You had to hand it to Fred French, a vestryman at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bangor. He knew how to impress his 16 dinner guests with a classic 1878 Thanksgiving Day feast.
As described in a 1934 Bangor newspaper article, the meal began with oyster soup and crackers, followed by a mammoth turkey (no trimmings except for its own brown skin), two large boiled fowl and an English roast of beef. Vegetables included mashed potatoes, squash, boiled onions and cranberry sauce.
“… With the turkey the guests were served unlimited quantities of champagne — in spite of the fact that even then, Maine had prohibition,” the article noted. “At each corner of the table was a cut glass decanter of rum, gin, brandy and whiskey for those who preferred the stronger drink to the somewhat milder champagne.”
Next came mince, squash, apple and pumpkin pies. Then the table was cleared and candies, nuts, raisins, figs, dates and port wine, snatched from the church’s communion cupboard, topped off the meal. Coffee came last, served in breakfast-sized cups. Hopefully, the guests made it home safely after this glorious epicurean exercise.
Maine’s Thanksgiving history is brimming with stories of both lavish meals and Great Depression famines, when families depended on public assistance to get through the holiday. Today, dining out in a restaurant, or attending a soup kitchen dinner, is as common as preparing a meal at home. But French might wince at the thought of diners insisting that vegetarian Tofu Turkey tastes as though it once gobbled and lived on a farm.
“When I was growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, most people celebrated Thanksgiving quietly,” said David Crouse, a historian and researcher from Bangor. “Now, people feel pressured to do things more expensively. Dad earned just above what most people in town made, which wasn’t much.”
Crouse lived with his parents and sister in the town of Stow, a rural Oxford County town that has a current population of around 411. Before noon each Thanksgiving, they would travel the short distance to his grandparents’ home in Chatham, New Hampshire, and enjoy a modest meal. His mother typically supplied the apple pie.
“This wasn’t a traditional turkey dinner,” Crouse said. “Grandmother made a sort of turkey stew covered with biscuits. You might have called it a pie. We never had a turkey until a company that father worked for later donated one for the holidays.”
Stow had a one-room schoolhouse where the teacher, Mrs. Andrews, was like a second mother to Crouse and his classmates. Her young charges crafted paper Pilgrim hats, and probably also read the accepted account of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, attended by the Pilgrims and local Indians at Plymouth Plantation.
She might have cited another New England holiday connection, the role that New Hampshire’s Sarah Hale, a well-known magazine editor, played in persuading President Abraham Lincoln to establish a legal holiday in 1863, giving thanks on the last Thursday of November. Before Maine became a state in 1820, Thanksgiving was commonly observed on this day. A document signed by Maine’s first governor, William King, archived in the University of Maine Fogler Library Special Collections, proves his support of this unofficial holiday.
Yet another area Thanksgiving connection alleges that the first meal was actually served at Maine’s Popham Colony, 14 years before the Pilgrims’ feast. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan fueled this theory in a proclamation, stating that the time and date of the first American Thanksgiving observance was uncertain and then mentioned as his first example that a band of settlers arriving in Maine in 1607 held a service of thanks for their safe journey.
Whatever the truth about where America first broke bread and gave thanks, Thanksgiving remains a placid holiday filled with food, football and parades.
Thanksgiving provides a reason for culinary researchers to leaf through old grocery advertisements and restaurant menus to discern the cost of earlier meals compared with today. In 1940, for only 50 cents, Bangor’s Brass Rail restaurant served a full Thanksgiving dinner, including a choice of native young tom turkey or Virginia ham, Hubbard squash, English plum pudding and hot mince pie.
In 1980, the Red Lion’s traditional dinner of turkey, vegetables and Indian pudding cost $6.95. Today, dining out on turkey day can run anywhere from $25 to $50, depending on drink orders.
The cost of cooking your own dinner is surprisingly cheap, compared with prices stretching back to the 19th century. In 2017, a Maine supermarket chain advertised a Thanksgiving dinner for eight for less than $20. Included were grade A frozen turkey for 39 cents a pound, a bag of russet potatoes for $3.49, and butternut, buttercup or acorn squash for 39 cents a pound.
By contrast, during the war year of 1917, the Bangor Cash Market was selling freshly killed fancy Vermont turkeys for 40 cents a pound, chickens for 33 cents and geese for 30 cents. Seven pounds of sweet potatoes went for 25 cents, and two quarts of Cape Cod cranberries, 25 cents.
In today’s economy, that would be a far heftier cost.
By 1975, when inflation was rampant, the new self-basting turkeys sold for 53 cents a pound at one local supermarket. Four 16-ounce cans of cranberry sauce sold for a dollar.
Today, it is important to preserve your families’ Thanksgiving stories to gain perspective on how Maine, and the nation, have observed the holiday. Mary Ellingwood Andrews, a retired real estate broker, antique dealer and appraiser from Bangor, recalls the holiday feasts of her youth in 1940s Winterport.
“A chicken from our hen house was slaughtered the day before and mincemeat, and pumpkin pies were baked in the cast iron Wood and Bishop kitchen wood stove,” she recalled. “Vegetables from the garden were washed in the pantry and prepared for cooking the next day, and preserves were brought up from the basement.”
“The square oak dining room table was covered with a special tablecloth and special dinnerware was set while the whole house was filled with the smells of vegetables cooking and a chicken with our traditional family stuffing recipe baking in the oven, and later biscuits, too,” she said.
It was a day free from chores, she said.
“Time to give thanks for the year’s harvest of activities and projects completed and gratitude of Thanksgiving for those who came before us, sacrificing through challenges and hardships to make life easier for us who followed,” she said. “Today, quiet time shared with families is almost lost with members scurrying in different directions, commitments, and interests. We live in a different world of what is next, how, when, and where.”
This story was originally published in Bangor Metro’s November 2019 issue. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.