Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thanksgiving was once thought to be a Yankee plot against Southern slavery

Sweet potato pie as cultural rebellion

Posted by Sam Spence on Wed, Nov 22, 2017 at 4:31 PM

  • Flickr user martha_chapa95
As far as holidays go these days, Thanksgiving seems to be a mostly-agreed upon positive thing. But the imported pilgrim dinner wasn't exactly something that Southerners warmed to right away.

For years leading up to the Civil War, some Southerners were outright skeptical of the "theatrical national claptrap" known as Thanksgiving, which Southern politicians saw as a Northern effort to further the cause of abolition.

From CP contributor Robert Moss' 2014 write-up in Serious Eats:
"This theatrical national claptrap of Thanksgiving," [Va. Gov. Henry A. Wise] declared, "has aided other causes in setting thousands of pulpits to preaching 'Christian politics' instead of humbly letting the carnal Kingdom alone and preaching singly Christ crucified." By "other causes," of course, he meant abolitionism.

That same year, the Richmond Whig elaborated the Southern case against Thanksgiving, excoriating the carnality of the holiday, which the editors felt should instead be spent in divine worship. In the District of Columbia, they noted, where all federal offices would be closed, "an astonishing quantity of execrable liquor will be guzzled," and the holiday would be "little more than an occasion for indulgence in dissipation at the cost of character."
In fact, today Ariel Knoebel over at Atlas Obscura postulated that sweet potato pie itself was an adulteration of the traditional Yankee Thanksgiving's pumpkin pie.
As politicians fought over the symbolism of the holiday, Americans made Thanksgiving celebrations their own. Southern cooks adapted the traditional meal to local traditions, and the Yankee pumpkin pie was often transformed into sweet potato pie, a Southern favorite. In 1941, Congress officially made Thanksgiving a national holiday. By this time, presidential declarations of Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November were not only commonly accepted across the country, but expected. In fact, in 1939, President Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving one week earlier to allow for more holiday shopping time, and the public turned against him.

Pumpkin pie is an iconic Thanksgiving dish, and a symbol of the struggle to define American identity through the harvest holiday. While the traditional version was once decried as an invasion of Northern foodways on American culture, Southern adaptations such as mixing in bourbon, adding pecans, or swapping out squash for sweet potato now create an opportunity for cooks and diners across America to feel both connected and culturally independent.
So tomorrow, we can all be thankful for at least one thing: That there's no Lost Cause continuing to fight against our Turkey Day.

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