My friend Anna North Coit knows exactly what she wants for Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s more or less the same holiday foods she’s eaten for most of the 101 years she’s been alive. There will be a turkey from the same Connecticut farm where her family has bought its holiday birds since 1922; there will be the creamed curried onions for which Anna is justly famous; and there will be the New England holy trinity of pies—apple, pumpkin, and mincemeat.
I’ll be there too, cooking with her in her Connecticut home, as I have for the past ten years. I guess it’s only natural that I’d embrace the rigorous observance of tradition at Anna’s Thanksgiving dinners. As a food historian, I consider this day an all-important event, and I’ve obsessed over every detail of the holiday and its various rituals for as long as I can remember. I’ve read accounts of Thanksgivings on oceangoing ships, researched the invention of everything from cranberry sauce to stuffing, and, on several occasions, cooked the meal in an 18th-century-style fireplace hearth. In an age when novelty and experimentation are prized, I find something grounding about cooking with Anna. Her kitchen is a conduit to the past, and once we start rolling out pie crusts and tearing up day-old bread for stuffing, the floodgates of memory open up and she shares stories that stretch back to her youth.
I met Anna nearly 30 ago, when she was serving on the board of the historical society in North Stonington, Connecticut, and my husband, Jamie, and I were caretakers of the society’s house. We all became fast friends. I loved hearing about her childhood in Montclair, New Jersey, and how she was raised by a New England-born mother with firm notions about tradition. She regaled us with stories about her big-city career at Time magazine, where she was only the second female staff writer in the publication’s history. “The men were astonished that a woman could write,” she said. We bonded over food and our shared love of cooking. I never imagined that Anna, already in her 70s at the time, would be such an important part of our lives decades hence or that I’d learn so much from her about the way Americans used to eat.
People in New England have celebrated an autumnal day of thanksgiving since the late 1600s, and, over the course of the 18th century, the tradition took root wherever Yankees settled. The holiday was celebrated on different days in different places until a determined Boston-based writer named Sarah Josepha Hale, after trying for years, finally persuaded President Lincoln to declare it a national holiday in 1863.
The inspiration was a harvest celebration held in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1621. The only meat mentioned by name in historical accounts of that feast is venison, though we know that wild fowl accompanied the meal as well, and that could have certainly meant turkey; the birds roamed in great numbers in New England’s woods. Regardless, the turkey was nicely positioned to become the reigning symbol of the national holiday, as it was regarded by Americans as elegant fare for special occasions during the 19th century. Overall, the traditional Thanksgiving menu is Yankee New England all the way: seasonal native foods made to reflect Victorian tastes, like cranberry jellies in elegant molds, meat and fruit pies, and, as the centerpiece, a great big roast turkey.
Anna always orders a small turkey from the Brown family, but they inevitably end up giving her a big one anyhow. This year’s, a 23-pounder, requires us to add aluminum foil extensions onto her largest roasting pan to accommodate the bird’s girth. Anna moves nimbly and deliberately in her colonial house’s galley-style kitchen. She spoons bread stuffing into the turkey and trusses the fowl beautifully, tucking the wings under crisscrossed twine, tying the legs together, and skewering shut the vent. Younger cooks do not understand trussing the way our forebears did. Women who used needle and thread daily to make and mend clothing thought nothing of sewing up stuffed poultry or fowl.
After I help Anna get the turkey into the oven, she tells me that her family had a cook named Bertha who used to stuff the bird the night before. “She’d leave a note to tell the family what to do the next day before she got there,” Anna recalls. I mention to Anna that I’ve read that some cooks used to boil the turkey for the holiday meal and often served the meat alongside baked chicken pie. Anna says that she remembers such a pie being served when she was young, though she can’t remember the turkey ever not being roasted.
Anna makes her own cranberry sauce, and so does Elizabeth Haddad, a friend who brings hers each year in an antique, turtle-shaped porcelain mold. Anna’s mashed potatoes and turnips are traditional fare; the sweet potatoes came later in the 19th century, when Southerners began to adopt Thanksgiving. As for Anna’s famed curried creamed onions, well, that’s a relatively modern touch: she began flavoring the luscious pearl onions with curry powder three decades ago. “I just thought of doing it one day,” she says.
Three years ago, Anna started letting me make the onions; maybe she got the sense that I finally understood the recipe, or maybe she realized it was time to start delegating. Before that, she’d made every dish for the meal herself. Delegating doesn’t mean loosening the reins, though. One year I suggested garlic mashed potatoes. “No,” she said curtly. Anna does not object to garlic in principle; just in potatoes and certainly not on Thanksgiving.
It used to be that we both cooked and ate at Anna’s house; she’d pull out her blue-and-white Vassar commemorative dinner plates and set the table with linen and silver. This year, though, we pack up the meal and take it to her cousin’s house, eight miles way. All the traditional details are in place, from the leafy celery stalks set out in heirloom glasses to my mincemeat pie (made with venison, of course). We begin dinner by saying grace and end it with a toast to the president of the United States.
I suppose our dinner might seem stodgy, a too-reverential homage to the past, but for me it’s a reaffirmation of my New England heritage. To be truthful, we have made a few concessions over the years. Anna has starting making one apple pie without lard, in deference to her vegetarian friends. And she understands that some people like to augment the traditional apple, mincemeat, and pumpkin pies with other sweets, like chocolate-pecan pie, but she can’t for the life of her imagine why. —Sandra L. Oliver, author of Giving Thanks (Clarkson Potter, 2005)