Monday, November 20, 2023

A Victorian Thanksgiving Menu?

Picture the Victorian era, and America doesn't usually spring to mind. We think of England. Women in elaborate gowns ride in carriages beside men in top hats, cravats, and tailored jackets. Meanwhile, in London town, impoverished waifs with dirt-smeared faces shiver in icy winds. Did you know that the term, “street urchin,” originated in Victorian times? No wonder Charles Dickens featured them in his writing. It's not amazing that we find ourselves transported to the land of Queen Victoria. The era that took Victoria as its namesake spanned her entire reign (from 1837 to 1901). 

America also experienced the Victorian era. It coincided with western expansion and encompassed the Civil War, Spanish-American War,  Mexican-American War, and the annexation of Texas. The Pony Express rose and fell, and a golden spike completed the Transcontinental Railway during this period. Vast herds of buffalo and indigenous nations dwindled in the face of Manifest Destiny. Nineteen states joined the Union. Hawaii's King Kamehameha lit his palace with electric lights. 

A Victorian Thanksgiving Menu

The first Thanksgiving feast didn’t much resemble the traditional meal familiar today. There’s some debate on whether turkey was even present. One of two firsthand accounts mentions them, but not cooked or as the main course. That position may have belonged to duck and geese, unless the wildfowl was carrier pigeon or swan. The pilgrims also ate fish, eel, and shellfish, along with a variety of vegetables (peas, beans, squash, and corn, plus cabbage and carrots). They consumed no mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes, as these hadn’t made their way to North America yet. They wouldn't have possessed enough sugar for cranberry sauce. Pumpkins were plentiful, but other pie-making ingredients were not.

By Victorian times, Thanksgiving dinner included traditional dishes we know today but also unusual ones. Jenny June’s American cookery book by J. C. (Jane Cunningham) Croly (1870) suggests the following menu: “Oyster soup, cod, with egg sauce, lobster salad, roast turkey, cranberry sauce, mixed pickles, mangoes, pickled peaches, cold slaw, and celery; boiled ham, chicken pie ornamented, jelly, mashed potatoes browned, tomatoes, boiled onions, canned corn, sweet potatoes, roasted broccoli. Mince, and pumpkin pie, apple tarts, Indian pudding. Apples, nuts, and raisins."

Oyster soup

Victorians cherished oysters. They ate these in a variety of dishes, including beef and oyster pie, bacon-wrapped angels on horseback (an appetizer) and on a special plate with a well in the middle for the dipping sauce. It’s not surprising to find them featured in this opulent menu.

Cod with egg sauce

Cod was popular for eating but also the source of cod liver oil, which people often took in the 19th-century to ward off sickness. This seafood dish seems a carryover from the first Thanksgiving.

Lobster salad

This is another luxurious concoction that hearkens to a pilgrim’s feast.

Roast turkey

Turkey shares the honors with other entrées.

Cranberry sauce

The sugar necessary to make cranberry sauce became more readily available in 1876, when America signed the Reciprocity Treaty with Hawaii, allowing the import of tariff-free products from Hawaii. The sugar beet industry was also picking up.

Mixed pickles

Pickle Castor

Special glass jars framed in plated silver, often with silver-plated tongs or a pickle fork, sat on many Victorian tables. These contained pickled vegetables and fruits. The presence of a pickle castor meant that the family was wealthy enough to pay servants both to fill and serve them. Pickle castors were made of pressed, colored, or art glass and decorated with gargoyles, lattice, beading, cherubs, birds, animals, and other ornamentations.


Loved since Ancient times, mangoes are native to southern Asia but then moved to other tropical climates. They arrived in Mexico in the early 19th Century. They came to Florida in 1862 or 1863 and to California in 1880.

Pickled Peaches

You may not have heard of these delicacies if you’re not a Southerner. That seems the area of the United States where the recipe has survived. (I did see some for sale in an Amish store.) Judging by the number of recipes posted online, pickled peaches are delicious. If nothing else, including them in the Thanksgiving menu provided an opportunity to impress guests by putting out a second pickle castor.

Cold Slaw

No, that’s not a typo. By 'cold slaw' Jenny June’s cookbook means 'cole slaw,' the shredded cabbage salad. This represents a misspelling, as ‘cole’ is the Dutch word for cabbage. A quick search reveals numerous Thanksgiving cole slaw recipes online. One blogger praised this dish because it doesn't wilt like regular salad.


This humble vegetable has been a Thanksgiving staple for over a century. People serve it chopped with mayonnaise, in celery soup, stuffed with peanut butter or cottage cheese, and more. It’s still going strong.

Boiled Ham

I haven’t tried this method of cooking a ham, but folks swear by it. Here, for the interested, is the original Victorian boiled ham recipe from Mrs. Beeton’s Book Of Household Management (1861).

Chicken Pie Ornamented

You will notice the abundance of meat selections in this menu. People in the past usually consumed more variety than we do today. 

I can link to a Victorian chicken pie recipe, but the ornamenting is up to you.


People in the Victorian era loved making savory and sweet molded gelatin dishes. The molds they used are a popular antique item.

Mashed Potatoes Browned

I believe these were not the browned butter mashed potatoes we see today, although those sound yummy, but rather oven-browned mashed potatoes. Duchess potatoes seem the modern equivalent.


Victorians preferred cooking their vegetables. They probably sliced and baked or stewed tomatoes, as shown in this article from VegHotPot.

Boiled Onions

This may refer to the creamed pearl onions we serve at holiday feasts today. Americans use onions in lots of dishes, but we tend to overlook them as a separate vegetable. New England Recipes provides instructions on boiling onions.

Canned Corn

Corn is a uniquely American vegetable, which makes it perfect for Thanksgiving.

Sweet Potatoes

Christopher Columbus carried this tuber to Spain, and it was cultivated in Virginia by the early-1700s. Recipes don’t pair marshmallows with them until around 1917, although American Cookery (1796) by Amelia Simmons contains a recipe for potato pudding topped with egg whites and baked.

Roasted Broccoli

Broccoli likes cooler weather, and it’s vibrant around Thanksgiving.


This strikes me as more a British traditional item. Victorians liked to add meat to their mince recipes, like this one by From the Larder.

Pumpkin Pie

America’s standard Thanksgiving dessert takes a bow! Lisa Cook teaches how to create a light Victorian version.

Apple Tarts

Victorians loved pies and tarts, something we have in common with them. What could pair better with pumpkin pie than apple tart? Honestly, I don’t know how anyone would have room for dessert after everything else on this menu.

Indian Pudding

This treat is a historical dessert made from cornmeal and molasses. Early colonists created it, possibly as a substitute for hasty pudding. I’d never heard of it before, and you might not have either. The recipe is not well-known, but the view from great island has us covered.

Apples, Nuts, and Raisins

Hosts included these items to fill any possible empty spaces in guests’ stomachs. Right? ;) 

Whew! Just thinking about cooking that meal is exhausting, and most people couldn't afford such a spread. Not to worry. The mixed pickles give away that folks with servants served this feast. I think this was the ideal that folks strove to attain, kind of like trying to scale up your home to match beautiful images on Pinterest. Still, breaking away from tradition to try something new doesn't hurt. I want to include Indian pudding in this year’s Thanksgiving dinner. How about you?

What's New with Janalyn Voigt

Fall is the perfect time for sinking into a comfortable chair and reading. It's one of my favorite things to do. Adding a  cozy fire earns me bonus hygge points. No, I didn't swear. 'Hygge' (pronounced hoo' ga) is a Danish word for that feeling of contentment you feel while drinking hot chocolate with snow flying outside the window. It comes when you dine by candlelight with someone you love. Watching vintage movies in your pajamas is sure to bring it on. 

These days, we could all use more hygge in our lives. I hope, as the days grow shorter and darker, that you will take time to savor quiet moments and good company.

Janalyn Voigt is the author of the Montana Gold western historical fiction series and the Tales of Faeraven medieval epic fantasy series. Learn more about Janalyn Voigt.


  1. Thank you for posting today. Happy Thanksgiving to all! My goodness, there are a lot of dishes in this list. Our family tends to stick with our traditional menu..turkey, stuffing, potatoes, an orange vegetable, green bean casserole, homemade rolls. I like pumpkin desserts but many in my family don't choose it so I will probably make that for myself another day.

    1. Hi. Connie. Yes, indeed. I can't imagine putting on such a lavish spread. I like your simple Thanksgiving tradition. Everyone in my family has favorite "must-include" dishes, which complicates the menu! How sad that many in your family are unenlightened about pumpkin desserts. Oh well, more for you. Happy Thanksgiving!

  2. Quite interesting, Janalyn. I knew about a lot of the early and traditional foods you mentioned, but I never knew what cole slaw meant. So it was interesting to hear it was Dutch for cabbage. We do learn something new every day. Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the article, Donna. Etymology is one of my interests, so of course I had to geek out about "cold" versus "cole" slaw. :) Happy Thanksgiving to you!