A Laden Table

A table crowded with local game, seafood, custards and savories is a celebration of gratitude. Journeyman Rob Brantley describes the dishes. November 19, 2007


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

Today I'm talking with Robert Brantley, who is a journeyman in the historic foodways department at Colonial Williamsburg. As we look ahead to Thanksgiving this Thursday, it's also a good time to look back on how our 18th-century founders celebrated the holiday season with food.

If I've got this right, Thanksgiving wasn't that much of a big deal in the 18th century.

Rob Brantley: Not from my understanding. It was not. Thanksgiving could happen, really, at any time of the year. But if you had any sort of a gathering as such, being here in Virginia, Virginians like their food. That's one thing about the Chesapeake – you don't hear a lot about, you know, famines.

Lloyd: After Jamestown, no, there wasn't one.

Rob: You can't go anywhere but up from that point on. But yeah, it can be a very festive time. Definitely food is going to play a big part in that. People gathering, socializing, which seems to be a lot of the elites in Virginia: your Peyton Randolphs, your George Wythes. Dining and entertaining is pretty much one and the same word, to them.

Lloyd: I've heard different things about Christmas, but they say Christmas was more a food holiday than Thanksgiving was a food holiday, because we hadn't yet developed the lush gift-giving. It was kind of a feast day.

Rob: You're definitely on target on that case. The Christmas day itself was almost a subdued holiday. It's a day that you go to church. You may sing some more secular Christmas carols, things like "Joy, to the World," or, "Come Ye Merry Men." You might see the church decked out in some sort of greenery. You see a lot of diary entries of just going to church, having so-and-so over, and then having dinner. It's December 26th all the way up to January 6th, that's when Virginians really pulled out the stops. That's when you see Twelfth Night parties happening. It's a down time for these folks. Your crops have already been harvested. Here in Williamsburg, the college is out for the season. So, there is a lot of down time that these folks can really have a good time, and have family over, and friends, and socialize.

Lloyd: Not much down time at Thanksgiving time, though. College is still in session, isn't it? Or am I completely wrong?

Rob: No, you're right. When it comes to Thanksgiving, you're absolutely right. As far as the date that we associate with Thanksgiving is much, much later in time. I believe it's during the Roosevelt administration that you see that date that we think of. I think it goes back to the Lincoln administration that you start to see the Thanksgiving evolve that we think of today.

Lloyd: Thanksgiving as we think of it, we think it dates from the Pilgrims, when the Pilgrims had their feast with the Indians.

Rob: Oh ho, ho. I see where you're going.

Lloyd: We didn't have that, so there was no secular reason, as it were, to have a feast that day. Although it's always nice to have a feast.

Rob: It's giving thanks. You may have had a successful member brought into your family, or you had a good crop that season, some reason that you want to give thanks. So there is some religious ties to that early one. But it hasn't become the secular, national holiday.

Lloyd: The secular national holiday, as far as Virginia is concerned, I have been told came when John Fitzgerald Kennedy recognized Virginia's Thanksgiving at Berkeley's plantation.

Rob: Berkeley plantation, yes. 1619, if I'm not mistaken.

Lloyd: I can't argue with you, so I'll just take it as true.

Rob: We, as Virginians, claim that we have the first Thanksgiving, long before the pilgrims ever did. But, then you get others down in Texas and Florida where the Spanish had claims say, "Oh, no, no. We had our day of Thanksgiving long before the English ever arrived." That’s the big debate: who had the first Thanksgiving?

Lloyd: Eighteenth century, what were the dishes? It wasn't cranberry sauce out of the can.

Rob: No, it was not. There really aren't any dishes associated, as such. Really, if you're a Virginian, at that dinner table you're going to have multiple different dishes. You might have a roast. You possibly might have a roasted turkey. You might have a roasted goose. You might have a piece of roasted beef. You might eat rockfish. Sometimes you see oysters, rockfish, other seafood. With sweets that we would consider as desserts, let's say like maybe an apple pie or some sort of fruit pie might be on the table. A baked custard, such as we think of sweet potato or pumpkin pie. You would see nuts covered in sugar, or sweetmeats, which is really anything that's been preserved in sugar. So you might have marzipan there, you might have jellies, what we might think of as Jell-O, as well.
Lloyd: How about venison? I just thought of that.

Rob: Depends upon where you're at. If you're here in this part of Williamsburg, if you're in any area that has been heavily settled since 1607, looking at zooarchaeology, we don't see a whole lot of venison in the Williamsburg area, or even Yorktown, because this area has been pretty much hunted out, and very settled. There is the attitude that once you become settled, you start going to something that you can raise on your own, something that you know is there. It's a little bit more dependable. That really is a trend in America as we begin to move westward. As soon as we put our roots down -- elk, moose, or buffalo is great when you get it -- but I know where my cows, my pigs, and my sheep are at. So, we don't see a whole lot of venison, as such. You see it playing a part of one's diet in the Chesapeake, but really, looking at the trash pits here in tidewater Virginia, it's really beef. Beef is what we're coming up with as far as remains.

Lloyd: How about lamb?

Rob: Lamb's third. If you're looking at numbers. Pork is right behind beef.

Lloyd: Goose was still big, you said.

Rob: Very much so. That is something we do see with Christmastime. We do see that kind of turning up on Christmas day. We do see references to that turning up.

Lloyd: Isn't goose an English dish, or a British dish?

Rob: It is one of those things that is brought over from Britain to here, you bet. It is definitely one of those things that we associate with being British, especially going back to the Dickens novels.

Lloyd: I think that's probably where I remember it from.

Rob: Probably so, yes.

Lloyd: Are the methods of preparation more or less the same that we would recognize now?

Rob: I would say yes, and no. One thing that most of us in modern day America don't have to deal with is the actual prepping of that piece of meat or vegetable. When we get that Thanksgiving turkey, the hardest chore for us is to remember to pull it out to let it thaw. In the 18th century, if I'm here in Williamsburg, I'm going to walk down to the market, which is where the Courthouse and the Powder Magazine are. I'm going to be looking at live poultry. I have to physically take this live bird back, maybe in a basket, secure it somehow, and get it back to that property. Then you've got to dispatch it. You've got to kill it, you've got to pluck it, you've got to go through that process. I think most Americans just never experience that.

Lloyd: And wouldn't do.

Rob: And wouldn't do. The bird just became the family pet, as I like to say in the kitchen. Some people, it's just not part of their culture. Your fruits and vegetables might still have the dirt hanging off of them. They aren't nicely washed and arranged like we're going to see it today.

But as far as cooking techniques, certainly. Most Americans, when they cook that goose or turkey, it's in an oven, but we call it roasting. An 18th-century person, if you told them that you were roasting the turkey, they would automatically assume it was in front of the fire, on a spit. That is roasting to an 18th-century individual, not what we do in an oven. We carried the term over, but not the actual process. We kind of have lost that, unless you have one of these countertop rotisseries that you see on the infomercials out today.

Lloyd: I guess the only place you see a spit now, or the only place I see a spit now, is on a grill.

Rob: Exactly, absolutely. You see those nice little spits off to the side. Or maybe your local grocery store chain in their little deli section has one of these large ones. That is truly a roasted piece of meat.

Lloyd: Something else just occurred to me. If you take the goose home, the goose is alive and squawking. How long would it take you to prepare a dinner? Dinner in those days is earlier than it is now, right?

Rob: You're right. It's in the afternoon, generally anywhere between 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. That experienced cook –since I'm working at the Randolph house, probably Mrs. Randolph and her slave cook, Betty – they know how much work it takes as far as prep time, and they may have a target time when they want that first course at the dinner table. If they have family and friends coming and were expecting dinner at 2 p.m., then they know that they have this amount of time to get everything done. They know how long something's going to take. Some things may wait until the last minute, some things they may get on very early. Through their years of experience, they can time it and pull off this dinner at that prescribed time.

Lloyd: I've always been fascinated how good chefs can make everything show up on the table at the same moment. I can't do that to save my life.

Rob: It's, for a lot of us, it just seems so, when something like that happens, it's just oh, it must have been so easy, it's just, you know, magic when all this food on time starts coming out. But one of my colleagues who was a chef for 20 years says that there is controlled chaos going on in the kitchen. So I'm sure that for Mrs. Randolph and Mr. Randolph, everything comes off very orderly and on time, but there was probably a lot of chaos and a lot of tempers flaring to hurry up and get things prepped and ready to go, even back then.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Visit history.org to learn more. Check back often, we'll post more for you to download and hear.

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