The Unpaved Roadshow: Thanksgiving, old-school style

Two ranges are the main course of the 1910-1925 kitchen at Richmond's Maymont. The hood over the coal-burner is evidence of how much heat these units produced; the early gas range (at left) needed neither the exhaust nor the floor space.Dennis McWaters
Two ranges are the main course of the 1910-1925 kitchen at Richmond’s Maymont. The hood over the coal-burner is evidence of how much heat these units produced; the early gas range (at left) needed neither the exhaust nor the floor space.

It seems that logistics are as much part of the Thanksgiving cooking experience, as is the cooking. Maneuvering turkey and side dishes from oven to microwave to warming drawer (if you’re lucky enough to have one), to ensure that everything is warm and fully cooked by the time it is presented to expectant diners, is a challenge for most modern holiday cooks.

It’s unlikely that our apron-ed ancestors would pity current-day Thanksgiving cooks. Cooking in the early colonial period was pretty basic — done over open fires in the fireplace. It wasn’t until the advent of the dome-shaped beehive oven in the early 1700s, that pies, breads and cakes could be baked in the hearth.

Imagine trying to make a pumpkin pie without being able to precisely gauge or control the temperature. Our foremothers managed to regulate the cooking temperatures of their beehive ovens by burning the right amount of wood to ash and then sticking their hands inside to test it.

This is a typical fireplace from the colonial settlement at Jamestown. What you're seeing in this picture is half of the entire house.
This is a typical fireplace from the colonial settlement at Jamestown. What you’re seeing in this picture is half of the entire house.

From a cooking perspective, the ingredients of the modern kitchen came together only about 200 years ago. In the early 1800s, the first true cook range appeared—that is, a cast-iron, flat-topped heat source combined with an oven to scientifically control heat. It had a single fire source, yet the temperature could be regulated individually for several pots at the same time. Finally, there was a solution for cooking multiple dishes at once.

Actually, though, Thanksgiving , as we know it, was not celebrated until the 19th century. It wasn’t until the 1860s or later, during the Colonial Revival period, that the Thanksgiving feast was recreated and widely celebrated across New England and the Midwest, as was the iconic menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, cranberries and pumpkins. The Colonial Revival movement lasted into the early 20th century, as Americans, reeling from industrialization and urbanization, idealized the Colonial period as an era of self-reliance and living off the land.

The kitchen of the 1907 Evans House in California is dominated by a 1926 Smoothtop gas range, promoted for its compact cooking surface.Douglas Kiester
The kitchen of the 1907 Evans House in California is dominated by a 1926 Smoothtop gas range, promoted for its compact cooking surface.

In the South, however, a true old-fashioned southern Thanksgiving holiday feast was all but unknown for most of the 19th century. To southerners, Thanksgiving was a Yankee holiday, birthed in New England and adorned with that region’s symbols and traditions. Southerners came late to the Thanksgiving table, and when they finally did, they didn’t lay out down-home spreads of collards, country ham, and black-eyed peas, but rather the same Thanksgiving fare being served in Boston or Ohio.

By the time that the Thanksgiving feast was becoming more popular in the 1860s, stove manufacturers had turned to gas, made from coal, as a heat source. Electric ovens were available as well, but the technology and distribution of the electricity still needed improvements. By 1896, as gas companies saw their bread-and-butter business nibbled away by electric, they looked to the kitchen as a new market. So, by 1900, American homemakers had their choice of either gas or electric stoves.

Luckily for American cooks, when the Thanksgiving feast became an essential part of the American experience in the early 20th century, stoves and ovens had evolved offering quicker and safer cooking and greater capacity. By then, juggling the cooking of turkey, stuffing and side dishes was a little more akin to what we experience as we prepare our own Thanksgiving meals.

A Victorian or Edwardian coal-fired kitchen range.
A Victorian or Edwardian coal-fired kitchen range.

Today, collectors scour auctions and shops for old or historic kitchen implements, especially those that carry a blacksmith’s mark. They seek out the forged-iron trammel, which suspended a cooking pot over a fire, it’s saw-tooth edge enabling height adjustments, and the crane, a hinged iron arm attached to one side of the fireplace to hold trammels and hooks from which pots were hung. However certain items, like skewers, long needles of iron used to hold meat to a roasting spit and the spit jack, a mechanized spit used for turning meat over a fire, are exceeding rare today and command high prices.

So, as we ponder the effort that goes into creating a delicious feast for our loved ones and then the lots and lots of dishes to wash — let’s also remember to be thankful for our electric gadgets, our microwaves, dishwashers and frost-free refrigerators.

Michelle Galler (antiques.and.whimsies@gmail.com) is an antiques dealer, design consultant and realtor based in Georgetown. Her shop is in Rare Finds, in Washington, Va.

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