We had a great Thanksgiving. I started the day watching the parade with Leah, something we do every year. I remember railing against the commercialism and inanity of last year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade but watching it this year, I was somehow reassured. Things are so scary with the economy and the world right now that seeing traditions like the parade had a strangely comforting effect. The world as we know it still exists. Everything will be okay. I even cried twice during the parade. First, when James Taylor (now 60 and looking it, God love him) sang “America the Beautiful” to his seven-year-old twin boys (he also has two kids in their thirties from his marriage to Carly Simon), and second, when the Rockettes performed. Am I insane? Why on earth would that move me so? I guess there’s something about a group of people working together that closely that I find very poignant. Of course my budding diva daughter said she would never want to be a Rockette since it’s all about uniformity and sameness—no opportunity for any dazzling star turns.
As much as I enjoyed the parade, I was stunned at the paucity of big names and irritated at NBC's endless hawking of their own tired shows. And why do hosts Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira have to be so tightly scripted? Their repartee sounded so false—aren’t they capable of having an actual conversation? I saw the YouTube clip from a few weeks ago when Vieira asked Lauer about his marriage during a segment on the “Today” show and then remembered on-camera that he was in the middle of a divorce. She burst awkwardly into hysterical laughter and then collapsed on the desk in embarrassment as Matt tried desperately to change the subject. Now that was real! The only authentic exchange during yesterday's parade occurred when a giant Keith Haring balloon narrowly missed hitting the NBC booth and decapitating the hosts.
We had 12 people over and I made a traditional meal mostly using recipes from the Tyler Florence Thanksgiving episode I saw on the Food Network: maple-glazed turkey with cornbread stuffing and gravy, green beans with mushrooms and pancetta, mashed potatoes, a yummy sweet potato casserole I lifted from my friend Emily’s blog, and Caesar salad. Three of our guests bought pies and Kendall made seven-layer squares, chocolate-studded Rice Krispies treats, and to-die-for lemon bars. Ah, America, land of plenty. Anyone for a High Colonic?
Despite the hubbub of the holiday and my unsuccessful attempts to make everything come out at the same time (my turkey was done two hours early but didn’t suffer too badly from resting before the onslaught), I continued my centennial review of life in 1908 Los Angeles. What shocked me the most was that much of what I discovered in the Thanksgiving 1908 edition of the Los Angeles Times could have been written this week. Of course there were some major differences. In 1908, many people in this town raised their own turkeys or went hunting for them (in southern California?). Even buying a turkey in a store was a different experience since the birds were frequently purchased alive and you had to kill them yourself or have someone do it for you. Gulp.
Like today, there were many deals involving turkeys designed to lure holiday shoppers:
“A turkey with every suit,” is offered at some clothing stores. There are combinations by which one may get a turkey free. “I think hat stores ought to offer turkeys,” declared a prominent club woman as she paid for her fowl. “My husband had to buy a new hat yesterday, and you know I think he should have got a dozen eggs with it at least.”
Reading articles about the preparations for the holiday in the city’s ethnic neighborhoods revealed some shocking jokes and illustrations:
A Chinaman bought seven turkeys at a market on First Street, near “Little Japan.” “Plesents for my flends,” he explained. “Do the Chinese observe Thanksgiving?” asked a bystander. “Sure,” he replied. “Always buy plesents for flends on Thanksgiving.”
Across the street is a kosher market, where queer Hebrew signs on the windows tell the tale. Within, the kosher man stays, ready to kill ducks, geese, turkeys, and chickens according to the ancient rites of his people. The Jewish population of the neighborhood, those who can afford turkey, buy at the poultry market and pay a little extra fee at the kosher shop across the way to have the fowls killed so that they will be considered clean. “You see, the kosher man kills the fowls with one keen stroke that severs the head and allows the blood to drain out,” explained the owner of the kosher shop. “There is no blood to gather and poison the meat. It is clean.”
Oy. But what surprised me the most about Thanksgiving 1908 was how the world was in such a similar state than it is today. In November 1908, the U.S. economy was in a nosedive, and people everywhere were suffering. One poor guy in downtown L.A. was panhandling on the holiday for a special purpose:
“Just give me 10 cents with which to buy poison to end my existence, and you will be doing a kind act on Thanksgiving Day,” pleaded Jesse Parsons, 48 years of age, as he approached two men at Second and Main streets yesterday morning. With a wife and two children dependent upon him and not a cent in the world with which to buy food, Parsons decided he would take his life. His family is destitute.
Luckily, Parsons didn’t get any money for his poison, and was instead thrown into the loony bin until his family could claim him.
Still, just like this year, the lousy financial news didn’t stop most people from enjoying the traditional Thanksgiving feast. I was surprised that this meal has changed so little during the past hundred years. In 1908, articles warned people against veering from American tradition.
The first thing to be said is that we should bear in mind that Thanksgiving is a thoroughly American festival. Christmas Day we share with all the world; Fourth of July is a generous scrimmage in more ways than one, but Thanksgiving is not only the day of the family, but of the American family. Therefore it behooves us to strike the national note and hold it. Not for us are the foreign kickshaws and French flummery! All these may come in at other times, and are very good in their place. But that is not here.
With the turkey should come cranberry sauce; none of the frilled-up jellies, either, but the good old sauce with the berries left in. Celery, of course, and American vegetables—sweet potatoes, green corn, pudding, baked tomatoes, eggplant, baked squash, or anything else that comes to hand. Gravy in abundance—as much as can be eaten, if that be possible. Then, the pumpkin pie. Who would interpose the jarring note of a salad? Did the Pilgrim Fathers have salads at their Thanksgiving feasts? Nay, verily! Perish the thought! What was too good for them is not good enough for us on this day.
The one foreign touch which may be permitted to the meal is a small cup of back coffee, which closes it. Patriotism is all very well, but, after all, self-preservation is the first law of nature, and when tribute has been paid to national enthusiasm one should surely be allowed to reach out for a life-saving buoy in the shape of the post-dinner coffee.
Coffee as a foreign touch? Like today, people were encouraged to over-indulge:
There ought to be one occasion in the year when the unregenerate man is freed from the dietary restraints laid upon him by a hygienic helpmate, and may eat all the kinds of pie and as much of each kind as he chooses. And what better time for a display of American independence in American tastes than on the first of American holidays?
Don’t you just love that writing? Editorials in the paper tried to put Thanksgiving 1908 in proper perspective.
The Pilgrims looked down the ages and dimly saw something of what the years would bring to their heirs and successors. But they never saw in imagination a thousandth part of what is now fact to us. Could they have dreamed of a real republic of 90,000,000 people, spreading from the known Atlantic to the unknown Pacific of their days, composed of 46 sovereign states, all teeming with wealth? How thankful they would have been for the privilege of laying the first foundations stones of such an empire!
During all the past thirty years since our country fully recovered from the ravages of the Civil War, we have gone forward at a pace never known before our day. Since the new century dawned on the land the progress has been sensational. It would seem as if the blessings of heaven have been poured out upon us for the humanitarian spirit we had shown in setting the people of Cuba safely on the road toward self-government, for our good work in China, for the part we took in bringing about peace between Russia and Japan, and for our continued efforts towards ensuring peace among all the nations of the earth.
But the editorial writers also sounded notes of caution eerily similar to those we hear today (except for the political parties that were being ushered into power):
During the year we now review there came to us a salutary check. We were rushing ahead too fast for safety. As a result, business opened the safety valve and let off the excess steam. But the other day we passed through the ordeal of a national election in a way so orderly, so amicable, that it surpassed all ever known in popular government. The choice of the people has settled upon the best-equipped man for the office among the millions of American citizens. A Congress is chosen which will protect the country from all radical experimentation in the making of new laws. Conservatism will mark the course of Congress, and the new President will exercise his functions with so much care and wisdom that while the laws will be well enforced, honest business will be not merely protected but greatly encouraged.
And what of the new President-elect who was seen as the savior for the hard economic times that had befallen the country? William Howard Taft, working with his transition team and slowly settling upon his new Cabinet, issued the following statement on Thanksgiving 1908 that could have been written by Barack Obama yesterday:
“I think we are emerging from a period of business depression and struggling on to more prosperous times. I think that we, the people of the United States, have this to be thankful for. I hope that we shall not rush upon this prosperity as such expectations may result in disappointment if it calls for immediate and full satisfaction. I believe that there will be a gradual and steadfast improvement in business conditions throughout the country.”