RI Artscape: Tastes Change, Thanksgiving Remains

Nov 26, 2015

This month we bring you a special, Thanksgiving Rhode Island  Artscape. We take look at the art and the history of the Thanksgiving menu, and how it’s changed

, with Richard Gutman, director and curator at the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University.

Richard Gutman Originally it was a harvest festival, so in the early days, the Pilgrims, turkey is what we think of when we think of Thanksgiving, but actually, eels were among the things that they ate at that first Thanksgiving.”

Gutman said it took about 240 years from that first meal, shared between the surviving Pilgrims and their new native-American neighbors, for the holiday to become federally recognized.

RG President Abraham Lincoln was the one that made it into a national holiday, during the Civil War.

The Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales is at the school’s Harborside campus in Providence. Richard Gutman has mined the museum’s holdings, for this look at the history of the Thanksgiving menu.

RG We have a tremendous collection of documents, menus, recipes, books and artifacts relating to food, from the ground up. I pulled out a few menus over the last 100 years that I think describe the way that people have interpreted what we need to eat at Thanksgiving, and what we’re going to offer.

Gutman holds a menu that looks like a small book, tied up with colored ribbon. It’s from the Congress Hotel in Chicago in 1905, for the Thanksgiving banquet following the football game between the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan. The score of that game is on the menu’s cover – Chicago 2, Michigan 0.

RG One hundred years ago, turkey day and football were part and parcel of the same celebration. And this dinner, which cost $1.25, had a choice of either Thanksgiving turkey with chestnut dressing, or roast ribs of beef with Yorkshire pudding.           

Further research reveals more about this menu. The Chicago-Michigan rivalry was intense then, and that year’s 2-0 score reflected Michigan’s kick-receiver Denny Clark getting tackled in his end zone for a safety. Papers at the time referred to this play as “the wretched blunder.” Clark was haunted by it for the rest of his life. He committed suicide in 1932, reportedly leaving a note behind, hoping his final act would atone for his long-ago error on the field.

Another menu pulled is from United Airlines, dated to 1944.

RG It’s a tiny little menu about the size of six postage stamps. Supreme of pheasant was the main course, so we did have some fowl, but it’s not a turkey, so I think that was their way of maybe gussying up that dinner and making it a little bit more special than just an ordinary turkey.

This in-flight menu is also a reminder that, not too long ago, customer service was an important part of air travel, and meals were served to all passengers.

Gutman’s next menu is the most recent one in his Thanksgiving selection, and it packs an unexpected punch.         

RG I do have a menu here from Windows on the World, which is, which was on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, and this is from 1977. I think this is a very traditional kind of buffet type menu, at a restaurant where you would go and satisfy the needs of every food appetite. Of course, 1977, when this is from, there was not a not a lot of talk about food allergies, gluten free and all the other things you have to deal with today. Of course the first one is roast young turkey with chestnut stuffing again, but then, you want fried chicken, we got fried chicken. Baked Iowa ham, there’s leg of lamb. There’s some seafood and of course there’s roast beef as well.

Gutman puts away the menus, and offers a final word on the holiday and its lasting appeal.

RG This is the kind of holiday that people really look forward to, and I love the fact that it’s not as commercialized as all of the others. Even sandwiched between Halloween and Christmas. Maybe it kind of is under the radar, in terms of the hype that goes around with it, so you can just really look forward to it in a more sentimental and nostalgic way. And appreciate things and give thanks for what we’ve got.  

Web extra:

Peter Kelly,  an associate professor in the culinary arts at Johnson and Wales, provides his take on the modern Thanksgiving menu. Kelly says Thanksgiving fads come and go over the years.

Is there anything currently going on that qualifies as that?

PK There’s a lot of whining about brining. Everybody wants to brine their turkey. Is this turkey brined? Well, I don’t suppose it’s a dirty little secret but one of the little secrets is that most commercially raised turkeys, unless they are heritage breed or they have natural designations, they’re injected with a solution which helps to preserve them, that has the same components as a brine. So it’s basically salt water, plus some kind of a little preservative, which does the same thing that a brine does. So if you brine a turkey that’s already been injected, you’re double salting it, you’re setting yourself up for a little disappointment. The turkey will end up looking a little hammy, it’ll have a pink cast to it, and people think, oh well it’s not cooked. Well, they cook it some more and it ends up being dry and leathery. It diverts the purpose of the original brining.