Taste of Freedom: Thanksgiving - #101

BURT WOLF: Most of our holidays and celebrations were developed to mark the cycles of nature and they have taken place in traditional forms for centuries.

They bind the past to the present and predict the future. They are a basic part of every society that has ever existed.

But when these ceremonies arrived in America, they started to change. No longer controlled by convention these ancient celebrations began to evolve. They had gotten their first Taste of Freedom and they would never be the same.


BURT WOLF: The word parade comes from an old Spanish word that means “the stop”. It was used to describe the days when a foreign army stopped in a town and occupied it. During the occupation, soldiers would march through the streets to show their strength and impress the local population.

In the United States parades are still used to occupy and demonstrate strength and power, especially on Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving celebrates a number of things including the start of the holiday shopping season. Cities throughout the United States have parades that occupy the attention of thousands of people, while demonstrating the strength of the U.S. dollar and its power to purchase.

The first Thanksgiving Day parade was held in Philadelphia during the 1920s and it was sponsored by Gimbel Brothers Department store. The parade ended with Santa Claus climbing a fire-truck ladder and entering a department store window.

Thanksgiving in America is a time when we give thanks for the things that we have and make plans to buy more things. We are a nation that works hard and shops hard.

But the primary objective of most of our holiday shopping is not to buy things for ourselves but to buy things for other people that we love. We shop and we share. The Saturday following Thanksgiving is always the biggest shopping day of the year.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The idea of a Thanksgiving day goes back to Europe. The King would declare a holiday and ask everybody to give thanks. Might be for success in a battle, or the end of a plague, but it was always a one-time event. You might go to church to offer a prayer of thanks, but it wasn’t a religious holiday. It was always political or secular.

BURT WOLF: The first nationwide Thanksgiving in the United States took place at the end of the Revolutionary War. George Washington called for a Thanksgiving Day on Thursday, November 26th, 1789. But it was a one time only event.

Sarah Hale was the editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, a popular magazine of the 1800’s. She used her editorial page to urge the country to set aside a day each year during which the nation would give thanks for our blessings.

In the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln responded to Sarah’s appeals and proclaimed the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving for the prosperity and freedom that had been achieved in America. He also wanted to express his wish that the Civil War would soon end—every year since then, Americans have celebrated a Thanksgiving Day.

At one point, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was lobbied by business interests to move Thanksgiving to an earlier date, so the Christmas shopping season would be longer. The public hated the idea and put so much pressure on Roosevelt that he had the old date formalized by Proclamation.  In 1941, Thanksgiving was finally sanctioned by Congress as a legal holiday—the fourth Thursday in November.


BURT WOLF: Presidents still make an official proclamation of Thanksgiving about six weeks in advance. One way or another, Presidents are very much involved in Thanksgiving.  Even West Wing’s President Barlett calls the Turkey Talk-Line.


WOMAN ON PHONE: How can I help you sir?

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA: Well first let me say, I think this is a wonderful service you provide.

WOMAN ON PHONE: Well thank you. May I have your name please?


WOMAN ON PHONE: I’m sure you are sir, but if I have your name I can put your comments in our customer feedback form.

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA: I’m Joe Bethersenston. That’s one T and with an h in there.

WOMAN ON PHONE: And your address?


WOMAN ON PHONE: Your street address, please.

RICHARD SCHIFF ON CAMERA: Zip code Fargo, North Dakota, right now.

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA: My street address is 11454 Pruder Street. And it’s very important that you put street down there because sometimes it gets confused with Pruder Way and Pruder Lane. It’s apartment 23R. Fargo, North Dakota. Zip code 50504

WOMAN ON PHONE: Thank you. Your voice sounds very familiar to me.

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA: I do radio commercials for products.

WOMAN ON PHONE: And how can I help you?

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA: Stuffing should be stuffed inside the turkey, am I correct?

WOMAN ON PHONE: It can also be baked in a casserole dish.

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA: Well then we’d have to call it something else, wouldn’t we?

WOMAN ON PHONE: I suppose.

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA: If I cook it inside the turkey is there a chance I could kill my guests? I’m not saying that’s necessarily a deal breaker.

WOMAN ON PHONE: Well there are some concerns. Two main bacterial problems are salmonella and Campylobacter jejuni.

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA: All right. Well, first of all I think you made the second bacteria up and second of all, how do I avoid it.

WOMAN ON PHONE: Make sure all the ingredients are cooked first. Saute any vegetables, fried sausage, oysters, et cetera.

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA: Excellent. Let’s talk temperature.

WOMAN ON PHONE: One-hundred and sixty five degrees.

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA: No see I was testing you. The USDA calls for turkeys to be cooked to an internal temperature of a hundred eighty to one hundred eighty five degrees.

WOMAN ON PHONE: Yes sir. I was talking about the stuffing which you want to cook to a hundred and sixty five to avoid the health risks.

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA:Okay. Good testing.

WOMAN ON PHONE: You have an accurate thermometer?

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA: Oh yeah. It was presented to me as a gift from the personal sous chef to the king of auto sales in Fargo. Phil Baharnd. The man can sell a car like well like anything.

WOMAN ON PHONE: Very good sir. You have a good Thanksgiving.

MARTIN SHEEN ON CAMERA: And you do too. Thanks a lot. That was excellent. We should do that once a week.

BURT WOLF: In reality, the other end of the phone would be staffed by one of 48 professionally trained home economists and nutritionists who handle nearly 170,000 callers each year during the months of November and December. The Turkey Talk-Line was set up in 1981 and is prepared to help with any turkey-related questions.

WOMAN ANSWERING QUESTION ON CAMERA: Turkey talk line, how can I help you? Oh certainly. How many people are you expecting for dinner?

BURT WOLF: And why do these volunteers answer questions year after year?

WOMAN ON CAMERA: Being able to help people. They really sometimes just get such anxiety over fixing a turkey and they don’t have to.

ANTHONY AVENI ON CAMERA: There is probably no animal associated with any holiday more strongly than turkey is with Thanksgiving.  It is the traditional American bird.  It existed nowhere else. It was part of that Thanksgiving Day table set outdoors in Massachusetts by Bradford.  It has grown ever since.  The White House menu, printed during Lincoln's administration had it right at the top with cranberry sauce and everything else.  And it's always been there for us.  But I think one thing that, some North Americans may not know, is that the turkey is ubiquitous throughout the Americas.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Benjamin Franklin was deeply disappointed when the eagle was chosen as our national bird. He wanted the turkey. He felt that the eagle was a bird of bad moral character and lived by swindling. He felt that the turkey was a much more respectable animal and a true native of our nation.

BURT WOLF: But turkeys seem to have a real image problem. Not a single sports team is named after them. You have cardinals and beavers and bears and colts and dolphins and rams. You even have razorback hogs. But no turkeys take the field, at least no turkeys, who put that name on their uniforms.


BURT WOLF: Our present Thanksgiving Day celebration is clearly a day for giving thanks—but it is also a harvest festival. During their first winter in Massachusetts, half the colonists that reached North America on the Mayflower died. When spring arrived the survivors planted corn, peas and barley and in the fall of 1621, there was a harvest and a crop to live on. The fifty two people who survived from the original hundred and sixteen decided to have a harvest feast.

ANTHONY AVENI ON CAMERA: Thanksgiving is among those many festivals during the year that deals with the last of the harvest, the bringing in of the tail end of the harvest and it became a very big holiday in America, as we all know, because of the Pilgrims.  And it was good old Mr. Bradford who brought that about with his proclamation in 1621 after a long, hard winter.  We can say after the Pilgrims turned the corner.  They knew they had it made.  And what do you do when you've got it made; you go down to the local pub and have yourself a beer.  Well, in this case, they had themselves eels, clams, deer, wild geese, probably wild turkey, although it wasn't certainly wasn't the featured bird of the day. And then, of course, the products of the harvest, the last of the harvest, the beans, wheat, squash, corn.  And a celebration, we're told, if we're to believe Bradford, and he was a pretty straight arrow, lasted three days.  You can imagine, it was quite a feast.

BURT WOLF: But the event was not of historical importance until the middle of the 1800s when millions of immigrants arrived in America.

ANDY SMITH ON CAMERA: And part of the problem was how do you explain America to groups of people that would have had no American history and would have little understanding of what America was all about. So it was an origin myth that America began with the pilgrims in Plimouth, Massachusetts.  Now of course the first English Colony that was successful was Jamestown.  And it was founded in 1607, almost 14 years before Plimouth.  But the problem with Jamestown as a place of origin was slavery.  And, slavery began in Jamestown in 1619 and after the Civil War, you couldn't trace the origin of a country back to where slavery began so the Massachusetts and other New Englanders decided that what we really need to do was have Plimouth as the first real founding fathers of America and Thanksgiving holiday was part of that.  That's why the first Thanksgiving is supposedly in Plimouth.  There were many days of Thanksgiving in Jamestown prior to that.  But they're not looked on as the first Thanksgiving because we have our origin of our nation, and our origin of our nation goes back to the pilgrims, who are an interesting lot.  Good group of people.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Thanksgiving day in the United States is a combination of two traditions. First of all, it is a fall harvest festival but it is also a Thanksgiving Day proclamation and both of those traditions have been going on for thousands of years. 


BURT WOLF: Philadelphia was our most important commercial city and the nation’s capital when George Washington proclaimed our first national Thanksgiving Day.

Philadelphia was a great trading port. Three times each week ships sailed into Philadelphia with spices and fresh produce from the Caribbean—coconuts, bananas, pineapples, and limes were readily available. It was also our country’s gastronomic center—famous for its bakers and pastry makers, beer brewers, and serious eaters.

The Mennonites came to Philadelphia from Germany and the Amish from Switzerland because the city promised religious freedom. Both groups knew a great deal about the use of spices and were excellent bakers. They were the masters of the cinnamon bun and perfected American fruit pies.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: The American Revolution brought a new government to Philadelphia. And the new government brought hundreds of politicians with expense accounts. Philadelphia became a heaven for good eaters. And just as the American Revolution came to an end, the French Revolution got started. Chaos. And at the same time, an uprising in French speaking Haiti. More chaos. By the middle of the 1790s, Philadelphia was filled with Frenchmen looking for a stable place to live. And being French, many of them were cooks, bakers, candy makers and wine experts.

BURT WOLF: The place where people like Washington or Jefferson and Adams came to eat and drink in those days was the City Tavern. It was opened in 1773 by a group of wealthy Philadelphia businessmen who wanted a tavern of the quality they had known in London. It became a hotbed of revolutionary activity and it was where the First Continental Congress met to discuss drafting our constitution. It is presently owned by the federal government and overseen by the National Park Service.

Under the direction of Walter Staib, proprietor, chef and cookbook author, City Tavern has been turned into an excellent restaurant with an authentic eighteenth century feel. The tankards and goblets resemble those which would have been used by Washington and Jefferson to celebrate our first Thanksgiving. The plates are like the ones used by the Continental Congress. Even the stemware is similar to that used during Colonial days. And from the very beginning, Thanksgiving was an important meal at City Tavern. Walter starts his Thanksgiving dinner with his stuffing.

WALTER STAIB ON CAMERA: This is an eighteenth century stuffing with chestnuts and currants. Everything else is pretty much normal.


WALTER STAIB ON CAMERA: Currants. Uh. Huh. And just chopping a little bit of onion. And not too fine actually. Really coarse because remember this stuffing later goes into the bird and cooks in the bird for almost another three and a half hours slowly. And chestnuts I already roasted them. Got them out of the shell and basically I cooked them al dente so later you can still feel them once you have it in the stuffing.

BURT WOLF: Onion is added to a sauté pan in which butter has been melted. Then some chopped celery. Some chopped garlic, mushrooms, dry white wine. Then on to the stove for a few minutes.

WALTER STAIB ON CAMERA: Now you want to cook it until the white wine is reduced until dry but you don’t want to overcook it remember again because it’s in the cavity of the bird for such a long time.

BURT WOLF: As soon as the wine is reduced everything goes into a giant bowl.                                     

WALTER STAIB ON CAMERA: Chestnuts which we’ve just quartered. Parsley. The currant. Full thyme. Next comes the bread the croutons. And the chicken stock is really what binds it.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Ah you roll up your sleeves and mix.

WALTER STAIB ON CAMERA: Just want to get it nice, just the flavor. And what makes this very unique is the dried currants and obviously drying your food was definitely an eighteenth century way of preserving things because you know they had no freezers, no canned goods so they were pretty innovative and the flavor, that flavor, it gives the bird is just spectacular.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Concentrates it.

WALTER STAIB ON CAMERA: Oh yeah. Want to give me a hand?


WALTER STAIB ON CAMERA: Give me about five six good strokes of pepper in there. Now remember with the salt and pepper you have to be very careful because you already have the salt in the bread as well you know so from a flavor point. Now we’re going to get the turkey ready prepped so we can stuff the turkey. Shallots. Rosemary. Thyme. And parsley. Olive oil. Just enough to kind of drench it. When you do this you have to be gentle because otherwise you’ll rip the skin. The herbs and the shallots you know penetrates the normally dull breasts. So the flavor you get out of this is mind boggling because put it on the outside, don’t if you put it on the outside it doesn’t go inside the meat so between it almost creates like a vacuum and sucks the flavor right into it. That’s basically what it is. Now what I’ve done earlier this morning, I washed the cavity really good and that I recommend for anybody to do. Wash the cavity good. I just like to put a little bit of salt in it, a little bit of the herb mixture, nothing else before I put the stuffing in. People have different ideas you know but me a little bit of the herb mixture into the cavity.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Just more flavor.

WALTER STAIB ON CAMERA: Yeah a little bit of kosher salt. The easiest way to fill it I find you just make like a big ball easy to get in. Little olive oil. And then I recommend slow cooking those birds. Start off at high heat and reduce down by three and a quarter. Now let’s stick it in the oven.

BURT WOLF: As the turkey is cooking it is periodically basted with Madeira which is a fortified wine similar to port or sherry.

WALTER STAIB ON CAMERA: You can never baste enough actually to tell you the truth. The moisture comes and the skin just gets very beautiful.

BURT WOLF: The colors of Thanksgiving foods are those of fall: gold and red. The particular foods associated with Thanksgiving are foods that became widely popular during the early 1800s—turkey, pumpkin, Indian pudding, sweet potatoes, maple syrup and cranberries.

WALTER STAIB ON CAMERA: What I want to do, first thing I want to open and get a drumstick out. What I want to do is just wiggle the drumstick a little bit when you move it a few little times you can feel it now obviously I’ve done it a million times so I don’t have to feel it but and here you go. Drumstick comes off. Voila. Then I can do two things. One, to make it easy for the novice person. Go down the center. There’s a bone. The breast bone. You want to go down the breast bone right here and loosen it up a little bit. All you got to do is push the knife. Put pressure on the knife and the knife will do the rest because there’s a bone that brings you all the way down. Here you go and then you can do two things. Loosen the entire breast or you can just leave it on the bone. I personally like it on the bone. Then just go like this. Now basically the bone has loosened it. Can you see here? Now all I got to do is go this way. And I make beautiful slices. Look how beautiful this turkey is. Unbelievable. And I slice it this way. And see the herb rubbing the herb stuffing that before we put underneath. It’s between the skin and the bone the skin and the meat. Right here. That’s where the flavor comes and penetrates it. And the reason is such a nice and shiny is because the Madeira glaze. The Madeira obviously has sugar in it and sugar caramelizes the skin and gives the skin an unbelievable flavor.

BURT WOLF: Over eating at a harvest feast has always been standard-op. On the last day of the harvest, when all the work was done, the landowners would reward their tenant farmers with a big meal—good food, good drinks and lots of both. Everyone would celebrate and thank the forces of nature. Workers were often presented with the gift of a goose, which is where Americans got the idea of giving devoted workers a turkey just before Thanksgiving.

Stuffing is a food that has always been an important part of festival recipes. It’s a way of making a dish more impressive without necessarily making it more expensive. It shows more work, adds more food, and extends the number of flavors.

Cranberries also play a significant role at Thanksgiving. It was one of the first foods that the Native Americans introduced to the English colonists and cranberry sauce was an important product. It could be made during the cranberry season and held throughout the winter.

Candied sweet potatoes are also a traditional dish at a Thanksgiving meal. The recipe became popular during the Civil War as a symbol of unification—sweet potatoes are thought of as mostly a Southern vegetable, the maple syrup used to sweeten them is associated with New England.

Drinks in City Tavern include shrubs, which were an early American cocktail made from sweetened fruit preserved in vinegar and blended with rum from the Caribbean. City Tavern also makes one with ginger ale instead of rum.

There was also beer. Today the tavern has a period beer made for it from recipes that were originally developed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

One of the things being celebrated at Thanksgiving is the wholeness of the family. The idea is reflected in the “wholeness” of the pies and cakes and molds.

When families immigrate to the United States, they often keep eating the foods 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 almost every new arrival is Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a way for immigrants to celebrate being in America and to share that celebration with everyone in the nation—from the descendants of the people who arrived here on the Mayflower to a family that arrived here last year.

Thanksgiving is a celebration of America’s prosperity and yet we don’t give gifts. That’s because in part Thanksgiving is a harvest feast—the earth does the giving and we do the receiving.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Thanksgiving celebrates two things: Abundance and patriotism and the turkey’s pretty good too.  For Taste of Freedom, I’m Burt Wolf.