Sunday, November 25, 2007

A More Traditional Thanksgiving Menu?

From eyewitness accounts of the first Thanksgiving it's not clear whether turkey was on the menu. We know that venison and a lot of fowl were present but, this in a time when swan was one of the most popular game birds on the menu. There would also have been quite a lot of seafood on the menu. In an effort to changes things a bit and to have a more historically typical menu we searched many sources for recipes. Finally settling on a New York Times article from 1896 that describes recipes passed down through generations of Adirondack guides and hunters. I have also listed several of the foods likely to have been on that first Thanksgiving table:

Seafood: Cod, Eel, Clams, Lobster
Wild Fowl: Wild Turkey, Goose, Duck, Crane, Swan, Partridge, Eagles
Meat: Venison, Seal
Grain: Wheat Flour, Indian Corn
Vegetables: Pumpkin, Peas, Beans, Onions, Lettuce, Radishes, Carrots
Fruit: Plums, Grapes
Nuts: Walnuts, Chestnuts, Acorns
Herbs and Seasonings: Olive Oil, Liverwort, Leeks, Dried Currants, Parsnips

These recipes are taken from a New York Times article, The Secrets of the Carver. An Early English Dinner – Studies in the Operative Surgery of Animals by Juliet Corson, published on March 1, 1896. The venison recipe comes from Mme. Jule De Ryther, “a descendant of a line of hunters and hosts whose forest cookery has long been famous” and seems to have origins with early Adirondack hunters and guides. The entire article is quite interesting and available in .pdf format from the NY Times archives. As you can imagine, a few adjustments had to be made but, we were very fortunate that a hunt club we used to frequent down in Long Island, with proper meat lockers, was willing to age our saddle with our other cuts of venison for several days with its cloves. The indented text is taken verbatim from the article.

Roast Saddle of Venison.–Stick from twelve to eighteen whole cloves in the top part of a saddle of venison and hang it up in a cool dry place for several days, after which lay the venison in a large, deep earthen dish. Then add a sliced onion or the crushed clove of garlic, two bay leaves, one tablespoonful of French wine vinegar, one tablespoonful of tarragon vinegar, a sliced carrot, then pour over the whole enough good sherry to cover the venison, and let it soak for twelve hours. At the end of this time remove the venison from the arinade, put it in a dripping pan, cover the top with strips of larding pork, sprinkle with salt and pepper, stand it in a quick over for one-half hour, then change the temperature of the over so the venison roasts slowly for a half hour longer. Remove the pan from the oven, lift the saddle tenderly, being careful not to pierce it with a fork – if you do it will lose its juice and flavor – lay it on a hot platter, and stand it in a hot pace while you make the gravy, which should be made as follows:

[For the cooking we first wrapped the saddle of venison in pancetta and seared it over high heat until well browned / caramelized, then cooked as we do many roasts – preheat the oven to 500 degrees, place the roast in the oven, after five minutes shut off the heat and allow to cook for ninety minutes without opening the door – for our 5 lb. saddle to be medium rare].

To Make the Gravy.–Stand the dripping pan on the stove and pour into it the liquid in which the venison has been soaked. Mix two tablespoonfuls of flour in enough sherry to make it the consistency of a rich cream. As soon as the liquor in the pan begins to boil, stir in the flour and let it simmer gently till quite thick. Season with a little salt. Pour the gravy through a strainer, serve in a separate dish beside the venison. The platter should be very deep. Fleck the saddle all over with currant jelly before sending it to the table.

[We did also deviate here and used our own relish made from dried currant.]

Broiled Partridge.-Select fine, plump birds, and let them be fresh, for eating stale game is one of those barbaric customs no longer indulged in. Time was when a so-called bon vivant did not consider a bird fit for eating until it had so far decayed that its feathers fell off, or the bird falls when hung up by the tail feathers, but now no one would, if he or she knew it, insult the stomach with decayed food of any sort. Having selected the partridge, pick them dry. This must be done at home, as they are sure to scald them if left to be plucked in the market. After they are plucked singe off the hairs over a little burning alcohol; then split the bird down the back, wipe it dry inside and out, sprinkle well with salt, lay on a well-buttered gridiron, and broil over a good fire, turning them several times. When done, place them on a very hot platter, dot them all over with flecks of fresh butter, and serve. The more simple the manner of cooking a partridge the better.

[Again we deviated from the original recipes leaving the partridge whole, buttering the cavities, stuffing in some vine leaves and trussing them to keep them moist.]

Needless to say I am quite passionate about cooking, wild game, my dogs and hunting and this year’s meal required quite a lot of advance work, starting last weekend. Both the venison and the game birds were hung for several days before we started cooking and it took three ferries and several hours drive for my guests to transport these ingredients to Boston. I’m a big fan of the slow food movement and love to get my hands on such fresh ingredients and to take my time preparing and eating the meals – guests started arriving at two, we sat down to the meal at three and the lasts guests left shortly before nine. I was quite happy to see second (or more) helpings all around, clean plates and nobody remarked on the lack of desert. Fruit, a bit of cheese, coffee and digestifs finished a wonderful evening.

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