Turkeys and Wolfes
“Seated before a roast or a fowl, Gant began a heavy clangor on his steel and carving knife, distributing thereafter Gargantuan portions to each plate. Eugene feasted from a high chair by his father’s side, filled his distending belly until it was drum-tight, and was permitted to stop eating by his watchful sire only when his stomach was impregnable to the heavy prod of Gant’s big finger.” — Look Homeward, Angel
For the traditional Thanksgiving holiday feast in the early 1900s at their home on Woodfin Street, William Oliver and Julia Wolfe sat at a table heaped with delicious fare, surrounded by their seven children. Thanks to Thomas Wolfe’s vivid and detailed descriptions of the family’s scrumptious holiday meals in Look Homeward, Angel, we catch a glimpse of the Wolfe holiday spread.
“For the Thanksgiving and Christmas feasts four heavy turkeys were bought and fattened for weeks: Eugene fed them with cans of shelled corn several times a day, but he could not bear to be present at their executions, because by that time their cheerful excited gobbles made echoes in his heart. Eliza baked for weeks in advance: the whole energy of the family focused upon the great ritual of the feast. A day or two before, the auxiliary dainties arrived in piled grocer’s boxes — the magic of strange foods and fruits was added to familiar fare: there were glossed sticky dates, cold rich figs, cramped belly to belly in small boxes, dusty raisins, mixed nuts…sacks of assorted candies, piles of yellow Florida oranges, tangerines, sharp, acrid, nostalgic odors.”
In her book Thomas Wolfe and his Family, Thomas’ sister Mabel Wolfe Wheaton also recalled the decadent feasts prepared by their mother during holidays and other family events. She described a big turkey, several vegetables including “whipped Irish potatoes, macaroni pie, stewed corn, string beans, beets, candied yams; cabbage slaw, cranberry sauce, celery, pickled peaches, relish, sharp cheese and crackers, raisins and nuts, hot biscuits and corn bread, apple dumplings….” There were also many desserts including fruit cake and pumpkin pie. Mabel noted pumpkin pie as being a favorite of their father. The family made sure to grow pumpkins in their garden each year to prepare for the holidays.
In a collection of recipes taken from Julia Wolfe and Mabel’s cookbooks, we find many of the foods that Mabel and Tom mention, including roast turkey, oyster dressing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. According to Thanksgiving food histories, oyster stuffing dates to the 17th century. This was due to the abundance of the shellfish, and its assistance in bolstering feasts when poultry could be quite pricey. Cranberry sauce has been paired with turkey since at least the 18th century. Julia’s cranberry recipe simply used only berries, sugar, and water. Check out her recipe for oyster dressing.
Just like holiday preparations in the Wolfe household, advertisements by local grocers and merchants from the early 1900s printed in the Asheville Citizen newspaper provide evidence that other city residents made similar preparations to celebrate the holiday. Bon Marche, a local department store, advertised sales on table linens, napkins, and dollies declaring “the table should be a bank of snowy whiteness where the big turkey, crisp and brown, with cranberries, sauces and nuts surrounding him tempts the family and friends.”