Cooking Thanksgiving Dinner in the 18th Century

Philipse Manor Hall Staff
Published on
August 26, 2023
November 20, 2022
Wealthy White European men and women in 18th century dress sit outdoors at a table with wine and a peacock pie.
"Elegant company dining in a garden" by Franz Christoph Janneck, 1761. Bavarian State Painting Collections. Note the peacock pie on the table and the glass bottles of wine in the bucket on the ground at far right.

Did the Philipses celebrate Thanksgiving? Not like we do today. Thanksgiving as we know it is largely an invention of the 19th century. But the foods we associate with Thanksgiving today were not unfamiliar to the Philipses or other families in Colonial New York.

American Cookery was published in1796 in Hartford, Connecticut, and a second printing that year was produced in Albany, NY, with corrections. The author was Amelia Simmons, who was likely a resident of New York, possibly Albany.[1] Although little is known about Simmons, hers was the first cookbook published in the United States by an American author, using American ingredients. Turkey, cranberries, cornmeal, pumpkin – these are all familiar ingredients today, but they were often missing from British cookbooks, even when they were printed in the United States, as with Susannah Carter’s The Frugal Housewife, published in Boston in 1772. Simmons’ book was geared toward “all grades of life,” including those households without servants, enslaved or otherwise.

Her cookbook also uses pearlash, an early chemical leavener similar to baking soda, and uses the Dutch word “cookey” instead of the British “biscuit” and the Dutch word “slaw” for salad.

Although published after the Philipses fled the United States in 1783, American Cookery is reflective of the cooking styles of the time – a mixture of English, Dutch, and Indigenous foods and cooking techniques.

Cover of Amelia Simmons' "American Cookery," 1796. Library of Congress.

It is unclear whether the Philipses ever celebrated an autumn harvest festival like Harvest Home – the ancestor of our modern Thanksgiving celebrations. Thanksgivings in the 17th and 18th century were largely religious celebrations that could be declared any time of year. As Loyalists, the Philipses likely did not celebrate the Thanksgiving George Washington, at the behest of Congress, declared on December 18, 1777, in celebration of the surrender of General Burgoyne and the British forces at Saratoga earlier that October. By the time the fledgling U.S. Congress and President George Washington declared another Thanksgiving on Thursday, November 26, 1789, this time in celebration of the passage of the Constitution, the Philipses had long since fled to England, and Frederick Philipse III was already dead.

It is likely, however, that the Philipses entertained regularly with lavish dinners that featured dishes many of us associate with Thanksgiving today. Roasted turkey, fancy pies, and a groaning table loaded with food were frequent occasions in the Philipse household. Because of their extreme wealth, it is highly unlikely any of the Philipse family themselves partook in any of the preparations for such feasts. It was left to their enslaved staff to prepare, cook, clean, and serve the family meals and banquets.

If you think cooking Thanksgiving dinner today is a big job, consider cooking it over an open fire, making everything from scratch, and doing it almost daily. Enslaved cooks and kitchen staff in the Philipse household had to be experts at managing an open hearth, making elaborate dishes with no mechanical assistance, and doing lots of math. Everything from scaling up recipes to accommodate guests to adapting menus on the fly to ensure abundance even when unexpected company arrived, to timing the preparation and serving of dishes down to the minute, all while working with open flame, heavy cast iron utensils, and doing everything by hand. Support staff were also essential, hauling water and wood, bringing in produce, meats, and alcohol from storage, washing mountains of dishes, and preparing food for service. Being enslaved household staff meant being on duty 24/7 – the Philipse family or their guests could call for food, clothing cleaning or repairs, or horses or carriages at a moment’s notice, and enslaved staff had to be ready.

Even though the Philipses likely did not celebrate Thanksgiving as we know it today, they did eat many of the same foods, albeit prepared by their enslaved staff. Below are recipes from Amelia Simmon’s American Cookery for roasted turkey with cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie – both are traditional English dishes (game birds served with sour fruits and pies) made from Indigenous American ingredients. You can read the whole cookbook here.

"To Stuff and Roast a Turkey or Fowl" - recipe from Amelia Simmons' "American Cookery," published in 1796. Library of Congress.
To Stuff and Roast a Turkey, or Fowl.
One pound soft wheat bread, 3 ounces beef suet, 3 eggs, a little sweet thyme, sweet marjoram, pepper and salt, and some add a gill of wine; fill the bird therewith a sew up, hang down to a steady solid fire, basting frequently with salt and water, and roast until a steam emits from the breast, put one third of a pound of butter in the gravy, dust flour over the bird and baste with the gravy; serve up with boiled onions and cranberry-sauce, mangoes [a type of pickled melon], pickles, or celery.
2. Others omit the sweet herbs, and add parsley done with potatoes.
3. Boil and mash 3 pints potatoes, wet them with butter, add sweet herbs, pepper, salt, fill and roast as above.
"Pompkin" - recipes from Amelia Simmons' "American Cookery," published in 1796. Library of Congress.
No. 1. One quart stewed and strained, 3 pints cream, 9 beaten eggs, sugar, mace, ginger, nutmeg, laid into paste No. 7 or 3, and with a dough spur, cross and chequer it, and baked in dishes three quarters of an hour.
No. 2. One quart of milk, one pint of pumpkin, 4 eggs, molasses, allspice and ginger in a crust, bake 1 hour.

What do you think? Would you be able to translate these recipes? Could you make them over on an open hearth for a large party? What side dishes from Simmons' cookbook would you include? 

Further Reading

For more on the mythology behind thanksgiving, check out This Land is Their Land: the Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth colony, and the troubled history of Thanksgiving by David J. Silverman (2020).

More on George Washington's role in American Thanksgiving.

More on Amelia Simmons.