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Podcast explores 1937 Thanksgiving at White House

In a special Thanksgiving installment of The Dominion Post’s new podcast, “Aull About History,” the Aull Center’s Nathan Wuertenberg explores how a turkey from Arthurdale ended up the centerpiece of a White House Thanksgiving.

The year 1937 was the first Thanksgiving President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his family spent in the White House since his inauguration at the height of the Great Depression in 1933. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a tireless champion of the homesteading experiment at Arthurdale, and the former miners sent the bird as thanks for her support.

While sending turkeys to the White House for Thanksgiving has been an American tradition since the 1870s, the birds were almost always donated elsewhere. It is rare for the First Family to accept and eat a gifted bird.

In the ensuing 82 years, some Thanksgiving food traditions, like the turkey, have remained steadfast. However, as we recorded this holiday special, we found ourselves puzzling at some of the other items that accompanied the turkey at the Roosevelts’ dinner.

Our information on the day’s meal comes from the New Castle News out of Pennsylvania. Whoever wrote the article only listed the items served, but based on some common sense and other dinner menus of the era, we broke the Roosevelts’ meal into five courses.

The meal began with oyster cocktail and saltines. According to the White House Historical Association, oysters from the Chesapeake Bay have been a perennial item on White House Thanksgiving menus. According to Chicago Tribune reporter Nick Kindelsperger, their particular “cocktail” preparation took the Roosevelts’ native New York City by storm in the 1900s. Unlike its contemporary cousin, the shrimp cocktail, the oyster cocktail was likely consumed as its name implies, drunk directly out of the serving glass.

The next dish to be served is listed simply as “clear soup with sherry.” Simple broths were popular items on multi-course menus of the era, and other menus pulled from the New York Library’s, “What’s on the Menu” database show that sherry, a Spanish fortified wine, was often paired with broth.

Soup was followed by olives, toast fingers and something called “pearled celery.” Olives, celery and nuts often appeared on menus of the time at this point of the meal. Celery is served as a traditional palate cleanser in places like Normandy, France, so it feels safe to assume the “pearled celery”  was  the name of a celery variety. Please get in touch if you know otherwise.

Now, the main course. The 16-pound Arthurdale turkey was paired with chestnut dressing, cranberry jelly, Deerfoot sausage, string beans and scalloped sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. A few items immediately jump out. First, the chestnut dressing, or stuffing, depending on your regional preferences.

What’s interesting about this dish is  in 1937, the Roosevelts may have been eating some of the last chestnuts harvested from American trees. American chestnuts once accounted for as many as one in four of the trees in Appalachia, making them a cheap and plentiful staple of the American diet. Unfortunately, a blight introduced from Asia around 1900 devastated the American chestnut variety, and by 1940 the tree was all but wiped out. Chestnut dressing — or stuffing — is still popular in many American homes, but if you eat it today, the nuts are from Europe.

Cranberries in all their forms continue to be a Thanksgiving staple, so not much to discuss there, but Deerfoot sausage certainly grabs the eye.

Deerfoot was not — as the name implies — an ingredient, but rather a brand name. These pork sausages from the Deerfoot farms in Massachusetts were considered some of the best on the market. According to the food blog “Cook’s Info,” they sometimes cost double their competitors, and were marketed with the tagline, “they cost more — try them and see why.” The sausages seem to have been a favorite of the wealthy Roosevelts, appearing on their Thanksgiving menu again in 1942.

Skipping over the string beans and scalloped sweet potatoes that some of us will be enjoying today, we clear the main course.

Grapefruit and orange salad followed. Citrus, most often in the form of sorbet, is a traditional palate cleanser found, like the celery earlier, in French cuisine.

The citrus salad was followed up with cheese. A cheese course is not a surprising inclusion, considering the other French inspirations the menu has, especially in its transitional dishes.

The Roosevelts finished their meal with about as traditional a dessert as you could ask for: Pumpkin pie and ice cream.

Finally, coffee was served. The work of the president and — in the case of Eleanor — the first lady is never over, and neither of them would have had time for that greatest of Thanksgiving traditions: The post-dinner nap.

All in all, the Roosevelt’s holiday dinner shows us that while Thanksgiving traditions have largely remained unchanged, little differences like eating celery and olives between courses really stand out. What will our descendants think when they look back on our holiday menus? Which of our own unimpeachable classics will be looked upon as culinary oddities in the years to come?

For more on the connection between the Roosevelts and the Arthurdale community that took a turkey from the mountains to the capital, be sure to listen to the Thanksgiving episode of our new podcast, “Aull About History.”