Americans today can acquire every element of their Thanksgiving dinner practically ready to eat, in need of little more than some heat before being set on the table. This very Thursday, in fact, many Americans will no doubt do just that. But it wasn’t an option two centuries ago, especially for those who lived on the wild frontier. To see how they’d have put their Thanksgiving dinner together, you’ll want to consult one Youtube channel in particular: Early American, previously featured here on Open Culture for its videos re-creating various meals as they would have been prepared circa 1820.
The creators of Early American, Justine Dorn and Ron Rayfield, also happen to be a married couple in real life. In their videos they appear to play historical versions of themselves, adhering to the domestic division of labor custom would have dictated in rural America of the early nineteenth century.
When Ron steps in the door with the fruits of a bountiful hunt, two rabbits and a duck, Justine knows just how to put them at the center of a full-fledged Thanksgiving dinner. This involves not just cooking the meat, but preparing a variety of accompaniments like cranberries, corn, mushroom gravy, and sweet potato pie.
All this happens at the hearth, which demands a set of skills (and a set of tools, including an hourglass) not normally possessed by home-cooking enthusiasts of the twenty-twenties. But the meal that results will surely look appetizing even to modern viewers. Though Abraham Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863, George Washington first issued a proclamation for “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” in 1789. And by that time, many of Thanksgiving’s dishes had already become established tradition. (Turkey and cranberry were linked together in the first American cookbook in 1796, NPR notes.) As always, Justine provides the original recipes (scant in detail though they often are) at the end. Use them well, it seems, and you can have a grand Thanksgiving feast even if you don’t bring home a turkey.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.