A look back at what Mainers ate for Thanksgiving 100 years ago

Thanksgiving is one of the most greedy holidays in American culture. Although menus vary across the country, the fourth Thursday in November is usually marked by turkey, potatoes, cranberry sauce and stuffing.

But what about Maine? Pine Tree State residents haven’t always bought into the menu that has cemented itself on dining room tables across the country.

A Maine researcher has taken an intimate look at how Mainers celebrated the holidays more than 100 years ago. Jefferson Navicky, archivist of the Maine Women Writers Collection at the University of New England, has access to dozens of diaries written by women in Maine from the 1870s through the 1940s. Through these he saw this that Maine women thought and ate that day.

“I think the takeaway is that there were many different ways to celebrate Thanksgiving during this time,” he said.

On Thursday, November 17, he will give a lecture on the collection of private diaries at the Wilson Museum in Castine.

A woman in 1871 said she had a small party and felt happy on Turkey Day. In 1904, Nancy Smith in Brooksville “felt very sad all day.” One woman’s diary said she got dressed but ended up going nowhere.

“There’s a real duration,” Navicky said.

A 1943 Thanksgiving menu written in the diary of Waterville resident Eva Twist. Credit: Courtesy of: Eva A. Twist and Bertha M. Connor diaries, Maine Women Writers Collection, University of New England, Portland, Maine

But one of the funniest things to look at in the papers is what these women ate for Thanksgiving.

During her scheduled talk titled “A Day in the Lives of Maine Women: Diaries of Everyday Life,” Navicky plans to show historical menus and Thanksgiving musings from columnists across the decades.

A 1943 menu written by Waterville resident Eva Twist noted everything she had on the table, down to apples and business cards that served as party favors.

Twist served baked chicken with dressing and gravy, squash puree, turnips, hot cookies, cranberry sauce, mustard pickles, sugar cookies, minced pie, chocolate cake with orange frosting and coffee.

Lisa Simpson Lutts, director of the Castine Historical Society, said chicken was often served because turkey wasn’t always plentiful.

In a Bangor Metro 2019 History on ThanksgivingMary Ellingwood Andrews, a retired realtor and antiques dealer from Bangor, remembers how her holiday parties in the 1940s also featured chickens.

“A chicken from our coop was slaughtered the night before and ground meat, and pumpkin pies were baked in the cast iron wood stove in the Wood and Bishop kitchen,” she said.

In this, Andrews also touched on a mainstay of Northeastern Thanksgiving cuisine: the pie.

The 1919 Thanksgiving menu enjoyed by Farmington resident Sarah Stanley. Credit: Courtesy of: Eva A. Twist and Bertha M. Connor diaries, Maine Women Writers Collection, University of New England, Portland, Maine

“New Englanders are really big in the pie,” Lutts said.

Several newspaper accounts mention pies and such an affinity is evident in the 1919 diary of Farmington resident Sarah Stanley, where poultry was not a stand-alone dish as it is now.

The menu noted in his diary did not include a roast turkey, but a ground turkey pie, in addition to plum pudding with gravy, hot rolls and celery. In a joke, she also noted right next to the menu that a seemingly clumsy or loud eater named Charles broke his plate, cup and saucer.

For Navicky, it’s little details like these that make examining history through diaries interesting. They can jot down historical events right next to the daily newspaper, and the common threads of most newspapers are commentary on the weather, daily routines, and, of course, food.

“Everyone likes something to eat,” Navicky said.

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