At least we spared you the possum.
There was a time, according to Southern food historian David Shields, when hotels in the Carolinas featured the critter instead of turkey at their Thanksgiving feasts.
But when we decided to dig into some of North Carolina’s most beloved cookbooks for a Tar Heel-centric Thanksgiving menu, we decided that turkey, as one of the state’s leading products, really should stay on the table.
Same for sweet potatoes. We’re No. 1 in the country in sweet potato production.And there are plenty of other holiday foods that we could find around the state. How about scuppernongs? And cranberries, of course.
They were once plentiful on the Outer Banks and still grow wild there in spots. The crop was so big at the turn of the 20th century that they were regularly sold as far as Washington, D.C., according to Sarah Downing, assistant curator of the Outer Banks History Center in Manteo. Stumpy Point cranberries won first place at the Jamestown Exposition in Virginia in 1907.
Take that, New England.
In digging around for our N.C.-themed menu, we had plenty books to thumb through, from Marion Brown’s “The Southern Cook Book,” printed in 1951, to “Mama Dip’s Kitchen,” by Chapel Hill restaurant owner Mildred Council, in 1999, and community cookbooks like “The Ocracoke Cookbook,” published by a group of United Methodist churchwomen in the 1950s.
If you want to learn about the cooking of a particular place, community cookbooks are the place to start, says Marcie Ferris, assistant professor of American studies at UNC Chapel Hill and author of a new book on Southern culinary history, “The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region.”
“Certainly that’s what community cookbooks are about, the aspirational cooking and who we think our communities are,” she says. “What could be more so than Thanksgiving?”
A fraught early history
Until the mid-20th century, she says, people in the South had mixed emotions about the holiday. Abraham Lincoln set the official date as the last Thursday in November during the Civil War. So black Southerners embraced it, Ferris says, while white Southerners resisted it. David Shields says the holiday wasn’t even celebrated in North Carolina from 1861 to 1877.
By the 1930s, though, the South had come around, Ferris says.
“It’s the type of holiday that Southern culture is about,” she says. “Family, coming together, place. That’s what Thanksgiving is about.”
These days, of course, we’re right at home with turkeys and sweet potatoes, although our state’s dominance with those are more wrinkles of modern agriculture. Chris Gunter, an associate professor of horticulture science at N.C. State University, says our sweet potato dominance, for instance, is less about sweet potatoes and more about universities and research farms that developed good ways to store sweet potatoes, allowing them to be marketed all year.
Pass the jelly
Other things on our menu are real throwbacks to the dining fashions of an earlier time. One of our desserts, for instance, is a scuppernong wine jelly with a boiled custard sauce.
Wine jelly was once found on all Southern holiday tables. In her 1960 book “How America Eats,” food journalist Clementine Paddleford wrote about the Thanksgiving pie habits of different regions. In the South, she wrote, “No pie, but wine jelly, tender and trembling, topped with whipped cream.”
As late as 1978, we found a scuppernong version, called Holiday Wine Jelly With Custard, in “It’s Not Gourmet, It’s Better,” by former Observer food editor Eudora Garrison. And Winston-Salem food journalist Beth Tartan described boiled custard, sometimes called dip, being served in punch cups with warm fruit cobblers and pies: “The combination is unrivaled by the creation of any French chef and will impress modern-day guests.”
We hope it will impress your modern-day guests. Reaching back to discover ourselves is the thing to do on Thanksgiving, Ferris says.
“It’s about connecting to the region you come from in the state.” she says. “You’re going to do something on your table that reflects North Carolina tastes and traditions. People usually do a little something, a little homage to the region.”