Giving Thanks in Colonial Virginia

Though Thanksgiving as we know it would not become a national holiday until Lincoln declared it in 1863, colonial Virginians found many occasions to give thanks. Journeyman cook Barbara Scherer tells us what was on the table, and explains that technically, you’re probably not roasting your turkey at all.

Learn more: History is Served The Historic Foodways blog.


Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. In November when the leaves change and the air gets crisp, Americans turn their thoughts to turkey. Although Thanksgiving would not become a national holiday until 1863, colonial Virginians welcomed the turn of the season with dishes that reflected practicality and festivity in equal measure. Joining us now to talk about fall feasts of the 18th century is journeymen cook Barbara Scherer from our Historic Foodways program. Barbara, thank you for being here today.

Barbara Scherer: It’s a pleasure.

Harmony: Well, first things first. Was Thanksgiving celebrated in colonial Virginia?

Barbara: Well, you say Thanksgiving, where I say giving thanks. That’s a big difference. As you heard from the introduction here, Thanksgiving didn’t actually officially come around until 1863, but we have been giving thanks in Virginia for a long time before that. We have reference of Berkley Plantation giving thanks for the first permanent settlers coming in 1619.

Harmony: Berkley Plantation on the James is very near here, just three or 4 miles from where we're sitting. Now, so we have sort of a regional claim to maybe not Thanksgiving, but a feast of giving thanks.

Barbara: Yes…

Harmony: …in the fall season. What’s a little bit more of the history behind that Thanksgiving or giving thanks at Berkley?

Barbara: It was to welcome the new settlers, the permanent settlers that came in 1619. So basically that is way they were giving thanks. And then of course we all know of Plymouth in 1621.

Harmony: What do we know about the giving thanks at Berkley? Do we know sort of what they prepared or how they marked the occasion?

Barbara: No we don’t, but I can tell you the kinds of foods you would have found in this area at that time. You’re looking at turkey, goose, duck, roast beef definitely, you’re going to have lots of beef, venison, pork, oysters and sturgeon. That’s the kinds of foods you’re going to have. Notice I say lots of meat because it’s a celebration.

Harmony: So starting with fowl: you mentioned goose and turkey. Would those animals have been hunted and slaughtered specifically in the fall?

Barbara: No, no. They can be eaten anytime. You can get a bird and you can pluck it and gut it and have it on the spit within 20 minutes. Much, much fresher than we have today. Its your bigger animals are more seasonal in the sense of your beef you’re going to have more of it in the cooler months. You’re going to have your veal in your summer months so that the butcher can get rid, sell all the meat he has because he’s buying it from a slaughterhouse.

Harmony: Now when you eat the pork or the beef in the fall is it tied to the fact that you’re going to be preserving it and putting it up for the cold weather, in the cold season, that you can only do that when the weather's cold?

Barbara: Well, yes. That is a way you can do that, but if you’re at Berkley you are going to preserve your meats, but if you’re in the City of Williamsburg we have butcher's shop and market stalls so therefore you can actually buy fresh meat from a butcher just exactly like you can today.

Harmony: I always thought that we slaughtered pigs in the fall because then you could salt them, cure them, smoke them and then the meat would keep through the winter, but you’re saying that we had more of a convenience like today.

Barbara: In the city.

Harmony: In the city?

Barbara: Notice I keep on saying in the city because we’re city folk in Williamsburg. We’re not country folk. We’re city folk.

Harmony: In the metropolis of Williamsburg.

Barbara: That’s right.

Harmony: So those are the types of foods you’re eating. What are some of the preparations? Today we roast a turkey and maybe, you know…

Barbara: Well we don’t roast. Do you put your turkey in an oven? Why are you calling it roasting?

Harmony: What’s the proper term?

Barbara: That’s baking, because when you put an apple pie in your oven do you roast it or bake it?

Harmony: I suppose I bake it. So what’s truly roasting?

Barbara: Roasting is when it’s on a spit and the fire is behind it. If you go to the supermarkets today you’ll see those modern rotisseries. If you look at them closely you’ll see that the heat element is always behind the meat and therefore as it's turning, it's sealing it in. Roasting means back heat. If you go into the Palace Kitchen you will see that we have a spit and we have a clock jack and you will see that the spit is in front of the fire.

Harmony: Well, I will never make that mistake again. Tell me more about the preparation. If we’re going to say, “We’re having a fall feast,” we can’t exactly call it Thanksgiving, but let’s say there’s a feast in the fall and it’s related to some of these harvests.

Barbara: But realize we don’t have to have a feast in the fall. We’re giving thanks for anything. Maybe you’ve had the birth of a child. Let’s give thanks for that. Maybe it’s the Queen’s birthday. Thanks is not a season. It means you’re just rejoicing, celebrating in it, so that’s why we can give thanks anytime. As I say, it’s not until much later on do we think Thanksgiving, “Oh, its November, it’s got to be Thanksgiving." But no, I mean when you celebrate a birthday you’re really giving thanks for that.

Harmony: So in the period would there have been Thanksgiving feasts or feasts of giving thanks throughout the year then?

Barbara: Yes.

Harmony: Ok. So if it comes in the fall then, if we happen to be celebrating the birth of a child in the fall, or whatever the occasion may be, what types of foods are we going to see in the fall that we might not see in the spring or summer?

Barbara: Well you’re looking at all your winter vegetables and of course you can preserve stuff in the spring and the summer for the celebration in the fall.

Harmony: Would it have been preserved? Were they using canning method yet?

Barbara: No.

Harmony: It would have been salting or pickling?

Barbara: It would be pickling. Now your meats you’re going to preserve. Your pork is going to be in a dry salt, but you can corn your meat where today we call it corned beef. You can corn your meat in a salt brine. You got beef then.

Harmony: So it’s not so much tied to the seasons as I had assumed because there might have been food preserved or there might have been a local butcher that allowed you to find pretty much the same types of foods throughout the year.

Barbara: Well look at your larger animals; definitely your pork. You’re also going to see here a lot of your cabbages and your broccoli and your cauliflowers and a lot of vegetables like that. Your spinach even. We’re not looking at soft fruits but we’re looking at the apples and the pears that we’ve picked and put into barrels.

Harmony: What about grains that might have been harvested at the end of fall?

Barbara: Yeah, you’re looking at your barley.

Harmony: And so those are dishes that might turn up more typically just because people had them fresh on hand.

Barbara: Yeah, your wheat.

Harmony: How are those manifested on the table? Wheat obviously would be bread. What are they doing with barley?

Barbara: Well you can make beer with it.

Harmony: Oh, then there’s no feast without beer.

Barbara: No feast, no.

Harmony: You’ve mentioned some of these winter vegetables, your root vegetables; cabbage, spinach, apples. How are those being prepared maybe?

Barbara: Well you can do cabbage and onion cakes which is on our blog. You can do stuffed cabbage. Those are just two things. I mean there are plenty other things you could do. You could also do carrots and onions in the Dutch fashion which is also on the food blog. We do a lot of cooking at the Palace from these 18th century cookbooks and I could reel off plenty more but they’re all on the blog, most of them.

Harmony: You’ve mentioned that you cook at the Governor’s Palace, which means the food that we are presenting there represents really the upper crust, really the finest, richest, most abundant varieties of food. That’s what we see in the upper 2% in the gentry-class households.

As we move down the scale to maybe a midland class to maybe an enslaved family, how do the foods that they eat change? Let’s say comparing gentry, begin with comparing gentry to a midland class family. How are their tables going to be different?

Barbara: Well a gentry person is going to have about four or five or even six meats on the table because meat means wealth. Where a midland family have 2 just like a normal family here would either have one or two meats. Now the slave family, or as I consider it, everybody else in Williamsburg who are the dirt farmers they are going to have a one-pot meal; completely different from either of those.

If you’ve only got a cast iron pot then you throw anything you can into it. You can see this being done at the Armory site. So it’s basically how most people eat so you’re looking at one pot meal, one or two meats or just a galore of food.

Harmony: When you are preparing a feast at your house in your kitchen do you find that your background in historic foodways and in the 18th century sort of colors what you put on the table?

Barbara: Yeah.

Harmony: How do you think that is affecting you?

Barbara: Well, I am a professional chef by trade so with all my background in the 18th century and this. I do make cabbage and onion cakes at home now, which my family adore by the way. They really do. And then I also use my culinary background from college when I’m doing sprouts I chop it up and put pecans in there and just fry them, sauté them up, so I’m using both my background when I entertain, but yes, I have a rotisserie that will hold a 15 pound bird so I can roast.

Harmony: Barbara, thank you so much for being here today and for all of our listeners whose mouths are watering listening to Barbara describe some of these 18th century recipes they have been translated for the modern kitchen on the food blog which you mentioned before. That can be found at Just look for the History is Served blog and go ahead and fix something a little bit different for your feast of thanks this season.

Barbara: Thank you very much.

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