Thanksgiving à la Mode

A festive group of American diplomats and their English guests gathered in London on the occasion of the first nationally-proclaimed Thanksgiving Day in 1863. The menu is reprinted in account, most of it dedicated to the banquet’s lengthy speeches, published soon after under the title “American Thanksgiving Dinner at St. James’ Hall, London, Thursday, November 26th, 1863,” a copy of which is housed in the Kroch Rare Books Library at Cornell University:

In culinary terms and tastes, this francophile feast is an ocean 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 those 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 (smaller items that preceded the main course), among them the chicken “à la Washington” (the first American President lauded in one of the toasts for having freed his own slaves, though only posthumously); other delicacies among this course were the veal sweetbreads with sorrel and game meatballs “à la Lincoln.” The Grosses Pièces (main course) include the obligatory turkeys (Dindons), but these were 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. The diners were men and women of stature—and of girth.

Next came the roast fowl—pheasant, partridges and wild ducks—before the guests contemplated the fourteen different cakes and pies, closed out with a quartet of Anglo-America options, Pumpkin Pie à l’Américaine and Mince Pie à l’Anglaise battling for the affections of the diners. Finally, there was dessert, unspecified in the menu, but presumably made up of fruits and cheeses. Thankfulness à la Plymouth 1621 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 with hearty dedication to Anglo-American 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, but not in the Southern States. 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, realized that a harvest celebration drawing on the Pilgrim past could congeal nationalist sentiment in a strife-torn country of immigrants. Recognition of Hale’s motherly contributions to the cause of nationhood was offered 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.)” No mention is made of giving them the right to vote that so many were then pushing for.

As the menu makes evident, in resurrecting Thanksgiving in time of war there was no need to observe culinary economies, even 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 St. James’ toast to “ victories in the cause of Liberty and Union.” Thompson’s remarks were “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.”

War, the great engine of industrialization, enriched many the families at the London feast, not least that of the American Minister to the United Kingdom, Charles Francis Adams, who had been charged by Lincoln with persuading the British not to recognize the Confederacy. Grandson of the second American President, and son of the sixth, Adams delivered the London Thanksgiving’s first toast. He made his to the President, praising Lincoln for his effective management of the war effort even though he lacked any training or preparation: “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 into 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, even though his company was built on government giveaways. Moving closer to our own time, Charles Francis Adams IV (great-grandson of Charles Francis Adams; great-great grandson of John Quincy Adams; and 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 the Make-American-Great-Again Menu consumed in November of 2016 by then recently-triumphant President-Elect Donald Trump and the First Family-to-be at Mar-a-Lago, which sits within the boundaries of the American Empire thanks to the deal acquiring Florida from the Spanish that was sealed by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams in 1819:

Mar-a-Lago Chilled Seafood Display:

Large Florida Stone Crabs

Oysters on the Half Shell

From the Garden

Jumbo Shrimp

Middle Neck Clams

Mr. Trump’s Wedge Salad

Farm-Fresh Deviled Eggs

Roasted Vegetable Cous Cous Salad

Ahi Tuna Martinis

House Made Soup Selections:

House Made Soup Selections

Maine Lobster Bisque

Local Vegetable Minestrone Soup

Savor Sensations:

Oven-Roasted Turkey, Traditional Stuffing, Sweet Mashed Potatoes, House Made Gravy

Herb-Marinated Beef Tenderloin, Steamed Vegetables, Whipped Potatoes, Warm Popovers, Horseradish Cream

Chef-Carved Leg of Lamb, Grilled Pita and Tzatziki Sauce

Pan-Seared Chilean Sea Bass, Curried Vegetables, Coconut Shellfish Broth

Red Wine-Braised Short Ribs, Herb Roasted Potatoes, Natural Braising Jus

Grilled Diver Scallops, Roasted Vegetable Ratatouille

Sweet Sensation:

Three-Layer Trump Chocolate Cake

Pumpkin Pie

Toasted Coconut Cake

Chocolate Eclairs

Pecan Pie

Warm Chocolate Brownie Pockets

Creamy Key Lime Pie

Hot Apple Crisp

This banquet was guarded by a contingent 150 Secret Service agents at a cost of some seven million dollars to the U. S. Taxpayers.

While America’s imperial reach and military budget have grown since 1863, the culinary ambitions are proudly nativist: the oysters at Mar-a-Lago were on ICE, the eclairs stripped of their accents aigus. .

The national Thanksgiving of 1863 was not dedicated to re-enacting some version of the mythic first feast of 1621, but rather to rescuing 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 a glorious Romantic picture on a vast canvas: “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.”

Pangborn made the only reference to the Pilgrims found in all the speeches. These earlier European settlers were passingly acknowledged as having taken 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.)”

Torn down in 1902, St. James’ Hall was London’s main concert hall in the second half of the nineteenth century. One of the smaller venues in the building was long-time home to a popular minstrel show. Probably none of the participants in the 1863 London Thanksgiving were troubled by any dissonance between the lofty speechifying and the lampooning of Black culture going on elsewhere in the building. As Freeman Morse, the American consul in London and former Governor of Kansas during the bloody 1850s there, 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 blackface entertainment immediately after hearing the speeches depicting the utopian future awaiting the freed slaves.

As for the music of the feast, Pangborn’s toast imagined an international choral upwelling like that of the massed singing festivals popular in England in the middle of the nineteenth century. On the defeat of slavery and the conversion of the entire American economy to one of “free-labour,” he claimed that: “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 banquet was not saddened by austere Calvinist psalms like those sung by the Puritans in seventeenth-century Plymouth, and again in the later-nineteenth century by American churches on Thanksgiving Day when ritual symbols of nationalist Thanksgiving 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 extols Americans abroad spreading the word of freedom while they take care to pay tribute to the sacrifices 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: feasting in the Old World as the Pilgrims could never have dreamt of doing on the shores of the New.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at