Gatherings & Celebrations: Thanksgiving in Colonial Williamsburg - #112

For well over one hundred years, starting in the 1600s, Virginia was England’s largest and most important colony in North America.  By the beginning of the 1700s, Virginia had outgrown its old capital in Jamestown, and built itself a new one. It was called Williamsburg, in honor of William, king of England.  This is the Capitol Building. It is the place where the colonial government of Virginia held its sessions.  Many of the ideas and plans that led to the creation of the United States of America were developed here. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   In May of 1776 the Virginia delegates met here in Williamsburg and began taking steps toward a union of all the colonies.  There activities led directly to the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July, and then to the Revolutionary War.  When the war was over, the people of the newly-forming United States of America decided to hold a victory celebration.  General George Washington set it for Thursday, the twenty-sixth of November 1789. And that turned out to be our first official American national Thanksgiving Day.

The most famous Thanksgiving in the U.S., however, is the one that was offered by the Pilgrims who survived the voyage of the Mayflower from England. In the middle of October their governor declared a Thanksgiving Day to be held at the beginning of December. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Thanksgiving in America is the subject of this report, and Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia is where we’ve come to take a look at some of the history and folklore around it.  As so often happens with the legends of how a nation came to be, the narrators have taken a few liberties with the facts.  The Pilgrim dinner with the Native American tribes in the Massachusetts colony took place in October, and it was basically a harvest festival.  The actual Thanksgiving Day took place months later and had to do with many other subjects besides the harvest.  Our present-day Thanksgiving seems to be a combination of those two events.  Very efficient to combine them; we save time and money and it certainly makes it a lot easier for a reporter to tell the story, but it doesn’t do a lot for historical accuracy.

The story of Williamsburg, on the other hand, is as accurate and detailed an account of history as we are able to produce.  The plan for the city probably came from the man who was governor at the time.   His name was Francis Nicholson.  Cities were expected to be centers for learning, religion and government.  And that was the plan for Williamsburg.  One side of town was devoted to William and Mary College, which was chartered in 1693.  The other side of town was given over to the Capitol.  In the middle of Williamsburg stands the Bruton Parish Church. During the colonial period, church and state were not separated -- and what the clergy had to say was of enormous political importance.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   As soon as they started to build the city, however, things began to change.  A city was still thought of as a center for learning, religion and government, but now it was also expected to be a center for retailing and manufacturing.     Just as Williamsburg was becoming a thriving community, the idea of mass consumerism was taking hold.  Serious shopping had come to America.

MILLINER:  Welcome to the Millinery, and congratulations on your good taste.  We’re pleased to have you here this morning.  And here we have the latest in dress for the streets of London, May 13, 1774.

SILVERSMITH:  I’m making what is called a Monteith, which is a silver punchbowl and wine-cooling bowl, or glass-cooling, you might say.  The rim here up top would be used to hang the glasses over, into ice water that would be in the punchbowl itself.  Once the glasses were cool, one could then remove the rim, and then this becomes the punchbowl to put your fruit punch in to serve to your guests in nice, cool, chilled glasses.

SHOPKEEPER:  Well, I’d like to welcome you to the John Greenhow Store; Mr. Greenhow was a merchant here in the 18th Century, and of course merchants here would be carrying all your goods; most would be imported from London or England at this time, though this was a world economy.  They had things from China, Africa, India and all over the world.  If you look over here, we have different “confectioneries,” as they called them in the 18th and 19th Centuries; they weren’t called “candies.”  A lot of times, dried goods like apricots and apples, sometimes sugar was added as a preservatent  [sic], just like you’d use salt or smoke something.

MILLINER:  And for the gentleman -- well!  May we suggest a pair of stockings which would show a gentleman’s best feature -- a good-looking lower leg.

TINKER:  Sound is very important while I’m doing this.  I’m listening for the thickness of the metal here.  So as I’m tapping, I’m pushing down the high spots and bringing up the low spots to make this very, very smooth.

COLONIAL COOK:  Well, we’ve done several different things to give you an idea as to the variety of things that would have gone on the table for the dinner meal; this could be the whole meal or just a small portion of the meal.  We always want to offer our guests variety.  Your Virginia ham, that salt-cured and smoked piece of meat, a standing dish in a Virginia household, something that you’re going to see every day at all three of your meals, breakfast, dinner and supper.  A lemon pudding, which is a side dish for dinner, whereas today in the 20th Century, we might have it for dessert.

BOOKBINDER:  These books were made to last.  Everything that will go into the making of this book will be around three or four hundred years.  We’re using calfskin; we’re using rag paper.  In the 18th Century, people saved their old linens for the making of paper, and rag paper will last five hundred, close to a thousand years.  So it’ll be around for a long time.  And of course it’s all held together with the flax cords and linen thread, and that’s done until you have completed your book.

BURT WOLF:   Why did people wear wigs?

WIGMAKER:  Why, ‘tis the fashion, sir, for gentlemen here to favor that of wearing the wigs.  For when the king wears a wig, sir, by God, we all shall.  If you’d care to take a seat here, sir.

BURT WOLF:   Ah, thank you.  You see, my present wig is thinning out here, so I thought --

WIGMAKER:  ‘Tis acrylic hair, I think, sir --

BURT WOLF:   Acrylic!  Yes, that’s one of its problems, of course...

WIGMAKER:  Well, I have a fine wig here, sir, for you --

BURT WOLF:   Oh, good --

WIGMAKER:  ‘Tis yak hair that it is made from.

BURT WOLF:   Yak!  What an improvement that would be over acrylic.

WIGMAKER:  I would say, sir, very much so.

BURT WOLF:   And it is my natural color!

WIGMAKER:  It is you, sir -- and the curls!  I would say they fit you to a “T.”

BURT WOLF:   You couldn’t ask for a better fit.

MILLINER:  What we have here is a pair of false hips, designed to make the body look larger in one area so as to accentuate the very tiny waist, and will control the upper torso with a pair of stays, making the lady’s figure into a cone.

By mid-morning the inhabitants of Williamsburg had done most of their marketing.  The stands would come down and folks would head off to the tavern for a break. The tavern was a place to relax, eat, drink and most important, hear the latest gossip.

GENTLEMAN # 1:  I discover here in the Gazette that these Massachusetts malcontents have destroyed public property when they threw the tea into Boston Harbor.

GENTLEMAN # 2:  I would not be so bold as to make such a sweeping statement, sir; they are merely patriots making a statement before the King and Parliament, sir, and that’s all.

GENTLEMAN # 1:  The King is asking for only three pennies a pound, sir -- three pennies a pound!  Now, come -- I could work for a few days and make enough money to buy two or three hundred pounds of tea and it would not affect me -- and I don’t even like tea!

GENTLEMAN # 2:  Oh, it’s the principle of the thing, sir; it may lead to some very good effect.  It may cause the ears of the King and Parliament to perk up, for once.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   All of this importing and manufacturing and shopping and cooking and eating and drinking was what the brave new world of consumerism was all about.  You see, the colonists had gotten their hands on lots of stuff.  And they liked it. As a matter of fact, they fought a war of independence because they thought the English king was trying to take too big a cut of their stuff.   And when George Washington declared our first national Thanksgiving Day, one of the things that people were giving thanks for was all of their stuff.  They may have gone into churches and offered prayers of thanks, but this was not a religious holiday.  It was worldly, nonspiritual and very political.

The next major event in the history of America’s Thanksgiving Day took place during the War Between The States.  The Civil War persuaded Abraham Lincoln that a Thanksgiving Day could be very useful. The primary objective of the celebration was to encourage a sense of unity in the nation.  He proclaimed the last Thursday of November 1863 as a day of national prayer.  Americans have been celebrating Thanksgiving Day every year since then.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   If it is at all possible, Americans go home for Thanksgiving.  We’ve tried to turn Thanksgiving into a four day weekend and as the dates approach, tens of millions of Americans end up in planes, trains, cars and buses, heading for a family environment.  Some of us, however, are working on a more limited budget, and end up with less advanced technology.

Today the Historic Area of Williamsburg is called the World’s Largest Living Museum, as well as an actual hometown for hundreds of people who live and work here.  The work is carried on by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which is a non-profit educational institution.  Each year over three million people visit Colonial Williamsburg. 

When you visit Williamsburg you can stay in one of the old colonial structures and feel a little like George Washington.  They’re comfortable and interesting.  But among the many places, I chose the Williamsburg Inn.  The Inn was built to feel like a luxurious estate in the Virginia countryside.   The Executive Chef is Hans Schadler and he and his associates are preparing our Thanksgiving meal.   Hans starts the cooking with the mushroom and wild rice soup.

Three ounces of smoked bacon are cooked, then removed to drain.  In the same pan... a half cup each of sliced leeks, diced carrots, and diced celery. Then five minutes of cooking.  Two cups of sliced red onions are added and cook for about five minutes more.  At that point two cups of mushrooms go in.  Hans is using a mixture of fresh white mushrooms, crimini mushrooms, portabellas, enoki, oyster and shiitake.  If, however, your market doesn’t carry a full selection of mushrooms you can use all fresh white mushrooms and the dish will be fine.  Next, two ounces of dry sherry... and twelve cups of chicken stock. 

HANS SCHADLER:  And I’ve prepared a little sachet bag here; we have some parsley stems in here, some thyme, peppercorn, and some bay leaf.  And that is... we’re gonna drop that into the soup to add some additional flavor to it. ... Sachet bag... so perch that here for a minute.

Fifteen minutes of simmering.  A cup and a half cup of pre-cooked wild rice.  The bacon returns. A little heat and it’s ready to serve.

The six most popular mushrooms produced in the United States are in the white mushroom family.  They’re great general all-purpose mushrooms, used in salads, sauces, in vegetable dishes, even on pizza.  The Crimini mushroom is related to the white mushroom, but a little darker, with a denser texture and earthier flavor. It’s used like the white mushroom.  The Portabella mushroom has a large cap and a meaty rich flavor.  They are often sautéed or grilled and served as a dish by themselves, or in stir-fried recipes.  The Enoki has tiny button caps and long thin stems.  They grow in clusters and are used raw in salads or as a garnish.  The oyster mushroom has a fluted shell shape. It’s a good all-purpose mushroom with a very interesting texture.   And finally, the Shiitake, which are best when cooked, either on their own or as an ingredient in, say, a pasta sauce or an Asian dish.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   When you’re picking out mushrooms in the market, you want to look for ones that are generally smooth and unblemished, firm cap, and never moist and slick.  On a freshly picked mushroom, the cap grows around, covers the membranes inside, and touches the stem.  If you get a mushroom and you can see the membranes inside, all that means is that it’s begun to dry out.  From an aesthetic point of view, maybe not as pleasing, but that drying out concentrates the flavor -- so they’re actually more interesting to cook with.

Mushrooms don’t store well, so you should use them as soon after you buy them as possible, and keep them in the refrigerator until you’re ready to start cooking.  The best way to clean a mushroom is with a moist cloth or a very fast wash in a colander.  Mushrooms are highly porous and can absorb lots of water, which is not good for their taste or texture.  So you want to clean them quickly.  And now they’re ready to go.

Next up is the turkey.

HANS SCHADLER:   And what we’re doing with the turkey here is we’re stuffing the skin; under the skin we’re infusing a little bit of herb butter.  Put the herb butter simply in a piping bag... try to lift the skin with the tip of your finger, just go all the way through.  Eventually you can slide your entire hand underneath there.  And then just simply pipe herb butter in here by moving it back with your hand.  You can stay right here and just pipe, and just push your butter right all the way down here.

BURT WOLF:   What are the herbs?

HANS SCHADLER:  Herbs, we have some fresh thyme, some oregano, some sage -- typical Thanksgiving.  So we’ve infused that in here with some fresh butter.  It’s almost like giving the turkey his final massage here before he goes in the oven.  What we’re gonna do next is we’re gonna moisten the skin with a little vegetable oil or olive oil, and then just start rubbing the skin nicely with herbs, all over the turkey.  So it’s nicely distributed all the way through the skin.  Okay?  Okay.  Now we’re gonna shape the bird before we put it in the oven; by doing so, we’re just gonna tie  -- push the drumsticks and thighs back...bring the string back underneath here, and that’s really basically to give the bird a little bit of its shape and make the breasts look very plump.  If you could hold your finger there, Burt, and I’m gonna see that I can tie it right in there.  You’re stuck forever to the turkey here.  Okay, there we go.

BURT WOLF:   What would Hans do without me?

HANS SCHADLER:  All right!  All right here, look at this beauty there.  And in it goes.  Bye-bye turkey.  Okay.  Okay, we’re gonna do the peach glaze.  Peach puree --

BURT WOLF:   It’s just a puree of peaches?

HANS SCHADLER:  Just a peach puree, and then we have some peach preserves.  If you can’t get any fresh peaches, this is, you know, a peach preserve made out of fresh peaches; simply get some canned peaches, strain them very well. put ‘em in a food processor, puree them very fine.  You can add a little liqueur to it; I’m gonna prefer to add a little honey to this here now.  Honey and a touch of maple syrup, and that caramelizes the turkey very nicely and adds a little flavor.  For the spices, I’ve put some chili pepper seeds in here and some fresh minced ginger.  And then we’ll just cook that very nicely,  reduce it a little bit. ... All right, we’re gonna get the turkey!  Let’s see how our bird looks here.  Beautiful!  What happens is, the glaze is going to incorporate to the little juices here and set the stage for the final sauce afterwards.  Put the bird back into the oven and we’re probably gonna glaze it a couple more times before it’s finished.

BURT WOLF:   That’s beautiful!

And right behind the turkey, we’re going to make a great stove-top dressing.  Hans starts by melting eight ounces of butter in a large sauté pan. Then in goes one cup of diced onion, and one cup of diced celery.  Next:  two cups’ worth of breakfast sausage meat that has been pre-cooked.  A green apple that has been peeled, cored and diced, followed by a cup of dried minced fruit.  A little stirring.  Two cups of bread croutons, and six cups’ worth of cornbread that has been crumbled up into small pieces. To moisten things up... three cups’ worth of warm chicken stock... and two cups of warm milk.  Then four whole eggs that have been lightly beaten.  A bit of mixing.  A little sage, thyme, rosemary, cayenne pepper, and oregano.  A little more stirring.  Then into a heat-proof pan and a 350 degree Fahrenheit oven for 40 minutes.  And that’s your stove-top dressing.

DINNER HOST:  I want to welcome everyone to this Thanksgiving dinner...           

Sociologists say that one of the things being celebrated at Thanksgiving is the wholeness of the family, even if the family is actually no longer whole.  Thanksgiving is often used to celebrate what links are left.  Some people are expected to attend more than one Thanksgiving dinner, or parts of different dinners.  They may have eaten the main meal with one part of their family and gone someplace else for the dessert.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Traditionally the Thanksgiving meal was hosted by the grandparents, but these days there’s a tendency to have a middle-aged couple do the host work, and invite people who are both older and younger, and as soon as I get to be middle-aged I’ll take over that responsibility.  The objective of the Thanksgiving dinner is the bring the family together and to look at that relationship, to show that they are still a unit.  They’ll often look through family albums, tell stories about the pictures.  Very often they’ll tell stories about previous Thanksgivings and disasters or near-disasters that took place in the kitchen.  The is to say that even though the family has had difficult times in the past, everybody’s been forgiven, everybody is still together, and the whole thing is taking place with a sense of good humor.

When families immigrate to the United States they often hold on to the food patterns of their native country.  They also tend to continue celebrating their traditional holidays.  The one American event that gets incorporated into the holiday cycle of just about every new arrival is Thanksgiving.  And they take it on with all the traditional foods... turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, sweet potatoes, cranberries. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The Native American tribes, who lived in North America for tens of thousands of years before the European colonists showed up, had harvest festivals of their own, so they had a pretty good idea of what was going on when they did a little partying with the Pilgrims.  An eyewitness account of that party, however, does not make any mention whatsoever of turkey or cranberries or pumpkin pies or Jell-O molds.  It does, however, tell of an exercise or sports period that took place, and that may be the historic basis for the fact that part of every Thanksgiving Day is spent watching a football game.

Traditionally people prefer to eat special foods at an annual feast and taste those foods only in connection with that particular event.  The foods become part of what makes the festival distinctive, and the dishes of Thanksgiving are no exception.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   When I was even more of a child than I am now, cranberries were served almost exclusively at Thanksgiving.  Some people actually bought fresh cranberries and made them into cranberry relish, but most people bought cranberry jelly in a can.

Giving a food a distinctive shape, and serving it only in connection with a particular celebration is an old technique for marking a food as unique to a specific festival. 

Thanksgiving is a time for stuffing.  And I don’t mean just the guests.  Stuffing a food has always been an important part of festival recipes.  It’s a way to make a dish “fancy” without necessarily making it expensive.  The work that goes into the stuffing, either the turkey or the pies, is clearly visible to everyone at the table.  Stuffed is a bigger deal than unstuffed because it not only shows more work, adds more food, and extends the number of flavors... it also sends a very clear message that life is plump, full and rich. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Sociologists point out that at any feast or festival, we try to do two things:  we try to show that we are all together, and in some way similar, and at the same time that we are all individuals and different.  And the turkey and the stuffing does that job at Thanksgiving.  The turkey represents a universal container.  We all have the turkey; we’re all similar in that way.  But what goes into the turkey, the stuffing, is very different for each family.  It shows our history, and in some cases our wealth, but it is Our Family Recipe.  So you’re looking at a plate that shows universality in the turkey, but very specific family trait in the stuffing.

Some historians believe that the traditional Thanksgiving sweet potato recipe was designed to be a symbol of unification.  A historically Southern vegetable, the sweet potato, was candied with maple syrup, historically a Northern ingredient.  It’s an interesting idea.  Especially if you recall that the first declaration of an annual Thanksgiving Day was made by President Lincoln, with a prayer for ending the War Between The North and The South.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA): The idea of a specific day on which an entire society offered thanks goes back in European history for thousands of years.  The King would declare a holiday and everyone was expected to offer prayers of thanks.  The “thanks” could be for a victory in battle, the end of a plague, someone in the Royal Family recovering from serious illness.  But it was always a “one time” event.  It happened on that day, and that was it.  The United States of America, however, changed all that.  We declared a national Thanksgiving Day, and we decided to have it year after year after year.  It is the most American of our holidays.  And, quite frankly, its wish that all the members of our society coexist peacefully is a more valid wish today than ever before.   For more of our series on gatherings, please join us next time as we travel around the world looking at the celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I’m Burt Wolf.