The menu doesn't look so different than the menu I have set for the upcoming Thanksgiving. Some variation of roast turkey, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, baked squash, boiled onions and pumpkin pie are on both the 1887 White House Thanksgiving menu and the 2011 Shreeves' Thanksgiving menu.
Some of the more interesting items on the 124-year-old menu that will not be at my table this year include fried smelts, venison pastry and parsnip fritters.
Also interesting is the way that recipes were written more than a century ago. The detailed list of ingredients, directions and explanations we're accustomed to seeing are not there. Instead the directions are loosely written, sometimes with measurements for ingredients, sometimes not. In an era when cooking from scratch was just about the only way to cook and most cooks didn't need a recipe to make most of their dishes, this was probably all that was needed. In modern times, most of us need some specific instruction.
Take a look at these recipes for Thanksgiving staples cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie that come from the first "White House Cook Book." Would you be able to follow them and get good results? I'm confident I could now, but a decade ago when most of our meals came out of a box, I wouldn't have even attempted recipes written like these.
One quart of cranberries, two cupfuls of sugar, and a pint of water. Wash the cranberries, then put them on the fire with the water, but in a covered saucepan. Let them simmer until each cranberry bursts open; then remove the cover of the saucepan, add the sugar, and let them all boil twenty minutes without the cover. The cranberries must never be stirred from the time they are placed on the fire. This is an unfailing recipe for a most delicious preparation of cranberries. Very fine with turkey and game.
For three pies: One quart of milk, three cupfuls of boiled and strained pumpkin, one and one-half cupfuls of sugar, one-half cupful of molasses, the yolks and whites of four eggs beaten separately, a little salt, one tablespoonful each of ginger and cinnamon. Beat all together and bake with an under crust.
Boston marrow or Hubbard squash may be substituted for pumpkin and are much preferred by many, as possessing a less strong flavor.
We're accustomed to reading recipes that not only give us the ingredients, but also tell us what size sauce pan to use, how high to heat the stove, and how long to leave something in the oven. These recipes assume a cook knows these things already. Let us know if you attempt one!