Happy Thanksgiving Fellow History-Lovers!
As a lot of us are planning out our festive meals with friends and family, we thought it would be nice to tell you a little about how the Barkers might have celebrated their Thanksgiving.
Now you may be wondering what the Barkers ate at a dinner party. Dinners used to be served the way that most of us still have Thanksgiving dinner – what was called a la Francaise – in which most of the dishes were on the table at the same time, and diners helped themselves. This is what we call “family style” today. However, the standard in formal dining when John H. and Katherine were hosting dinners in the 1880s and 1890s was serving meals a la Russe. This meant that courses were brought to the table by a footman or waiter, one by one. All the special silverware, china and glassware were already at the table. And the Victorians loved having a special glass for a particular wine or a spoon that was only meant to be used for a certain dessert.
The Barkers had an extensive cutlery collection (one set of silverware for low-key days, another pattern of silverware for when friends came to visit, and the finest quality silverware for formal events). We have a snippet of their household from the inventory done in 1933. Much of the cutlery is described as monogrammed with “JHB” (for John H. Barker) or “KFB” (for Katherine Fitzgerald Barker), so we know that these were not later purchased by Catherine.
Certain wines were meant to be paired with certain courses. For example, dry white wine was recommended for oysters, medium-dry sherry for soup, and hock (a Rhine wine) for fish. And of course, a different glass was used for each. In the Barker Mansion collection, we have several beautiful examples monogrammed “CEB” for Cordelia E. Barker, the senior John’s wife.
This set of Victorian era cutlery had a different spoon for [top row] chocolate, lemonade, iced tea, dessert, place, sauce, soup/gumbo, soup/cream, grapefruit, orange/fruit; [bottom row] orange/fruit, café parfait, ice cream, tea, youth/breakfast, five o’clock tea, four o’clock, bouillon, chocolate, demitasse, and individual salt. Could you keep them all straight?
When Thanksgiving first became a national holiday in the 1860s under President Lincoln, most people would eat things like mince meat pies, but those were quickly replaced by the traditional turkey. Side dishes varied depending on the family size or financial standing.
From left to right: these glasses were used for port, sherry, cordial, red wine, and champagne/liqueur.
This handwritten menu shows that the Barkers enjoyed oysters, which were all the craze in American food culture starting in the early 1900’s. Whether raw, baked, or boiled in a stew, oysters were part of a holiday meal as well as everyday breakfast, lunch and dinner!
The Barker menu also features mutton, which along with beef was a favorite in the Midwest. Less expensive game meats like elk, bear and caribou were also popular at both family tables and trendy restaurants in the region, where the animals were easier to find. Chicken pudding – a chicken-filled pastry similar to a quiche – was another hearty choice, and had been a part of the American table since the 18th century.
Mrs. Barker’s handwritten menu delineates the courses of a fine meal: 1. Oysters, 2. Clear Soup, 3. Terrapin, cucumbers, 4. Chicken Timball with mushrooms, 5. Saddle of mutton, rice croquettes, peas, jelly, 6. Punch, 7. Partridge breast, lettuce salad, 8. Fruit ice cream.
Until next time,
Kristen Madden, Curator & The Barker Mansion Staffers