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Thanksgiving Dinner with a Side of History

Turkey, dressing, football, family and friends—many of our Thanksgiving traditions hearken back not just to the Pilgrims, but also to colonial harvest celebrations throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

Turkey, pumpkins, bread and games all had a part when early Marylanders celebrated a bountiful crop. This year let your cooking give a nod to the fare of our predecessors with a basket of rolls from an early American recipe. These rolls take only a few minutes to mix, are a great way to involve children in baking, and invoke culinary traditions of the past.

Colonial Cuisine

GettyImages 525987915Farming formed the foundation of Maryland’s colonial economy, and many people raised corn and tobacco on plantations. While colonists did not celebrate Thanksgiving as we know it, an abundant harvest gave cause for merry get-togethers with plentiful food and drink, bonfires and games. Neighbors gathered to feast. Children may have played tag and blind man’s bluff while men engaged in competitions or card games. The bounty of the land—corn, apples, squash, wild game and cider—featured prominently in these feasts, and celebrants likely cooked both old favorites and special treats.

“Seventeenth-century Marylanders ate what they grew on their plantations,” says Roberta Smith, educational programs coordinator for historic St. Mary’s City, the site of Maryland’s first settlement. “They commonly made corn bread, corn mush and roast pork, and seasoned these dishes with spices such as basil and thyme. Stews of meat and vegetables often were eaten as a midday meal with corn bread.” Recipes were usually handed down orally from generation to generation.

Colonists cooked over an open fire or a hearth with cast iron pots. “In the 1700s, one way colonists would bake bread and cook stews was in Dutch ovens, which they would bury in the fire,” says Graydon Stephenson, director of The Colonial Camp, which holds a summer camp at Historic London Town and Gardens. “To bake bread, they would build a hot fire, place a Dutch oven lined with stones in the fire, and when the oven was hot, they would put their pan of bread inside, cover it with the lid, and heap more coals on top.”

By the late 1600s, wheat and sugar were being imported more frequently into Maryland, and within a few decades, chocolate had appeared. Special occasions sometimes called for special dishes, and colonial Marylanders may have cooked with unusual or expensive ingredients. Smith says it is believed that sweet treats like tarts and cookies were baked. According to Stephenson, some old recipes call for flavoring cakes with rose petals. The wealthy would sometimes “season” their stews with gold.

French Rolls, Updated

During meals, people used rolls to sop up juices from the food and to push food around, just as we still do. The following recipe, from Mary Randolph’s recipe for French rolls in her 1824 cookbook The Virginia Housewife, updates Randolph’s instructions to “sift a quart of flour, add a little salt, a spoonful of yeast, two eggs well beaten, and half a pint of milk” with modern measurements and no-knead techniques popularized by Jim Lahey and others.

Late Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, gather the kids and the following ingredients:

2 ¾ cups of unbleached all purpose flour (13 ounces)
1 ½ teaspoons of salt
1 teaspoon of yeast
1 ¼ cup of warm milk
2 eggs, well beaten

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Add the milk and eggs and stir everything together, making sure the dough is consistently wet and thoroughly mixed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

In the morning, preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Notice how the dough has risen into a soft, bubbly mass. With a spoon, take a piece of dough the size of a lime out of the bowl, shape it roughly into a ball, and place it into the muffin pan. This step provides fun for the whole family since kids love getting their hands in bread dough. When the oven is hot, bake the rolls for 22 minutes or until they are golden. Take them out of the oven and let them cool. For added richness, you can brush the rolls with melted butter.

Then off to Thanksgiving dinner the rolls go, playing once again the role this recipe has played in times past: A sop for sauce and good food among people happily celebrating their blessings.

Looking for more Thanksgiving recipes? Check out our staff favorites! Or an awesome Mixed Berry Pie!

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