From the Army Manual to the Gilded Age

While looking for old Thanksgiving recipes, I came across a page of Thanksgiving Recipes From America’s Past. There are forty-one recipes in all; here’s the highlight reel.

The Manual for Army Cooks, published in 1916 by the Government Printing Office, contained a recipe for pumpkin pie – or, rather, 12-15 pumpkin pies. (First ingredient: 25 pounds pumpkin.) In 1941 the Manual of Mess Management had a recipe for cooking 70 pounds of turkey.

There are several “Recipes From a ‘Gilded Age’.” The most eye-catching of these is called Terrapin, a la Gastronome. If you are like me, you would suspect that a “terrapin” is some sort of animal. This is immediately confirmed by the recipe, which begins, “Take live terrapin, and blanch them in boiling water for two minutes. Remove the skin from the feet …”

Terrapin, I find in the Dictionary, is a kind of turtle. Yes, they ate turtles for Thanksgiving, garnished with Espagnole sauce, consommĂ©, Parisian sauce, half a glassful of Maderia wine, and a “good bouquet”. And that is why they called it the Gilded Age.

Another recipe from the Gilded Age is Lalla Rookh Punch. Initially it looks good, but it goes on through sieves and ice cream tubs and broken ice mixed with rock-salt, and in the end you should not attempt it unless you have a kitchen staff and only scant mercy on them.

In 1883 Practical Housekeeping published a recipe for English Roast Turkey, which would be an ironic dish for Thanksgiving Day. But the herbs suggested for it are appealing, and I’m with them until this sentence: “Garnish with fried oysters, and serve with celery-sauce and stewed gooseberries.”

Fried oysters are probably good, but celery is a purposeless vegetable not meant for humans to eat, except in extreme circumstances such as famines or diets. And I don’t really know what stewed gooseberries are.

There is also a recipe for a French-style turkey – which may be more ironic yet. It begins: “Choose a small fat turkey; draw, singe and clean it well, extracting all the pin feathers; break the breast-bone, remove it and fill the breast with a bread dressing; sew up with the skin underneath.”

This year, I am thankful for supermarkets.

A recipe for Cranberry Tart, dated 1796, shows touching faith in humanity by giving these instructions: “Stewed, strained and sweetened, put into paste No. 9, and baked gently.”

Then they describe “paste No. 9”. And that’s it.

Happy Thanksgiving, and may God give you even more to be thankful for.

And please, leave the poor terrapin alone.