Green turtle. Jowl with spinach. Coconut cake. Crab à la Mayonnaise. What’s on your Thanksgiving menu? If you and yours celebrated the holiday in late 19th-century California, your table might have buckled under the weight of some of these delicacies alongside more traditional fare like roasted turkey, homemade cranberry sauce, and creamy mashed potatoes.
The Huntington Library holds a menu collection, which details these and other delicacies, in its ephemera collection. The collection contains several Thanksgiving menus from businesses throughout California. Los Angeles’ Fremont Hotel proudly celebrated its first Thanksgiving in 1902 by offering its guests several courses filled with such dishes as Bell Peppers Español, turkey with dressing, and “brazed” ox tongue. The Golden Eagle Hotel in Sacramento served California olives and oranges at their 1892 Thanksgiving feast. The Battery C Utah Volunteers of Angel Island provided their members with not only a menu, but a schedule of the day’s “field sports” to be held prior to the feast. All three of these menus are pictured below.
The collection as a whole contains printed menus from various hotels, ship lines, and organizations. These ephemeral menus range from the 1850s to the 1970s. They were acquired by the Library over the years, since the time of Henry E. Huntington himself, as gifts or by purchase. Some are specific to Christmas, Easter, Presidential birthdays, and, of course, Thanksgiving. They offer insight into an era when holiday dining was a ritual, a tradition, a social gathering—much as it is today.
Your Thanksgiving culinary traditions and leisure activities may be slightly different from those of your ancestors. Would you cook green turtle or jowl with spinach for your relatives on Turkey Day? Perhaps you might consider adding a “Shelter Tent Contest” to your family backyard football game in remembrance of the Utah Volunteers. Traditions change over time and vary from family to family, but the social aspects presented in these menus from the past remind us that the importance of Thanksgiving lies not in the traditions or foods themselves, but in their ability to bring us together.
For more information on Thanksgiving traditions in late 19th- and early 20th-century America, you may wish to read Savory Suppers & Fashionable Feasts by Susan Williams (Pantheon Books, 1985).
Catherine Wehrey is The Huntington’s reader services assistant for the Dibner collection.