinner” and paupers, prisoners, all will be feasted.

In Northwood, a long-absent son and his guest from England arrive unexpectedly the night before Thanksgiving.  The family stays up until midnight, talking.  The mother gets up the next morning and prepares a sumptuous breakfast for the guests, who are roused at 8.  The family eats, and then departs for church, leaving one of the teen-aged daughters to “superintend the various operations of stewing, roasting, baking, etc.”  It is unclear who she is superintending.  (They have one wretched maid, “shiftless old Hester,” who spends the holiday with her family.)

The family comes home from church to the feast, which we can only assume has been cooked over the preceding days.  There is no way the teenager produced this feast while the long sermon was preached.  November was colder in 1827, and there must have been ice boxes, so we can hope the lack of refrigeration was not a problem.

The feast is arrayed on a long table in the parlor, covered with a bleached white damask cloth woven by the mother.  Everyone, including every child, has a seat at the table.

The menu:

Roast turkey took precedence with savory stuffing and broth.

It was flanked on either side by a leg of pork and a loin of mutton.

There were innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables.

There was a goose and a pair of ducklings on side stations.

The middle of the table was graced by a chicken pie, wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned by a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with puff paste.

There were plates of pickles, preserves, and butter.

A wine glass and two tumblers were at each place, with a slice of wheat bread on top of one of the inverted tumblers.

For dessert there was a huge plum pudding, custards, and pies.  Pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche.  There were also several kinds of rich cake and a variety of sweetmeats and fruit.

To drink they had currant wine, cider, and ginger beer, all made by themselves.  Ms. Hale notes that there were no foreign wines or “ardent” spirits.

After dinner they drank coffee, an innovation added to please the son who was raised in the south.

Ms. Hale emphasizes that all this abundance is “common food,” not foreign or rare luxuries.  She says that “excessive luxury and rational liberty are never yet found compatible.”  Everything on the table, except salt and a few spices (and I suppose the coffee), was raised or grown on the home farm.

Hale speaks earnestly of the need for simplicity in decoration and attire and the virtues of this county fare.  There would have been nothing simple, however, for the housewife who was encouraged to produce such a feast.  From the weaving of the damask to the brewing of the beer, it seems an impossibly high bar to reach.

Setting aside the dietary extremes, the mention of avoiding luxury as a prerequisite for our own liberty is worthy of consideration before we throw the holiday of Thanksgiving aside and head for the malls in search of ever more gifts and decorations.  We might then more closely approach that grand moral spectacle of human happiness that Hale anticipated.

– Sandra Sonnichsen