Thanksgiving Day Menus & Traditions: New York City


Thanksgiving dinner at the Hotel New Yorker, at the height of the Great Depression, cost $2.25.
Guests could not only choose turkey as an entree, but also lamb, lobster, or beef. Sardines, baked grapefruit, and “whipped” potatoes also appeared on the hotel’s holiday menu. The Art Deco hotel, located at 481 Eighth Avenue, had opened in 1930.

Thanksgiving at the (no longer extant) Savoy-Plaza Hotel at 5th Avenue and 59th Street served up its grapefruit “maraschino.” The hotel had opened in 1927, and in the modern age, its pared down menu reflected the stream-lined approach to menu offerings.
The hotel’s promotion of itself as offering a “home-like” atmosphere for both “transient” and permanent guests was underscored in the  “home made” chicken soup on its menu.

These more modern menus were preceded by a different kind of bill of fare from New York Hotels.

Home-like Menu from the Savoy-Plaza Hotel

At the turn of the 20th century, the famed Plaza Hotel offered an 1899 Thanksgiving menu that was chock full of choices. Among the items on its brimming-over menu were squab, partridge and grouse, along with chicory salad, chiffonade, or just plain lettuce salad; for sweets how about “Ice St. Jacques,” mince pie, or the always delightful “national sorbet”?

The sprinkling of French terms (“Parisienne,” “Periguex,” “a L’Aquitaine,”) throughout the menu reflected the American view of the preeminence of the French chef. But infused through the menu on this most American of holidays was also the purely regional flair of American dishes and local products. Hence, also on the menu were “Long Island duckling,” “Delaware grapes,” and Fish, “Philadelphia Style.”*

(The grapefruit at the Plaza Hotel in 1899 was offered unpretentiously as simply: “grape fruit.”)

An American Meal with a French Flair, 1899
Hotel Manhattan, Madison and 42nd Street

In 1900, the Hotel Manhattan also offered a mind-numbing number of choices. Entrees included lobster, mutton chops, sweetbreads, partridge, chicken, and yes, also turkey. But turkey, as seen on many of these menus, had not been established as the only holiday dish to serve.

Hotel Manhattan, Holiday Menu

Benjamin Franklin had famously promoted choosing the turkey as the national bird, but clearly, throughout the late 19th and into the early 20th century, it was not the only choice for the centerpiece of the holiday meal.

The transformation of the Thanksgiving menu ran parallel to the evolution of the Thanksgiving holiday itself. For, it had indeed evolved over the decades.

New York City (and other places, mostly in New England) had often observed a day of Thanksgiving. These days were observed by proclamation as early as during the height of the American Revolution.

Days of Thanksgiving. From The New York Review, 1839

In the late 18th century and early 19th century, more than one day of Thanksgiving was often observed, along with days of “public humiliation, fasting and prayer.”

At this time, the date for a day of Thanksgiving was not firm, but rotated. For example, in 1834, in New York City, Thanksgiving Day had been observed on December 5.)

No matter when it took place, the day was in no small measure a religious observance. Sermons were offered at churches around the city, including at famed Trinity Church.

1783: Sermon on Thanksgiving in New York

The holiday was made official and national in 1863 during the American Civil War. President Lincoln followed the footsteps of other American politicians (including New York’s governor in 1817) in issuing a proclamation for the holiday’s observance. Lincoln issued the order that it would be observed on the final Thursday in November. (In 1941, President Roosevelt changed it to the fourth Thursday.)

The day would soon evolve into something more secular and more celebratory.

In 1901, a book titled Thanksgiving Celebrations would be published in New York City, reflecting the increasingly celebratory aspect of the holiday (but also revealing the need to instruct people on how to celebrate the newer-style holiday). The book, and others like it, offered readers a “menu” of holiday songs and poems to enhance any celebration.

By 1910, the New York Observer  allowed that Thanksgiving was still tinged with religious sentiment. But it was now far more “civic.” The day “holds a special significance in the fact that the sentiment of the occasion combines patriotic and religious elements of universal interest,” the author stated. “It is a day for all Americans and the stranger within our gates whom courtesy has incorporated and hospitality has adopted, and whom naturalization processes have absorbed. Regardless of race or creed, politics or financial rating, poverty or social position, this feast of blessings becomes a national benediction.”

With a focus more on food than gospel, cosmopolitan New Yorkers would celebrate their “feast of blessings” with a feast that included a diverse range of menu choices.

It was only around World War II that the Thanksgiving holiday as it is characterized today would crystallize. Popular portrayals assisted this process, with Norman Rockwell’s 1943 image of a family gathered around a plentiful table (with a turkey at its center), epitomizing the quintessential holiday image.

Inspired by FDR’s 4 Freedoms: A purely American feast

It was at this time that New York’s hotels would offer a holiday meal that reflected the same image.

By 1956, for example, the Waldorf Astoria’s Thanksgiving menu had done away with the Victorian-era clutter of an earlier age of menus. Its bill of fare offered a simple, and increasingly seen-as-classic version of the holiday meal, with turkey as its focal point.

Gone was the grouse, the scallops poulette, the orange jelly tarts, and sadly, the grape fruit.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

~Jenny Thompson

Waldorf-Astoria, 1956: Just the food, Ma’am

* Thanksgiving holidays are observed in countries other than the United States. For example, Canada’s Jour de l’Action de Grâce is observed in October.



One comment

  1. Fascinating!

    Funny, I've seen news programs touting restaurant/hotel dinners as a “modern” way to celebrate Thanksgiving.


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