How They Gave Thanks in 1863


Brandenburg, Germany

Expatriate Thanksgivings have a paradoxical feeling of closeness and distance. There’s the longing to recapture the spirit and flavor of the family table back home, but also a sometimes irresistible urge to take advantage of the remove from the sites of “tradition” and do something different and daring: maybe a bit of sauerkraut alongside the cranberry and Prussian turkey, whose American ancestors emigrated against the demographic tide from the New World to the Old.

But can culinary license and footloose expatriatism explain the terrific repast enjoyed by a large group of Americans and their English guests in London on the occasion of the first nationally-proclaimed Thanksgiving Day in 1863? The menu comes from an account of the event, mostly in the form of lengthy speeches, published that same year under the title “American Thanksgiving Dinner at St. James’ Hall, London, Thursday, November 26th, 1863.”

Here’s that 1863 Thanksgiving menu in all its francophone splendor:

With this tour-de-force we’re oceans away from Squanto and Miles Standish and their roast turkey and other meats, dried corn, beans and pumpkins. It’s a menu that might have sent the most ardent New Worlders paddling frantically back to Europe for Gâteaux à la Napolitaine.

Two-and-half-centuries on from the first Thanksgiving, these Americans abroad were celebrating with: three soups, including a crayfish bisque (crayfish perhaps evoking something of New England); four fish dishes (turbot, cod, hake, and smelt); then it was on to the entrées, among them the chicken “à la Washington” (the first American President lauded in one of the toasts for having freed his on slave, though only posthumously); other delicacies among this course were the veal sweetbreads with sorrel and game meatballs “à la Lincoln.” The main course includes the obligatory turkey, but this one stuffed with truffles. How difficult it would have been to leave room for the chicken “à la Prairie” and the roast gosling in potato sauce, not to mention the mutton loin and beef offered for good measure. Still, I’ll bet a few managed it.

Next came the roast fowl—pheasant, partridges and wild ducks—before the guests pulled into the pre-dessert weigh-station for a choice of fourteen different cakes and pies, closed out with a quartet of Anglo-America options, with Pumpkin Pie à l’Américaine and Mince Pie à l’Anglaise battling for the affections of the diners. Finally came dessert, presumably of fruits and cheese. Thankfulness à la Plymouth 1622 had a very different palate than that of the diners at St. James’ Hall, 1863.

Less than one hundred years independent from Great Britain, these Americans abroad celebrated the new national holiday with impressive gusto and Anglo-American imperial unity.  The administrative realignments of 1776 are hardly touched on in the 1863 speeches.

Before the Civil War, Thanksgiving had been observed on various dates in various regions, and not at all in the Southern States. The credit for resuscitating Thanksgiving is often given to “lady” novelist and magazine editor, Sarah Hale, who lobbied for years for an “American” day of commemoration. She was seventy-five years old when the war-time president, Lincoln, having received a letter from her, finally realized the utility for national unity of a belated harvest celebration. A recognition of Hale’s motherly contributions to the cause of nationhood is represented in the final speech of that first London Thanksgiving. In contrast to the previous eight toasts, which take up ninety of the book’s hundred pages, the last, stripped of the pompous rhetoric that marked the previous orations, went out to “the Ladies: Our Sweethearts, Wives, Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, Friends. Their holy influence will break all chains but those which bind our hearts to them. (Loud cheers.)”

As the menu makes evident, in resurrecting Thanksgiving in time of war there was apparently no need to observe culinary economies, though the tension between sacrifice and celebration was acknowledged by Lincoln in his Proclamation of National Thanksgiving Day, read aloud to the London assembly before its members tucked in:

“The needful diversions of wealth and strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship. The axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal, as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than theretofore.”

War and Thanksgiving go together like turkey and truffles. The English abolitionist, George Thompson, Member of Parliament from the Tower Hamlets, the most populous constituency in Great Britain, made this connection at length in his Thanksgiving toast to the “ victories in the cause of Liberty and Union.” The Thanksgiving pamphlet reports that Thompson was “received with loud and continued cheering,” as he extolled the prosperity that the moral war had brought with it, thankful not only for the imminent defeat of slavery but for America’s “teeming fields and healthful skies, for increase of population, far above any of the losses that you have sustained in the battle-field … Employment and plenty, even affluence abound.”

The enriching power of war as the great engine of industrialization was harnessed by many of the families at the London feast, not least by that of the American ambassador to England, Charles Francis Adams, who delivered the London Thanksgiving’s first toast. Adams made his to the President, praising him for managing the war effort in spite of his lack of any preparation or training: “I do not believe that in the whole history of the world a greater undertaking was ever assumed by an individual who had no experience in such matters.” Lincoln had whipped the army and navy in shape, and cranked up the war machine by “reorganizing credit and re-establishing … integrity of the administration of the Treasury.”

The ambassador’s son, Charles Francis Adams, Jr., was then a general in the Union army and would later become head of the Union Pacific Railroad; he was also a fierce opponent of regulation in spite of the fact that his company was built on government giveaways. Moving closer to our own time, Charles Adams IV, great-great-great grandson of John Adams, would serve as the first president of the defense contracting giant Raytheon from 1948 until 1960. The Great Barbecue extends from those Dindons rôti farci aux Truffes of 1863 to George W. Bush’s turkey in Baghdad, 2003. While America’s imperial reach and military budget have grown since 1863, its culinary ambitions have definitely fallen.

The focus of this newly national Thanksgiving was not on re-enacting some version of the first feast of 1622, but of marking the rescue of the Union from the unthankful secessionists. The victory of the North would then allow the further expansion of the country westward, as the fourth toast put it, “from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” That toast giver, Major Z. K. Pangborn painted this Romantic picture on a vast canvass for his well-fed London audience: “Our interlacing system of lakes and rivers, our continuous mountain ranges, whose towering peaks stand as answering sentinels to one another from Katahdin’s brow to the snowy Sierra Nevada’s crest, all tell us that the God of nature has given us one land for our inheritance.” The Sioux and others would have a few things to say about that before all was said and done.

Pangborn makes the only reference to the Pilgrims found in all the speeches. These earlier European settlers are passingly acknowledged as having made the first ginger steps towards the Manifest Destiny of continental conquest:

“So, in this faith and hope, we here to-night, whether homeward bound, or loiterers still upon a foreign shore, may look forward to many returns of this our anniversary: and rest assured, that when this ruthless storm of civil war, that burst upon our defenceless nation’s head is overpast—as overpast it surely will be,—we shall all descry the rainbow, promise of perpetual peace, spanning a continent; and while its eastern arch shall spring from where the Atlantic surges answer back the sighing of the pines of the Aroostook and sings the requiem of the Puritans by Plymouth Rock, its western bow, with undimmed brilliancy, shall sink in the unvexed wave by the golden gate of the Pacific Sea (tremendous cheering.)”

Completed in 1858 and torn down in 1902, St. James’ Hall was London’s main concert hall in the second half of the 19th century. One of the smaller venues in the building was long-time home to a hugely popular minstrel show. Perhaps even some in attendance marked the dissonance between some of the speechifying on that Thanksgiving day and the lampooning of African-American culture going on elsewhere in St. James’s Hall. As Freeman Morse, the American consul in London and former Governor of Kansas during the Bleeding Kansas of the 1850s, put it in his Thanksgiving toast to the Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1st of that same year of 1863: “churches and schoolhouse will dot [the South’s] valleys and hill sides, and a free, industrious, intelligent, and law-abiding population, will take the place of the human machines which move, toil, suffer, and often die at the pleasure of their owners.” One wonders how many of the Thanksgiving feasters enjoyed some of this blackface entertainment immediately after hearing the speeches depicting the utopian future awaiting freed slaves of America.

As for the music of the feast, Pangborn’s toast imagined an international choral upwelling like that of the massed English chorus festivals that gained such popularity in England in the middle of the 19th-century. On the defeat of slavery and the conversion of the entire American economy to one of “free-labour”: “No anthem of rejoicing will be welcomed with a more loud acclaim than that which commemorates the emancipation of the long-suffering sons of Africa’s sunny clime, as, mingling with other choral songs, it echoes through the long colonnade and dies away upon the gilded architrave (loud applause.)”

The London Thanksgiving banquet did not dampen the festivities with the austere Calvinist psalms of the Puritans sung in 17th-century Plymouth, and again in the late-19th century by American churches on Thanksgiving Day when its ritual symbols were redirected towards the Pilgrim past. Rather, the London celebration commissioned new words to be fitted to an Old World favorite, Auld Lang Syne, to be sung by attendees before dinner. The first of the hymn’s two stanzas speaks of Americans abroad spreading the word of freedom while they take care to pay tribute to the sacrifice of those fighting for it back on native soil:

We meet, the Sons of Freedom’s Sires
Unchanged, where’er we roam,
While gather round their household fires
The happy bands of home;
And while across the far blue wave
Their prayers go up to God
We pledge the faith our fathers gave,—
The land by Freemen trod!

Having loosened the waistcoats for, and cleared the pipes with, some robust singing, it was then time for the good and the great to attend to the real business of the first nationally-proclaimed Thanksgiving day dinner: eating in the Old Country as the Pilgrim’s could never have dreamed of on the shores of the New.

David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach’s Feet. His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu


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