A Lowcountry Thanksgiving

Turkey is a staple of Thanksgiving dinner, but early Charlestonians may have dined on more unusual dishes by today’s standards.

The Shaftesbury Papers, a collection of correspondence from South Carolina settlers to England in the 1670s, are some of the earliest accounts of the types of food Charlestonians consumed. 

According to the papers, wild deer and turkey were big commodities, which is no surprise considering turkeys still are common wild birds in the area.

Other birds, such as herons and ducks, were also abundant wildlife that Charlestonians served at dinner spreads, said Martha Zierdan, curator of historical archaeology at The Charleston Museum. 

Contrary to how much seafood is consumed in Charleston today, fish and seafood weren’t the biggest commodities sold in the markets, according to Zierdan. Other types of wildlife that settlers ate included alligators and different kinds of turtles, such as diamondback terrapins and loggerheads. Zierdan gave an example of one usual offering: a roasted turtle served in the shell and topped with a pie crust.  

By the late 18th century, the Charleston diet became more diverse, “built on some European domesticates … particularly a lot of beef,” Zierdan said.

Several examples of beef dishes served in that era come from A Colonial Plantation Cookbook, a collection of recipes, then called “receipts,” from Hariott Pinckney Horry. These recipes date back to 1770 during her time at Hampton Plantation in McClellanville. Beef recipes like dressing a calf’s head, “pott[ing] beef like venison,” beef collops, “dress[ing] a calf’s head in imitation of turtle” and “dob[ing] a rump of beef” are the highlights of Horry’s meat recipes. 

Horry also details recipes for stewed ducks and pigeons in her cookbook. 

A standard supper display included several tables spread across the room covered in dishes ranging from calves’ heads, beef tongues and rabbits to jellies and roasted vegetables, Zierdan said.

But just because the Charleston diet diversified over the centuries doesn’t mean people stopped eating turkey. Turkeys were, after all, a common wild bird in the area. 

“In the earliest days of South Carolina, they were eating a lot more turkey and deer than beef,” said Charleston historian Nic Butler. “The Native Americans were probably bringing them deer and turkeys because the wildlife is really so abundant. There’s plenty of food around.”

In the years after English settlers established Charles Towne, John Drayton’s library at Drayton Hall Plantation held a popular English cookbook, according to the plantation website, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glasse. In the cookbook, two recipes stood out that may have been served at the Drayton Hall dining table: stewed turkey and corn pudding. Because the cookbook was considered popular, it’s possible that many other wealthy families had access to those same recipes. 

But Zierdan said, “there’s not so much difference based on wealth or ethnicity. Everybody ate a lot of the same things, at least the way we see it.” People with means ate a more diverse diet, such as imported cattle, “augmented with all of the bounty that the Lowcountry offers.”

In her book, Charleston: An Archaeology of Life in a Coastal Community, Zierdan recounted a description of a menu at a wealthy Charlestonian dinner party: 

“I dined with a large party in a handsome house. The table was covered with turtle soup, fish, venison, boiled mutton, roast turkey, boiled turkey and ham, two boiled salted tongues, two tame ducks and two wild ducks, some dressed dishes, boiled rice, hominy, potatoes, cauliflower salad, etc. The whole dinner was at once placed on the table before we sat down. When it was removed, a complete course of pastry and pudding succeeded then a most excellent dessert of oranges, shaddock bananas and a variety of east India fruit with ice cream and profusion. The liquids consistently have champagne, Madeira Sherry, Port Clara, Porter lemonade, etc.” 

Just imagine a large Thanksgiving feast filled with a diverse array of dishes. Swap out a calf’s head with something more popular today like smoked brisket, or jellies in favor of pumpkin pie. 

“What we generally do on Thanksgiving today is a direct descendant of those original kinds of English days of Thanksgiving,” Butler said. “In the 18th century, when Charles Towne had grown some and there’s [more] shops and businesses, on the days of Thanksgiving, it would be common to close all the shops — pretty much like Thanksgiving today, where everything’s closed with the expectation that you’re going to go home and spend time with your family.”

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