Morning Coffee: Origin of the Thanksgiving Feast

RevisionsWe all grew up with an image of the first Thanksgiving feast between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans. In our schoolbooks it looked very much like what most of us will sit down to next week: turkey, potatoes, cranberries, bread, pie. But it wasn’t like that at all. A letter written by Edward Winslow to a friend back in England described the feast of 1621.

Plymouth Colony’s Governor Bradford sent men out to hunt wildfowl, most likely goose and duck. The Wampanoag Indians brought venison. Fish may have been included. While turkeys were also plentiful in New England in the 1620s, they were difficult to catch and the meat was tough and lean, so probably not included. If the birds were stuffed it would have been with onions and herbs. Cranberries were native to New England at the time and maple sugar would have sweetened the sauce. Pumpkins were also available, but there was no flour so there would have been no pie.

So where did the Thanksgiving feast ideal get its start? Sarah Josepha Buell Hale, editor of Godey’s Ladies Book, a popular mid-19th century women’s magazine, wanted to create an American tradition that would bring people together under the rural Protestant foundations that built our nation. She first described the Thanksgiving meal in her 1827 novel Northwood: A Tale of New England. “The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting.” Her ideal feast also included “a sirloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and a joint of mutton…innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables…a huge plum pudding, custards, and pies of every description known in Yankee land.”

A feast table overflowing with abundance was the standard Hale upheld for the successful housewife within the ideal home. Every November her editorials in Godey’s included tips and recipes for the annual Thanksgiving feast. When the nation was divided by Civil War, she wrote a letter to President Abraham Lincoln petitioning him to make Thanksgiving a national holiday. On October 3, 1863 President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November to be the official “day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”

Over the years, the traditions have been modified to accommodate changes in food delivery and preparation. In 1912, cranberries, once too fragile to transport, were processed and canned by the United Cape Cod Cranberry Company under the name Ocean Spray Preserving Company, making them available nationwide and year round. In the mid-1900s pre-packaged stuffing mixes made the cooking of the perfect turkey dressing fast and easy for even the most challenged cook. In 1955, the Campbell’s Soup Company published the first green bean casserole recipe. Canned pureed pumpkin, along with your assorted canned fruit pie fillings, make pies much less time consuming. Now you can even buy pre-made crusts that you merely unroll and lay in the pie plate. Whipped cream can be bought in either the dairy or freezer section.

While how we prepare our Thanksgiving feast has changed over the years, we can thank Sarah Josepha Buell Hale for the blueprint of this ideal family tradition. We can also blame her at the end of the day after we have eaten far too much food. Unfortunately, our sedentary life styles have not kept pace with the evolutions of this celebratory meal.

* Research taken from the Saturday Evening Post, The Invention of Thanksgiving by Susan Evans, November/December 2016.


Morning Coffee: Thanksgiving Shake-Up

fallThanksgiving is in two weeks. For most of us this means the same dinner with the same people. We’ll drink the same amount of alcohol, roughly, and tell the same old stories, some of which will inevitably lead to the same old family fights. Are you looking to shake things up a little? But not too much? Here’s a favorite dessert recipe of mine to replace your familiar pumpkin pie. I don’t make it often because it takes a little work ahead and a while to put together…but it’s so worth it. I found it in Gourmet Magazine in November 2009. Enjoy!

Pumpkin Gingerbread Trifle
For gingerbread
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
½ cup milk molasses (not robust or blackstrap)
¾ cup well-shaken buttermilk (not powdered)
½ cup hot water

For pumpkin mousse
1 (1/4 oz) envelope unflavored gelatin
¼ cup cold water
1 (15 oz) can pure pumpkin
½ cup packed light brown sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
½ tsp grated nutmeg
½ tsp ground ginger
1/8 tsp salt
1 cup chilled heavy cream
½ tsp pure vanilla extract

For whipped cream
1 ½ cups chilled heavy cream
3 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract

Make gingerbread: Preheat oven to 350 F with rack in middle. Butter a 13 by 9 inch baking pan. Line pan with foil, leaving an overhang at both ends, then butter foil.

Whisk together flour, baking soda, spices and salt. Beat butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer at medium speed until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Beat in egg until blended, then beat in molasses and buttermilk. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until smooth, then add hot water and beat 1 minute (batter may look curdled). Spread batter evenly in pan and bake until a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Cool in pan. Using foil as an aid, transfer gingerbread to a cutting board and cut into 1 inch cubes with a serrated knife.

Make Pumpkin mousse: Sprinkle gelatin over cold water in a small saucepan and let soften 1 minute. Bring to a simmer, stirring until gelatin haw dissolved. Whisk together gelatin mixture, pumpkin, brown sugar, spices, and salt in a large bowl until combined well. Beat cream with vanilla using cleaned beaters until it holds soft peaks, then fold into pumpkin mixture gently but thoroughly.

Make whipped cream: Beat cream with sugar and vanilla using mixer until it holds soft peaks.

Assemble trifle: Put half of gingerbread cubes in 2 quart trifle bowl. Top with half of pumpkin mousse, then half of whipped cream. Repeat layering once more with all of remaining gingerbread, mousse, and cream. Chill at least 2 hours before serving. Optional garnish with chopped crystallized ginger.

Morning Coffee: Strong Women

fallEven when I’m totally engrossed in a book I’m still analyzing its structure. What did the author do to make it work…or, in some cases, not work? I’ve spent the last week reading books in my search for titles that are similar to my novel, “Mary Bishop”. If you read last week’s post, you know I needed to include a list with my agent queries. While reading, I was reminded over and over again how women gain strength through their friendships with other women.

Women’s friendships are emotional, supportive. Women want someone who will listen, maybe a hug. Women want someone who understands. Women are there for each other when they give birth, when they are ill, when there is a death. At a time when men had access to anything they wanted by right of birth, it was women who gave each other worth. While the laws on women’s rights have changed, the dynamics of women’s friendships have not.

In my novel, Mary Bishop is a strong woman. She finds her strength deep within herself when her husband, Earl, is unable. But when he dies and she is at her lowest, it is her friends Sarah and Frances who come to her rescue, lifting her back out of the darkness. Only they truly understand what Mary’s feeling, and only they can tell her when she’s being foolish by letting someone else undermine the truth Mary knows in her heart.

The books I chose to include with my submission were “True Sisters” by Sandra Dallas, “Caroline: Little House, Revisited” by Sarah Miller, and “At the Water’s Edge” by Sara Gruen. I highly recommend all three.

In “True Sisters”, a group of Mormon converts emigrate from England to America, a decision made by their men. It’s a long trip by boat across the Atlantic, then train to Iowa City, and from there they walked, pushing handcarts loaded with their barest worldly possessions, to Salt Lake City. Many died along the way. The men summed up each loss as the will of God. It was the friendship of other women that kept the women strong each time they buried a loved one. It was other women who recognized the pain each went through when another purge of their belongings meant another treasured possession left behind. It was women who attended births, illness, and injury along the way. The handcart parties were real and this book is a fictionalized version of the final party to make it across the mountains to Salt Lake City.

“Caroline” will be recognized by anyone who read “Little House on the Prairie”, except that this time the story is told from Ma’s point of view, rather than Laura’s, and is less romanticized. Caroline is pregnant with Carrie, Mary is five, and Laura is three, when Charles announces that he has sold their house in the Big Woods and they are going to Indian Territory in Kansas. While Caroline outwardly supports her husband’s decision, she knows what dangers lay ahead on such a trip, especially in late winter: the rivers they will have to cross, the wild animals, the Indians. She agonizes over the loss of her female support system with another baby on the way. She wonders who will attend her birth. How will she manage without her sisters? She knows she may never see them again. It isn’t until she meets Mrs. Scott from a neighboring claim that she regains that support. It’s Mrs. Scott who attends her birth. It’s Mrs. Scott who shows up at their door and stays as long as necessary when all but the baby fall deathly ill. Those familiar with the Ingalls’ story know there will be many uprootings in her lifetime as her husband searches for his dream, and each one will be a test of Caroline’s strength; as it was for so many women during the westward expansion.

“At the Water’s Edge” takes place at the tail end of WWII. A young socialite from Philadelphia who lives a frivolous, indulgent, and often reckless lifestyle finds herself on a freighter to Scotland with her arrogant unloving husband and his friend as the two men go on their obsessive hunt for the Loch Ness monster. Practically abandoned at a small inn, Maddie is suddenly immersed penniless in the unknown world of rations, blackouts, and air raids. Over time she befriends the two women who work at the inn and through them comes to realize she is strong enough to find her own way and leave her abusive husband.

“Mary Bishop” is historical women’s fiction and historically women have always found strength in friendship with each other. Mary’s strength grows with the support of her friends, as did the handcart women’s, Caroline Ingalls’, and Maddie Hyde’s.

Morning Coffee: Selling Myself

halloweenSome people believe all writers do is write. After we’re done with one book we launch right into another. I wish!! There was a time when a writer could count on their publisher doing all the PR work. Publishing houses had whole departments for promoting their lists. They scheduled book tours/signings, placed your books in all the right stores, and ran ads in the papers and magazines with the highest reader numbers in your market. Not anymore.

Yes, the big houses still have advertising departments. Unfortunately, unless you’re one of the top-of-the-list big-buck-earning authors on their list, they expect you to do not all, but much of the work yourself. Beginning with my initial query/submission, I have to prove that I am both willing and able to promote myself before they’ll even consider signing me. I blame the internet.

The internet has supplied us with all the resources we need to do our own PR. I have a Facebook author page, I tweet, and, of course, I blog. All means for getting my name out there and building a fan base even before I’m ready to submit my first novel. I will also be expected, after publication, to buy tables at festivals and craft shows so I can sell copies of my book. I will need to schedule book readings/signings at local libraries and bookstores.

There are also the business cards and bookmarks I already carry everywhere to hand out to anyone interested. Anything that will help people remember my name, anything to prove to a publisher that I can do my part.

Agents want to receive, along with a query letter, synopsis, and sample chapters, my market and a list of already published books that are similar to mine. They want me to convince them my book is worth the time and effort they would need to negotiate a publishing contract. Naming my market is easy, women over thirty. Determining which similar books will best sell mine is a little tougher. I would like to include three. I’ve currently put together a list and am reading them so I can have a list ready for submission next week. So far, one is a definite inclusion.

With all this put out there to sell myself, I will then, and only then, be able to go back to work on my next book while waiting to hear the verdict on my first.

Morning Coffee: “Mary Bishop” Update

halloweenBack in May, I had the opportunity to pitch my novel, “Mary Bishop”, to two agents at WisRWA’s annual conference in Green Bay. One requested the first five chapters and a short synopsis, but suggested the manuscript be about 10,000 words longer. The second requested the first three chapters and a short synopsis. She also told me something I’d already figured out for myself. The reason I hadn’t sold it yet, despite all the positive comments from editors, was I had been submitting to the wrong market. It’s not historical romance; it’s historical women’s fiction with romantic elements. Yes, there’s a difference. The characters and plot lines are more complicated and need a longer format.

I prefer to do my revisions with red pen on paper; so, that’s how I spent my free time this summer. (What’s free time?) I rewrote dry scenes that merely “told” what was happening, replacing them with scenes that “showed” the story. I expanded some and filled in historical details. I addressed questions raised by one of my beta readers. (Thanks, Mo!) Then I rounded it out by writing an epilogue to tie-up a story line that was once very minor but had grown much more prominent.

In September, I started the long process of typing and polishing those revisions and this week I completed them for an additional 9,200 words, a total of 90,700. These were not the first revisions, and I totally believe they won’t be the last. I have no doubt any agent or publisher who wants to pick it up will request additional changes. If there’s one thing this process has taught me, my words are not all gold and sometimes the ones you like the most are the first ones that need to go.

For example, my opening paragraph was my favorite from day one. It was word for word what my heroine, Mary Bishop, kept saying to me until I wrote it down and launched into telling her story. As far as I was concerned, it was sacrosanct. I had enough trouble changing it from first person to third. A couple weeks ago I attended the first page workshop at the Wisconsin Writers Association annual conference in Neenah and one gentleman suggested I move it to the bottom of the first page. He pointed out the real strength of my opening came from all the paragraphs that followed on page one. He didn’t want me to delete it, just move it. My first reaction, which I kept hidden behind a ‘thank you I’ll think about that’ smile, was the thought that he didn’t know what he was talking about. That was the paragraph that would pull my reader into the story and never let them go. But guess what happened when I started thinking about it. He was right. My opening is much stronger, and nothing had to be deleted in this case.

Now all I have to do is write a two-page synopsis and a cover letter and I’m ready to send the agents their requested chapters. After that, who knows what will happen. Hopefully at least one of them will want to read the full manuscript, will want to sign me, and then will sell my book to a big New York publisher convinced he or she has found the next best selling Great American Novel.

I’ll keep you informed.

Morning Coffee: Friday the 13th

halloweenToday is Friday the 13th, and it’s October, which makes it all the spookier for those who believe in omens, superstition, and such things. Halloween winds down the month of October. We spend weeks watching horror movie marathons, visiting corn mazes and haunted houses while picking apples and pumpkins. Then we end the month by dressing our children in costumes and binging on an orgy of chocolate left over after all the little ghouls and goblins have gone home.

Two years ago, when this blog was new, I wrote about the history behind Halloween, but what’s the deal with Friday the 13th? There’s no clear information regarding when Friday the 13th became a tradition for bad luck; but negativity has surrounded the number 13 for centuries.

While the number 12 has historically been associated with completeness (12 Days of Christmas, 12 months and Zodiac signs, 12 labors of Hercules, 12 gods of Olympus, 12 tribes of Israel), the number 13 has been linked to the negative for almost as long.

The Last Supper is credited for the belief that 13 dinner guests at the table is a bad omen, that it tempts death. Consider it; there were 13 men seated at the Last Supper: the 12 apostles plus Jesus makes 13. Judas was one of the 13 and the next day, Good Friday, was the day Jesus was crucified. Could this also be what links the number 13 with Friday? Possibly.

Have you ever noticed the lack of a 13th floor in many buildings? Next time you’re in an elevator check to see if you can get off at the 13th floor. Technically there is a 13th floor because there certainly isn’t empty air between 12 and14, but people are reluctant to rent office space or a hotel room on the 13th floor so building owners often pretend it doesn’t exist for the sake of their bottom line.

New Yorker Captain William Fowler (1827-1897) founded the Thirteen Club to try and dispel the superstition behind the number 13, particularly having 13 dinner guests at a table. On the 13th of each month, 13 men would meet for dinner in room 13 of the Knickerbocker Cottage, a popular restaurant owned by Fowler from 1863-1883. Before sitting down to dinner, each guest had to walk beneath a ladder and sign that read Morituri te Salutamus, Latin for “Those of us who are about to die.” Most notable members, at different times, were four US presidents: Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, and Theodore Roosevelt.

Numerous books and movies, most notably the Friday the 13th franchise starring hockey mask-wearing Jason, have spawned from the superstition. For some, they feed the fear. For others, they’re just a bit of fun.

Yes, throughout history there have been bad things that happened on Friday the 13th; but unless the world is going to stand still for those 24 hours it’s inevitable that something bad is going to happen somewhere. Any other month of the year a Friday the 13th can pass with me hardly noticing. But, when it happens in October, well that’s just the icing on the cake.


Morning Coffee: What I DON’T Love About Fall

fallI’ve written before about how I love everything fall, but that’s not entirely true. I love the colors, the scents, the flavors of fall. I love the cooler temperatures, fuzzy sweaters, and hot chocolate mixed with a little peppermint schnapps. And maybe most of all, I love just about anything pumpkin spice or cranberry. We’re only a month away from lefse-making day with my sister-in-law. Playing golf in the fall is special, too, when it’s not so hot and the leaves are all changing. We have a beautiful golf course here in St Croix Falls.

miceBut there is one thing I do not love about fall. Mice.

The filthy little creatures have already begun to seek refuge in our basement. At least, so far they’ve kept to the basement, but I’d prefer they kept to the outside of the house. Since the beginning of September I’ve trapped five, the most recent just last night. Before you try and tell me mice are cute, none of these were wearing little shorts or a polka dot dress and matching bow! These are not the cute variety of mouse, the kind that sing and dance and entertain children of all ages. These are the kind that chew through my belongings, invade my pantry, leave caches of seeds in my boots and nasty little black poops that let me know they’ve been there recently and leave me wondering where they are right then.

miceDid you know that mice have soft bones and can easily squeeze through a hole the size of a dime? As soon as my husband finds one hole and blocks it, they find another…or create another. As I said, they like to chew on things.

I’ve written a number of poems expressing my dislike of, my frustration with, them. This poem originally appeared in Creative Wisconsin, Winter 2013-2014, under the title “In The Quiet Hours”.

miceIn The Night Time Hours
By Jane Yunker

We stalk the night time hours
Bony feet scuffling
Sniffing with hungry noses
For crumbs left behind
By those who live upstairs
When the sun rises
And they wake
Traps left to stop us
In the night time hours