Hale and Hearty
November 23, 2011 | by Robin Bellinger
Among the many things for which I will give thanks this Thursday, foremost is the fact that I am not in charge of Thanksgiving dinner. Instead I’ll be helping my mother in her kitchen, as she helped me in mine last year. It isn’t that I dislike cooking, or even that I feed a real crowd; I cook every day, usually with pleasure, and we don’t pull many extra chairs up to the table for the holiday. But sometime after the second pie has been baked and the turkey is in the oven and half the vegetables are ready but there is still so much to make, and the table not even set, I just want to sneak away without finishing up.
How great a disappointment I would have been to Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who led the campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. When Hale was thirty-four and the year was 1822, her husband died, leaving her with five children. Did she allow despair to overcome her stout Yankee heart? Never! She supported her family with that reliable moneymaker, poesy, before publishing a best-selling novel, and eventually going on to become the editor of the most influential women’s magazine in America.
Hale’s desire to define and celebrate the American character—which for her really meant the New England character—suffuses all her work. Northwood, the 1827 novel that launched her career, was a portrait of Yankee virtue, with just enough love story tossed in to keep the pages turning. Stark is the contrast between the farms of New England, where even female hands are busy and therefore happy, and the humid halls of Southern homes, where idle young men and women get into all kinds of trouble. Godey’s Lady’s Book, the magazine she edited, was a kind of cross between Vogue and O, The Oprah Magazine. Tinted fashion plates helped women keep their wardrobes up-to-date. (Readers of Laura Ingalls Wilder will recall that Godey’s Lady’s Book even made its way to the frontier, where it was treasured as a talisman of life back East.) Recipes and hints helped readers manage their homes. Short fiction instructed and warned and exemplified. God, country, home life, personal character, and—why not—toilette: these were the proper concerns of an American woman.
Hale’s fixation also lent itself to another cause. The tradition of a post-harvest feast had been spreading from New England through the United States, but it was not celebrated on a common day. Each state’s governor chose his day, and this drove Hale mad. For more than a decade, she conducted a campaign of letters and editorials to establish a single holiday. Thanksgiving promoted joyful piety, the pleasures of the hearth, neighborly charity, and the rewards of diligent labor—nothing, by Hale’s lights, could be worthier of concerted national attention. In 1863, not long after receiving one of many letters from Hale, Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation reserving the last Thursday in November for the holiday.
I was initially perplexed by Hale’s passion for the celebration. Then I thought to open Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy, the book that has governed my gastronomic imagination for the past thirty years. Farmer Boy describes life in upstate New York in the 1860s as an all-consuming torrent of chores punctuated by everyday meals that sound like feasts. The hard work of harvest is described in detail, as is the county fair that follows it. The first snow comes; the older children are sent to school; and then we meet the Christmas goose without ever having known a Thanksgiving turkey. No Thanksgiving—no feast of “in-gathering,” as Hale would have it! I was as shocked as Hale’s exemplary heroines would have been by the goings-on in a French novel.
Almanzo Wilder, the book’s protagonist, should have had a Thanksgiving like the one Hale describes in Northwood:
The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station ... At the foot of the board, a sirloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and loin of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables ... A goose and pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the table; the middle being graced, as it always is on such occasions, by that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie. This pie, which is wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste, is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving; the size of the pie usually denoting the gratitude of the party who prepares the feast. The one now displayed could never have had many peers ... Plates of pickles, preserves and butter, and all the necessaries for increasing the seasoning of the viands to the demand of each palate, filled the interstices on the table, leaving hardly sufficient room for the plates of the company, a wine glass and two tumblers for each, with a slice of wheat bread lying on one of the inverted tumblers ... There was a huge plum pudding, custards and pies of every name and description ever known in Yankee land; yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche.
I can’t get that burgomeister pie out of my head.
Even in Hale’s day, the excellence of leftovers was acknowledged; the characters in Northwood enjoy a day-after meal “bearing ample evidence of its thanksgiving fraternity.” In my family, we make a sort of shepherd’s or cottage pie by putting some shredded turkey in a pie plate, tossing it with gravy, topping it with stuffing and mashed potatoes, and heating it in the oven. Some say cranberry sauce should be included, but I leave it on the side.
If leftover pie is too easy for you, fancy reader, you might as well make another pie crust and use it for a turkey pot pie. And, for those of you who will find satisfaction only in the original burgomeister himself, here is a recipe for chicken pie from Hale’s 1939 cookbook, The Good Housekeeper:
Pick, clean, and singe the chickens; if they are very young, keep them whole, if large, cut them in joints, and take off the skin, wash them well, parboil in a pint of water, season them with salt, white pepper, grated nutmeg and mace mixed, and if whole, put into them a bit of butter rolled in flour, and a little of the mixed spices; lay them into a dish with the livers, gizzards, and hearts well seasoned, add the gravy, and the yolks of five hard boiled eggs; cover with a puff paste, and bake it for an hour.
Weigh an equal quantity of flour and butter, rub rather more than the half of the butter into the flour, then add as much cold water as will make it into a stiff paste; work it until the butter be completely mixed with the flour, make it round, beat it with the rolling-pin, dust it, as also the rolling-pin, with flour, and roll it out towards the opposite side of the slab, or paste-board, making it of an equal thickness; then with the point of a knife put little bits of butter all over it, dust flour over and under it, fold in the sides and roll it up, dust it again with flour, beat it a little, and roll it out, always rubbing the rolling-pin with flour, and throwing some underneath the paste, to prevent its sticking to the board. If the butter is not all easily put in at the second time of rolling out the paste, the remainder may be put in at the third; it should be touched as little as possible with the hands.
Hale also championed pumpkin pie, one of the few sweets that tempts me in no form and under no circumstances. Since I seem to be alone in this, here is Hale’s pumpkin pie. It is much eggier than the Martha Stewart version my family makes.
Stew the pumpkin dry, and make it like squash pie, only season rather higher. [Strain or rub the stewed pumpkin through a sieve or colander. Mix this with good milk till it is thick as batter; sweeten it with sugar. Allow five eggs to a quart of milk, beat the eggs well, add them to the pumpkin and season with rose water, cinnamon, nutmeg, or whatever spices you like.] In the country, where this real yankee pie [her italics] is prepared in perfection, ginger is almost always used with other spices. There too, part cream instead of milk, is mixed with the pumpkin, which gives it a richer flavor.
Roll the paste rather thicker than for fruit pies, as there is only one crust. If the pie is large and deep it will require to bake an hour in a brisk oven.
Hale’s fiction includes more than one example of a woman left penniless by her husband’s death. These characters have no means of earning bread for themselves or their children, and everyone urges them to rely on charity. Instead, they keep their families intact and earn what they can by their needles, just as Hale earned what she could by her pen. My needle and I against the world; my pen and I against the world. This year let me be more grateful for my busy hands and busy head and busy heart.
Robin Bellinger cooks dinner every night in Wellesley, Massachusetts.