Thanksgiving at the White House, Circa 1887

Published in Gourmet Live 11.16.11
Gourmet Live presents a holiday menu and four timeless recipes from the White House Cook Book

It’s a funny thing about Thanksgiving dinner. Even though we’re all quite familiar with the predictable components of this most American meal, we’re still curious to know the details of what friends, neighbors, relatives, celebrities, and, yes, even our president and his family are eating that day. So, too, were Americans back in 1887, when Grover Cleveland was president and the White House Cook Book was first published.

A subsequent edition of this collection introduced holiday menus, composed of original 1887 recipes. The Thanksgiving menu reprinted below is, in keeping with its era, far more elaborate and extensive than the Obamas’ will likely be this year. Yet First Lady Michelle Obama would approve of the variety of vegetables offered: Beyond that timeless classic, mashed potatoes, the bill of fare calls for baked squash, boiled onions, and parsnip fritters. What’s surprising is the amount of animal protein on the menu, above and beyond the turkey: oysters, smelts, a venison pastry, and even more poultry in the form of a chicken soup and chicken salad.

Most intriguing of all is the dessert spread. It runs the gamut from pies (pumpkin and mince) to pudding, ice cream, lemon jelly (think homemade lemon Jell-O made from calves’ feet), hickory nut cake, and fresh fruit.

Read on for four recipes from this grand repast that can readily be cooked today. Though presented in an antique style compared with 21st-century cookbooks, these recipes include invaluable tips for peeling onions, cooking cranberries, and substitutes for pumpkin in pie filling.

Curiously enough, even turkeys destined for the White House weren’t always as fresh as they should have been, apparently, because the cookbook authors—White House steward Hugo Ziemann and Mrs. F. L. Gillette—recommend washing out the inside of the bird with a baking soda solution to destroy the “unpleasant taste which we frequently experience in the dressing when fowls have been killed for some time.” We wonder what the folks at the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline—today’s guardians of food safety at home, and a perennial source of Thanksgiving tips would say about that!

We would have included the turkey recipe, of course, but it begins with removing the feathers and then singeing the bird over a burning newspaper on top of the stove. You then remove the internal organs and the crop, and we figured you didn’t have time to do that.…


Oysters on Half Shell
Cream of Chicken Soup
Fried Smelts, Sauce Tartare
Roast Turkey, Cranberry Sauce
Mashed Potatoes, Baked Squash
Boiled Onions, Parsnip Fritters
Olives, Chicken Salad
Venison Pastry
Pumpkin Pie, Mince Pie
Charlotte Russe, Almond Ice-cream
Lemon Jelly, Hickory Nut Cake
Cheese, Fruits

Cranberry Sauce

One quart of cranberries, two cupfuls of sugar, and a pint of water. Wash the cranberries, then put them on the fire with the water, but in a covered sauce-pan. Let them simmer until each cranberry bursts open; then remove the cover of the sauce-pan, add the sugar, and let them all boil twenty minutes without the cover. The cranberries must never be stirred from the time they are placed on the fire. This is an unfailing recipe for a most delicious preparation of cranberries. Very fine with turkey and game.

Onions Boiled

The white silver-skins are the best species. To boil them peel off the outside, cut off the ends, put them into cold water and into a stewpan, and let them scald two minutes; then turn off that water, pour on cold water, salted a little, and boil slowly till tender, which will be in thirty or forty minutes, according to their size; when done drain them quite dry, pour a little melted butter over them, sprinkle them with pepper and salt, and serve hot.

An excellent way to peel onions so as not to affect the eyes is to take a pan full of water and hold and peel them under the water.

Parsnip Fritters

Boil four or five parsnips; when tender take off the skin and mash them fine; add to them a teaspoonful of wheat flour and a beaten egg; put a tablespoonful of lard or beef drippings in a frying pan over the fire, add to it a saltspoonful of salt; when boiling hot put in the parsnips; make it in small cakes with a spoon; when one side is a delicate brown turn the other; when both are done take them on a dish, put a very little of the fat in which they were fried over and serve hot. These resemble very nearly the taste of the salsify or oyster plant, and will generally be preferred.

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