Early ‘thanksgivings’ differed from today's Thanksgiving

Nov 22, 2021

As Thanksgiving approaches, it does seem that talk about food increases daily, so I thought it might be a good time to see what the early residents of Rochester were eating. 

Near the beginning of his memoirs, Abraham Holmes, born in 1754, describes life in Rochester when he was “a lad." At this time people ate what they and their neighbors grew or raised.

To give you an idea of what that would mean, farmers grew mainly two crops, wheat and turnips. A farmer would typically harvest 5-15 bushels of wheat which was ground into flour and used sparingly. 

There would be 10 to 40 bushels of turnips. Some potatoes were grown but “a monstrous crop" would be three bushels. The potatoes were very small and he writes that he was almost fully grown before he saw one "as big as a hen's egg.’’ Diets had very little variety, with porridge playing a big role.

Bread and milk or porridge (broth with beans and seasoning) was eaten for both breakfast and supper. Dinner at mid-day would be boiled meat or fish and a vegetable. 

One staple dish was called " Bang-Billy," which was beans cooked with crumbled bread (which sounds like just another version of porridge to me.) There was also a plum porridge. 

More people had pigs than cattle and he doesn't mention chickens which were everywhere in town in later years.

Beverages were sweetened water, cyder (cider), Bohea tea sweetened with brown sugar, coffee and chocolate, both sweetened with molasses. The coffee might be made from white oak leaves, walnuts, or crusts of bread. 

He mentions that not many had milk, but those who did would have it with toasted bread or roasted apples for breakfast. Breakfasts on the Sabbath were more apt to have donuts or pancakes to go with the coffee or chocolate.

He writes that a "great account was made of thanksgiving days" which had nothing to do with today's Thanksgiving. They could be held at any time of year when the community had something for which to be thankful. On such days, each family would prepare the best food they could afford for supper. 

After the meal, the young people would spend the evening dancing. Good dancing was considered to be a very important accomplishment. The dances were primarily reels with names like George, Cape Breton, and the Rolling Hornpipe. 

As you can see this is all a far cry from our modern Thanksgiving that didn't begin until the mid-19th century. 

Happy Turkey Day!