Fremont County, Iowa

Christmas Dinner 1900-2011
by Emily Bengston

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
Week of December 26, 2011

One of my past times, is reading through old cookbooks, to compare how we eat today compared to yesterday. A favorite cookbook of mine, is the "White House Cookbook" printed in 1904, written by the White House cook, with the first printing in the 1880s.

I am always interested in what meals are called. Back in those early days, on Sundays and holidays, the meals were breakfast, dinner and supper. The rest of the year it was breakfast, lunch and dinner. Growing up in Fremont County, it was breakfast, dinner and supper all the time. We understood that dinner on Sundays, holidays and birthdays was going to be special. Today we eat breakfast, lunch and dinner or supper.

The holiday menu listed in the White House Cookbook is as follows:

  • Oysters on the half shell
  • Game Soup, Boiled White Fish in Sauce
  • Roast Goose & Apple Souse
  • Boiled Potatoes, Mashed Turnips, Creamed Parsnips, Stewed Onions
  • Boiled Rice, Lobster Salad, Canvass Back Duck
  • Christmas Plum Pudding with Sauce
  • Vanilla Ice Cream, Mince Pie, Orange Jelly Delicate Cake
  • Salted Almonds, Confectionary Fruits
  • Coffee
Each item in the menu had the accompanying recipe in the cookbook. An interesting one is Canvass Back Duck described as follows: "The epicurean taste declares that this special kind of bird requires no spice or flavors as the meat partakes of the flavor of the food that the bird feeds upon, being mostly wild celery."

Some of the foods listed above would make it to our holiday menu in the 1930s. What I remember is how hard it was to get them ready for eating. When I was about 11 years old, Dad bought a live turkey at the local sale barn on Saturday before Christmas and we had to help Mom get it ready to eat. Once it was killed, we pulled off the feathers including the pin feathers. What a job to get it ready to cook. Plus the length of time it took to cook in a wood stove seemed endless as we worked to keep the heat high enough for baking. As far as I was concerned I preferred Grandma's fattened old hen to turkey. To this day I would rather have baked chicken then turkey.

We had baked goose for Thanksgiving. Mom saved the feathers to make pillows. Grandma saved the goose grease to make a rub to help with colds and dry skin. Very little of the bird was wasted. All the vegetables--carrots, turnips, potatoes and onions--came from our cellar with apples stored wrapped in newspapers to keep them fresh. There were not as many items as at the White House but the food was all good, just as life was.

Today our holiday menu includes:

  • Roast Turkey, Baked Ham
  • Stuffing with oyster and one without oyster
  • Mashed Potatoes, Gravy, Sweet Potatoes
  • Green bean casserole, apple salad. Chinese cold slaw, three kinds of cranberry salads
  • Stuffed celery with pineapple cream cheese, pickles and olives
  • Hot rolls
  • Pumpkin, cherry, and pecan pies, vanilla cake
Time has changed, the vegetables and meats that we eat, but the biggest change is in how we prepare the meal. No more plucking the turkey, just a trip to the store, and we are ready to cook. What has not changed is the good time.

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Page updated on November 1, 2020 by Karyn Techau