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An Authentic Thanksgiving Beer Dinner
The History of Thanksgiving and Beer (Recipes Included)
 
 
Horst Dornbusch posing with his masterpiece.

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No meal is more quintessentially American than Thanksgiving dinner, not just for the seminal historical event it commemorates — the founding of the Pilgrims’ colony at Plymouth, near Cape Cod, Mass., in December 1620 — but also for its ingredients. Turkey, corn, potatoes, pumpkin and cranberries are all foods that are indigenous to the New World. Yet it is hardly known that beer, especially English ale, might have played a role at that first Thanksgiving dinner, too.

Everybody, of course, is familiar with the story of the Pilgrims: Perhaps their most hallowed achievement is the Mayflower Compact, a covenant by which they organized their daily lives based on the principles of religious freedom, self-reliance and the rule of law.

This Compact now ranks as the oldest constitutional document in the history of American democracy. Its immense impact, however, might not have occurred had it not been for the local Wampanoag Indians, who taught the settlers how to farm, hunt and fish in their new and unfamiliar surroundings, especially after the Mayflower had returned home. Without this help, the Pilgrims probably would not have survived their first winter in the New World.

Things also began to look up after two ships from England called at Plymouth Plantation in the summer, bringing more settlers and some badly needed provisions — maybe even some ale. Therefore, in October 1621, once the settlers had reaped their first life-sustaining harvest, including some 20 acres of corn, they threw a little cooking party as a thank you to their Indian benefactors.

That feast set the precedent that is still being imitated today in virtually every American household, once a year, on the fourth Thursday in November.

Our modern-day Thanksgiving dinner, however, tends to deviate in two important ways from that original culinary bash in 1621: We use a grotesquely altered bird, and we wash it down with wine, which is the wrong beverage. Let me explain.

The Pilgrims Drank Ale

It was beer, after all (or rather the lack of it), that was a key reason that the Pilgrims, their ship critically off course, ended up where they did, on the shores of an expansive crescent bay in what is now the “Bay State” of Massachusetts, instead of on the shores of Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, their original destination. As Pilgrim leader Governor William Bradford put it in his journal: “We could not now take much time for further search, our victuals being much spent, especially our beer.” Yup, there was no sailing on, as the casks aboard the Mayflower were running dry ... and, to the best of our knowledge, the Pilgrims had no wine. Besides, wine is much too delicate for the fare preferred by the Pilgrims. Even the Wine Spectator admits, “Thanksgiving has never been an easy meal to match with wine ... because in the traditional menus, sweet, earthy, early American flavors dominate” (Vol. 26, No. 13, November 2001).

Beer might have played a role at that first Thanksgiving dinner.

The beer that was “much spent” on the Mayflower was almost certainly a malt-accented, low-hop English-style brown ale, simply because that was the universal brew of the English at the time. It was brown as a result of the direct-fired kilns of those days, which yielded nothing but moderately to severely scorched malts that gave the brews their darkish color. The beer was relatively mildly hopped, because hops had only just been introduced to England, and many ales were still brewed without any hops or were flavored with herbs, such as yarrow, gale or mugwort. The hoppy English IPA was still about two centuries in the future.

Though there appears to be no record that would tell us which beverage the Pilgrims shared with their Indian friends at the first Thanksgiving, we do know that the Pilgrims drank as hard as they prayed and that they started brewing ale shortly after they had settled into their New World Plantation — and they brewed with ingredients that are still the subject of much speculation and controversy. Initially, they may have used roots, corn and birch sap. Yet, it is safe to postulate that the proper beverage for an authentic, Pilgrimlike Thanksgiving has got to be beer, not wine.

Will the Real Turkey Please Fly Up!

Turkey, incidentally, was not the only dish in 1621. There was also venison from five deer contributed by the Indians. Significantly, however, the poultry came from wild turkeys, which are a far cry from the white-feathered, obese, mega-chested, wobble-ball gobblers that we now breed for our Thanksgiving carving platters! Turkey domestication began in Mexico in the 16th century. It was introduced to Spain by priests in conqueror Cortés’s entourage. Domestic turkeys soon spread throughout Europe, from where they were brought back to North America. But when the Pilgrims reached the Massachusetts wilderness, all the turkeys were still wild.

When shopping for your authentic Thanksgiving turkey, therefore — assuming you cannot obtain a wild bird — be a nonconformist! Definitely stay away from the standard large, white, broad-breasted variety, especially if it is sold as “self-baste.” Such turkeys are injected with butter and brine and often with artificial flavor and color. At the very least, get a bird that’s described as nonprocessed, free-range or organic. Even better are dark turkey breeds, such as bronze or bourbon red. They are rarer and much more expensive than the whites. They have thicker bones, smaller breasts and more delicious dark meat and are thus closer in taste and texture to wild turkeys. Perhaps the most authentic wild-turkey substitute is the Narragansett, which is a cross between domestic and wild New England turkeys and is itself part of the foundation stock of many modern dark turkey breeds.

With these two provisos — about brown ale and wild, dark or at least free-range turkeys — please see the sidebar recipes for a complete menu that I developed for a possibly more authentic Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving Dinner. Its preparations are based entirely on beer, not wine. For a table beverage, too, stay within the theme and offer brown ale, not wine. For an aperitif before and a digestif after the meal, consider serving a slightly stronger brew, such as a British or a craft-brewed barley wine — Thomas Hardy's Ale, Sierra Nevada Bigfoot and Anchor Old Foghorn are widely available examples. A Belgian Trappist triple might work, too.

 
THANKSGIVING (& BEER) DINNER RECIPES

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Roast Pilgrims’ Beer Turkey

Ingredients:
1 turkey (about 1 pound per person; preferably dark-plumed or wild, if you can get it)
1 large cooking apple such as Granny Smith, cored, peeled and diced into 1⁄2-inch pieces
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 celery ribs, finely chopped
8 ounces of cornbread bread, crumpled up or cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
2 eggs
2 teaspoons mixed dried herbs (thyme, sage, marjoram, savory)
English brown ale (such as Newcastle Brown Ale or Samuel Adams Brown Ale); 12 fluid ounces per pound of meat
8 to 12 thick-sliced strips of fatty bacon

Directions:
In a cool place, marinade turkey in brown ale for 24 hours, turning it once or twice.
In a large roasting pan, place turkey on wire rack.
Truss drumsticks and wings together with butcher twine.
Mix all ingredients (except beer marinade and bacon) in a bowl.
Add about 11⁄2 cups beer marinade to make a moist stuffing. Save remaining beer for basting.
Place stuffing in turkey cavity.
Skewer turkey cavity shut.
Douse turkey with beer.
Set oven rack to bottom level and preheat oven to 450°F.
Place turkey on its side and roast for 10 minutes.
Turn turkey on other side, baste with beer and roast for 10 minutes.
Turn turkey breast-side down, baste again with beer, and reduce oven to 350°F.
Roast turkey for a further 30 minutes while basting it once again.
Turn turkey breast-side up, drape with bacon strips, and baste every 15 minutes.
After a total of about 20 minutes per pound minus 30 minutes, remove bacon and set aside. Baste again.
Finish roasting the turkey for another 30 minutes.
Insert meat thermometer (not touching bone!); turkey is done when thermometer reads at least 165°F.
Roast longer, if needed.
Transfer turkey to carving board, cover with foil and let rest for 15 to 20 minutes.
While turkey rests, make gravy.
Remove trussing and skewers from bird, scoop out stuffing, carve and serve warm with gravy and trimmings.

Gravy
(Adapted from Grilling with Beer by Lucy Saunders, F&B Communications 2006, page 42; used by permission)

Ingredients:
8 to 12 crispy bacon strips (from roast turkey)
2 cups chopped white onions
12 fluid ounces English brown ale
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon ground pepper
2 cups turkey pan drippings
2 tablespoons malt vinegar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Directions:
If bacon strips are not crispy, fry them until crackling in a heavy saucepan; otherwise, omit step.
Chop bacon into bits.
Skim fat off turkey drippings (or use a separator).
Pour about 2 cups degreased drippings into saucepan and reduce to about one-half over high heat.
Turn heat to medium and stir in chopped onions; simmer for about 10 minutes.
Stir in remaining ingredients (except beer and flour) and cook for about 10 minutes.
Deglaze with beer and reduce for another 10 to 15 minutes over high heat.
Place pan in ice-water bath to cool a bit.
When lukewarm, purée gravy in blender and strain through sieve.
Return gravy to pan and reheat over medium burner.
Stir in flour and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring constantly, until gravy thickens.

Cranberry-Beer Relish
The bogs of Cape Cod, Mass., are, of course, the nation’s traditional center for cranberry cultivation. You can purchase prepared cranberry sauces and relishes for your Thanksgiving groaning board, or you can make your own. Here is a recipe for a cooked relish that can be made the day before. It even uses some brown ale.

Ingredients:
4 cups (1 pound) fresh or two 6-ounce packs of dried, presweetened cranberries
1 to 2 cups Grade A maple syrup
1 quart water
12 fluid ounces brown ale

Directions:
Rehydrate dried cranberries, if used, in a quart of tepid water for two hours.
Boil fresh cranberries in a quart of water for about 5 minutes, or rehydrated ones for 15 minutes, until skins burst.
Strain.
In a food processor, macerate cranberries.
Mix the pulped fresh cranberries with 2 cups, or the rehydrated ones with 4 tablespoons, of maple syrup.
In a saucepan, while stirring constantly, bring mixture to a boil and gradually stir in brown ale.
On low or simmer, reduce mixture to about half its volume while stirring frequently (may take an hour).
Remove from heat, pour into ramekin; let cool, then refrigerate.
Serve cold as an accompaniment to roast turkey.

Corn on the Cob

Use one ear of corn per person, dehusked, snapped into two and boiled in salt water for about 20 minutes.

Mashed Potatoes

Ingredients:
Select red potatoes, medium-size, with relatively unblemished skins, two per person.

Directions:
Boil for about 20 minutes. Drain and mash in their skins with 1⁄2 tablespoon of cream, 1⁄4 tablespoon butter and a pinch of salt per potato.

New England Pumpkin Pie
Pumpkin pie apparently was served at the second, not the first, Thanksgiving dinner. Today we spice it up with cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg, and optionally you can add a pinch of these if you wish. But the Pilgrims’ filling more likely got its flavor complexity from just maple syrup and honey — a robust mouthful requiring something big and powerful, like an ale.

Ingredients (for a 10-inch deep-dish pie):
2 cups fresh or about 17 ounces canned pumpkin
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons honey
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
3 eggs
1 cup (8 fluid ounces) English brown ale
1⁄2 cup heavy cream
A 10-inch deep-dish pie shell
Whipping cream with a touch of maple syrup (optional, but wonderful)

Directions:
Preheat oven to 450°F.
Macerate fresh pumpkin (if used) in blender or empty can(s).
Mix sweeteners, pumpkin and salt.
Beat eggs lightly.
Gently fold into mix eggs, cream and beer, in that order.
Ladle filling into shell.
In 450°F oven, on middle rack, bake for 10 minutes.
Reduce heat to 325°F; bake for another 40 minutes.
Pie is done when a knife inserted into filling comes out clean.
Serve warm or cold, topped with whipped cream if desired.

 
 

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