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posted: 11/6/2012 3:15 PM

Food historian discusses Thanksgiving traditions

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  • Food historian and cookbook collector Penelope Bingham shows some of the more than 2,000 cookbooks she owns.

    Food historian and cookbook collector Penelope Bingham shows some of the more than 2,000 cookbooks she owns.
    Courtesy of Penelope Bingham


Americans around the world go to great lengths to observe "Thanksgiving: The Great American Holiday," according to food historian Penelope Bingham, who will speak on the topic at 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10, at Naper Settlement, 523 S. Webster St., Naperville.

Take the exploits of the World War II quartermasters who packed canned turkey and cranberries into watertight containers and flung them across a river in Italy to ensure American troops on the other side would enjoy the traditional Thanksgiving feast.

"It came out slightly mashed and not too hot, but it was Thanksgiving. It was home," Bingham said. "It's really astonishing. All over the world, Americans are having turkey, stuffing and cranberries. People go to great lengths to acquire the fixings for Thanksgiving."

Although the basics on most Thanksgiving tables are similar (reportedly 90 percent of Americans eat turkey), each family has its own traditions. Participants who come to the program are invited to bring a favorite holiday recipe to share that will be posted on Naper Settlement's website.

"Sometimes there's just wonderful stories that come as people tell you what's on their table and why," Bingham said.

The owner of more than 2,000 cookbooks and a Roads Scholar for the Illinois Humanities Council, Bingham gives programs throughout Illinois on how food and cookbooks reflect culture. Her program about this uniquely American holiday has been popular, she said.

"I think it's a wonderful holiday," she said. "It's about food. It's about family. And it's about being together."

Thanksgiving history

The first feast celebrated by the Pilgrims and American Indians in 1621 is shrouded in myth, but New England did give us Thanksgiving, Bingham said. The Puritans rejected Christmas as a pageant holiday, leaving room for Thanksgiving to gain a strong foothold.

"We need holidays so there was a big push for a fall holiday," she said.

The first national Thanksgiving was proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Presidents had to declare Thanksgiving on an annual basis after that until Thanksgiving was made a legal holiday in the 1940s.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the story of the first Thanksgiving became an expression of American ideals.

"It was partly a way of Americanizing a huge number of immigrants quickly," Bingham said.

Cookbooks of the period were directive -- telling what should be served at Thanksgiving as well as how the meal should be prepared. Thanksgiving dinners in the late 19th and early 20th century were elaborate and often included courses of nuts, fruit and cheese at the end of the meal, Bingham said.

She is not sure when turkey became the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving feast, replacing the once popular chicken potpie, but the choice fit the occasion, she said.

"It's big and it's whole," she said. "It does express abundance. You are supposed to leave the table stuffed."

Different ethnic groups have added their own feast dishes to the Thanksgiving spread, but many of the side dishes have remained remarkably similar.

"It's pretty commonplace, cheap food -- potatoes, sweet potatoes. Then of course, there's the green bean casserole, which is a creation of the food industry," Bingham said.

Of course, different families and regions of the country have their own ways of preparing these side dishes. Cornbread stuffing is popular in the South. Some families might use grandma's recipe for pumpkin pie year after year. These honored traditions provide connections with the past, but also can become a source of conflict.

"Do you have marshmallows on the sweet potatoes? There have been major family fights over this," Bingham said.

Bingham recalled a cousin who was so distressed that she was not allowed to bring her version of sweet potatoes to the Thanksgiving feast that she had an alternative Thanksgiving meal the next day and invited her friends to bring the dishes that their family gatherings rejected.

"They had a wonderful time," she said.

But for the most part, Thanksgiving brings families together.

"It's an inclusive holiday. You invite all your family -- even the uncle that everyone has a little trouble with," Bingham said.

Cookbooks & culture

Bingham's cookbook collecting started years ago when she was remodeling her apartment and had to count her books so she would know how many bookcases were needed. At that time, her cookbooks numbered about 1,200. Rather than get rid of the cookbooks she no longer used, Bingham decided to add to the collection.

"Cookbooks are primary documents. They're not someone telling you about the culture," she said.

The cookbooks published today reflect an increasingly diverse culture, Bingham said. They no longer assume that the woman will do the cooking, or that a typical American meal consists of meat, a starch, vegetable and dessert.

"What is American food. That is changing," Bingham said.

Maybe that's why Thanksgiving remains so important in an often disconnected and harried society.

"You don't have go out and get presents. Decorating is pretty simple," Bingham said. "Going home and connecting with family, I think there's something intrinsic about it. The fact that it's food doesn't hurt."

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