Everything but the scurvy 

This Thanksgiving, bring some real colonial classics to the table

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"Thanksgiving we eat and drink of ye best." From William Haywood's journal, Charlestown, N.H., Nov. 24, 1748

Giving thanks and bringing out "ye best" is still at the heart of what Thanksgiving is all about. And what better way to mirror an old-time Thanksgiving than to make a meal using the traditional foods that New England settlers ate?

Well, OK, that's what the entire country does in one form or another: turkeys, potatoes, corn, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, cranberries. But if you want to go all out in authenticity, use original settler's recipes, says Louise Miller, a historical consultant and the publisher of the Pine Tree Shilling (pinetreeshilling.com), a historical newspaper of life in colonial America.

For example, syllabub, a precursor to eggnog, was brought over from England and served on special occasions in the colonies; hasty pudding was common in 18th-century homes, where it was presented before the main course to appease the appetite (so that guests would eat less of the meat); and Marlborough pie a delectable treat, with apples and biscuits was a favorite dessert.

Miller says that despite our opulent modern-day holiday feast, it still pales in comparison to the variety and spectacle of 18th-century Thanksgiving dinners.

"What was important was putting on a fancy spread," she says.

In that spirit ...

Hasty pudding

This pudding recipe was originally brought over from England, but was called "Indian pudding" when made in Colonial America. As a British dish, it was a quick pudding using a sweetened porridge made from flour, tapioca or oatmeal and milk. Here, the recipe was transformed to use local ingredients: cornmeal, milk and molasses or maple syrup. Because it uses cornmeal, it's anything but "hasty"; it requires 2 hours to bake. But the wait is worth it! If you want to be truly authentic, serve this dish as an appetizer.

2 cups milk

2 cups light cream

3 tbsp. stone ground yellow cornmeal

cup brown sugar

cup maple syrup

1 tbsp. butter

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. ginger

tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. nutmeg

Pinch ground cloves

1/8 tsp. baking soda

2 eggs, beaten

In a heavy pan, scald milk and cream. Gradually sprinkle with yellow cornmeal and bring to a boil, stirring briskly. Stir in sugar, maple syrup, butter and all the other dry ingredients. Let the mixture cool slightly.

In a small bowl, beat the eggs with the milk/cream mixture. Pour the batter into a buttered 1-quart baking dish and bake in a moderately slow oven (325 degrees) for 2 hours. Serves 4.

Stewed pumpkin

This standard colonial dish, though spiced like a modern pumpkin pie, does not come in a crust. Serve as a side vegetable dish.

8 cups peeled and diced pumpkin

cup water

1 tbsp. butter

2 tbsp. vinegar

1/3 cup brown sugar

tsp. ground ginger

tsp. cinnamon

salt to taste

Put 2 cups of pumpkin and cup of water into a pot and cook gently over low heat until they sink down. Keep adding more pumpkin until you have used all 8 cups. When cooked, the pumpkin will be tender and have kept much of its form, resembling stewed apples. Do not add more water. Remove from heat and add butter, vinegar, brown sugar and spices. Stir gently and serve. Allow plenty of time to cook this dish, for it must be done very slowly. Serves 10-plus.

Skillet cranberries

(Adapted from The Thirteen Colonies Cookbook)

1 lb. fresh cranberries

2 cups brown sugar

cup brandy or rum

Spread fresh cranberries in an iron skillet. Sprinkle the sugar over them, cover the skillet with foil, and place in a 250-degree oven for 1 hour. Remove the foil and pour cup brandy or rum over the cranberries. Continue cooking (do not stir, since this breaks up the cranberries) until rum or brandy evaporates. Serves 4-6.

Onion sauce for roast turkey

(Adapted from Plimoth Plantation's recipe page, plimoth.org)

This sauce is quite tasty and makes a nice change from modern gravy. In the 17th century, "gravy" was the drippings from the meat that were often transformed into a sauce.

6 medium onions, sliced thinly

2 cups of water

2 tsp. coarsely ground pepper

1 tsp. salt

1 tbsp. sugar

cup red wine vinegar

cup bread crumbs (optional)

Follow your favorite recipe for roast turkey. Remove the turkey to a platter, reserving the pan juices. Place thinly sliced onions in a pot with water and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and cook until the onions are tender but not mushy. A good deal of the water should have boiled away. Set aside for a moment. Place the roasting pan over medium heat and stir to loosen any brown bits. Stir in the onion sauce, sugar, vinegar and bread crumbs, if desired. Add pepper to taste, and adjust seasonings. To serve, pour over sliced turkey or serve alongside in a separate dish.


Syllabub was a popular dessert with the colonists, and variations on this recipe have been found as far back as the Middle Ages. The following modern adaptation will make a syllabub dessert parfait. For a punch, add more wine until you have achieved the desired consistency.

2 cups whipped cream

cup white sugar

1/8 cup white wine

1/8 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice and zest of lemon

grated nutmeg

10 sprigs of mint

10 lemon slices

Whip cream until thick in a chilled bowl. When the cream begins to thicken, add the sugar, white wine, lemon juice and zest of lemon. Continue to whip until thick. Chill in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Spoon the mixture into footed parfait glasses and garnish with a sprig of mint, a slice of lemon and a sprinkle of grated nutmeg. Serves 10.

This piece first appeared in the Keene Sentinel, the independently owned daily newspaper of an absurdly classic New England town.


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