Category Archives: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving in Frontier Arizona

c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in the Frontier Gazette

What was Thanksgiving in pioneer Arizona like? In many ways, the tradition and overall ambience has changed very little—except, imagine having to butcher your own turkey. Stewing your own cranberries. Baking pies and dinner rolls from scratch. Cooking on a wood-burning stove. Hand-washing the dishes. This was very much a part of Arizona’s Thanksgivings of old.

President Abraham Lincoln signed the Organic Act to form Arizona Territory in February of 1863. Eight months later, he officially designated Thanksgiving an official holiday. Newcomers to Arizona were only too glad to give thanks in their new, albeit primitive, homes. Although the hard work involved to make any large meal was a part of every day life, the workload doubled at Thanksgiving.

The menu from a 1905 issue of Harper’s Bazaar gives much insight into details of a proper Thanksgiving dinner. The courses consisted of “Oysters on the half-shell with cocktail in pepper shells; Radishes, celery, salted nuts; Clear consommé with tapioca; Filet of flounder with pimentos and olives; dressed cucumbers; Roast turkey; cranberry jelly in small molds; creamed chestnuts; glazed sweet-potato; Cider frappé in turkey sherbet-cups; Quail in bread croustades; dressed lettuce; Blazing mince pie; Cheese with almonds; wafers; Angel parfait in glasses; small cakes; coffee.”

As the popularity of Thanksgiving grew during the 1860’s, a number of church cookbooks, ladies’ clubs and professional cooks offered endless numbers of enticing recipes. Amongst the earliest cookbooks was Isabella Mary Beeton’s 1861 Book of Household Management, which favored cooking a “modest” turkey for better flavor. Ms. Beeton recommended butchering the bird and letting it hang for four to eight days, depending on the weather, before dressing it. The required ingredients were one “middling-sized” turkey, white paper, forcemeat (an early term for dressing with meat), flour and butter. The recipe read in part, “Carefully pluck the bird, singe it with white paper, and wipe it thoroughly with a cloth; draw it, preserve the liver and gizzard, and be particular not to break the gall-bag, as no washing will remove the bitter taste it imparts where it once touches.”

More instructions followed, including “flattening the breastbone to make it look plump.” When stuffed and sewn, a “sheet of buttered paper” was fastened to the breast before the bird was put “down to a bright fire, at some little distance at first (afterwards draw it nearer).” The recipe cautioned to “keep it well basted the whole of the time it is cooking.” Gravy was made by dredging the turkey with flour, adding butter and basting with it during the last fifteen minutes.

In time, traditional bread stuffing became a favored alternative to forcemeat. An 1894 edition of the Coconino Weekly Sun offered a fairly simple recipe: “Prepare a dressing of bread crumbs, mixed with butter, pepper, salt, thyme and wet with hot water or milk. Add the beaten yolks of two eggs. Mince a dozen oysters and stir into the dressing, and, if you are partial to the taste, wet the bread crumbs with the oyster liquor.”

As the Victorian era arrived, Thanksgiving Pudding became a favorite dish. The instructions from an 1880 recipe were to the point: “Pound 20 crackers fine, add 5 cups milk and let swell. Beat well 14 eggs. Pint sugar. Cup molasses. 2 small nutmegs. 2 TSP ground clove. 3 ground cinnamon. 2 TSP salt. 1/2 TSP soda. Add to crackers. Finally add pint of raisins. Makes two puddings.”

Other dishes came and went, depending on what was most popular at the time. A staple dating to the first Thanksgiving dinner that has never gone away, however, is the pumpkin pie. A 1927 recipe offered simple, from-scratch ingredients and instructions that can still be followed today:

1 cup cooked pumpkin, 2 egg yolks or 1 egg, 1/3 cup sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon ginger, 1 cup milk. Mix ingredients and pour into unbaked crust. Bake in a hot oven (450 degrees) for 10 minutes. Then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake until custard is done. Serve with whipped cream.

No matter the recipe, the primitive pioneers of Arizona were thankful for their Thanksgiving dinners, and especially to the many women who toiled in kitchen to make the tastiest meals possible. And a bit of humor never hurt either, as illustrated in this 1895 poem entitled “Mother Gets the Neck”:

“The sage may read the heaven’s tale

But can he this explain;

Why does she choose that bony part

And let the rest remain!

Aye, roasted, fried it is the same,

She loves to sit and peck

At the curved, tidgy meatless thing:

A turkey’s crinkly neck.”

John Nixon and the Terrible Thanksgiving Turkey

Turkey and boyc 2015 by Jan MacKell Collins

For those who have occasionally suffered through a quite memorable yet hardly endearing Thanksgiving holiday, take heart. Even historic and quaint Cripple Creek, Colorado is not safe from the perils of a good dinner gone bad. Take for instance, John Nixon’s own Thanksgiving in 1912.

What a lovely memory, the Cripple Creek Thanksgivings of old. Gazing nostalgically down Bennett Avenue, especially in the weather of late, it is easy to paint a vintage picture. Imagine watching one horse sleighs pulling passengers bundled in warm furs and frilly coats. The delighted faces of loved ones as they greet long-absent family members. The loving preparation of a giant turkey feast, with recipes passed from generation to generation. Is it possible, revelling in retrospect, to imagine a more grand picture?

Such wonderful pictures were no doubt travelling through John Nixon’s mind as he made his way down Bennett Avenue the day before Thanksgiving. A cozy room, permeated with the smell of delicious food, was an attractive alternative to crowded and cold downtown Cripple Creek. As the wind bit through his wool coat, John gathered his scarf and lowered his hat. Quite possibly he wished he had collected his Thanksgiving turkey earlier, when the day was still sunny. Now here he was, tired and chilled, scampering to purchase that which was most important to tomorrow’s dinner.

This Thanksgiving promised to be the best in many years, for this time, Mrs. Nixon asked for a live turkey to obtain the freshest meat. Ever anxious to please his wife, John Nixon had agreed to butcher the bird at home. Now, as hurried down Bennett, John hoped his wife’s prediction was true. He hated to think the task before him was actually for naught. He wasn’t much for working harder than he had to, and his resourcefulness at easing the work day was something commented on by the Missus.

John smiled at these thoughts as he paid the butcher for his bird and produced a large flour sack from his pocket. In the interest of convenience, the sack would serve as ample transportation for the turkey’s trip home. John deposited the turkey, head first, into his flour sack and bid the butcher a happy Thanksgiving.

Sadly, it was not long before man and bird had a misunderstanding. The turkey, who did not necessarily find his position comfortable, began giving forth a terrible squawk. Within a matter of seconds, the bird was making such a racket that people on the sidewalk were staring. Being a respectful sort with regard to unnecessary noise and courtesy to those around him, John Nixon made a split-second decision. In one swift move, his fingers groped the outside of the bag until they located the turkey’s neck. Grasping said neck firmly, Nixon succeeded in squeezing it until the bird was quiet.

It seemed the logical and polite thing to do, and John complimented his decision silently as he proceeded down the road. But if John Nixon thought his actions were justified, a nearby Humane Officer did not. Almost immediately, the officer appeared at Nixon’s side and demanded, “What are you doing to that bird? Are you choking that turkey?”

Now John Nixon, already weary of his burden, began to rethink his actions. That bird was making a fuss! Something had to be done! Deciding once more he was in the right, Nixon replied defiantly, “I am not choking the turkey, but I will if he doesn’t shut his chop!”

Apparently Nixon’s answer was less than satisfactory to the officer, who next wanted to see the turkey. The unhappy creature was obligingly brought from the flour sack. Upon examination, the officer assessed the turkey’s neck was “dislocated” and arrested John Nixon for none other than animal abuse.

The sight of the Humane Officer with John Nixon in one hand and a flour sack full of disgruntled turkey in the other must have been startling. A small crowd began to follow the trio, uttering hurried whispers and pointing fingers. The unusual spectacle was accompanied by even louder squawks as the turkey made his position clear.

So loud did the gobbles and squabbles become that even the Humane Officer began having trouble concentrating. In fact, so terrible was the noise that upon reaching a hardware store, the officer instructed Nixon to wait while he went inside. The officer returned with a borrowed axe as more people gathered to await his next move. They didn’t have to wait long. According to the Cripple Creek Times, “the crowd was treated to a real interesting execution right on Bennett Avenue.”

If the crowd was surprised, they must also have been relieved at the sudden quiet which followed the turkey’s demise. While they were exchanging glances and looking from the officer to Nixon and back, a lone yellow dog appeared at the front of the group. Without so much as a look of guilt, the mutt took up the turkey’s head and headed for a nice, quiet spot. It was an exclamation point at the end of a long, confused statement.

When he finally managed to avert his eyes from the departing dog, the officer gazed uncertainly at the crowd. The accusing and bemused looks he received in return made him weigh his next step carefully. Since the object of his concern was no longer among the living, there was no longer a legitimate crime in progress. And since it was, after all, Thanksgiving Eve, what harm would come from letting Nixon go home to his family? Before the amused crowd, the Humane Officer released Nixon from custody. The thankful man gathered his expired turkey into his flour sack and once again made for home.

If there is a moral to this story, the reader must come to his own conclusion. Perhaps it has something to do with a bird in hand and letting feasting dogs lie. Were John Nixon here today to relate the tale himself, he likely might say that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.