Sarah Josepha Hale knew how to do Thanksgiving

An illustration from issue 41 of Godey's Lady's Book (1850) featuring an engraving of editor Sarah Josepha Hale / via Wikimedia Commons

An illustration from issue 41 of Godey’s Lady’s Book (1850) featuring an engraving of editor Sarah Josepha Hale / via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s hope you’re not still thinking about what to cook for Thanksgiving. Just in case, one of the holiday’s early experts may be able to help.

Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the popular 19th-century magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, began lobbying for a national day of Thanksgiving in the 1840s. Sometimes called “the godmother of Thanksgiving,” Hale is widely credited with convincing President Abraham Lincoln to declare the last Thursday in November “a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” (Hale wrote novels, cookbooks and poetry, including Mary Had a Little Lamb.)

Culinary historian Amanda Moniz tells cooking classes that Hale envisioned “a national Thanksgiving holiday with churches throughout the country marking the day with feasts and by raising funds to free American slaves. Under her plan, freed slaves would them be removed from the United States and sent to Africa.”

Hale provided the first detailed description of a New England Thanksgiving in her 1827 novel, “Northwood: A Tale of New England.” We’re talking turkey plus goose, duck, pork, beef and “that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie.” Hale notes that chicken pie is as “indispensable” as pumpkin pie for a “true Yankee Thanksgiving” (and that its size indicates the maker’s level of gratitude). The following excerpt from Northwood was taken from the website of Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, Mass.:

“The table, covered with a damask cloth, vieing in whiteness, and nearly equaling in texture, the finest imported, though spun, woven and bleached by Mrs. Romilly’s own hand, was now intended for the whole household, every child having a seat on this occasion; and the more the better, it being considered an honor for a man to sit down to his Thanksgiving dinner surrounded by a large family. The provision is always sufficient for a multitude, every farmer in the country being, at this season of the year, plentifully supplied, and every one proud of displaying his abundance and prosperity.

Hale believed that pumpkin pie was an "indispensable" part of a New England Thanksgiving. / Temma Temma Temma via Flickr

Hale believed that pumpkin pie was an “indispensable” part of a New England Thanksgiving. / Temma Temma Temma via Flickr

The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odor of its savory stuffing, and finely covered with the froth of the basting. At the foot of the board, a sirloin of beef, flanked on either side by a leg of pork and loin of mutton, seemed placed as a bastion to defend innumerable bowls of gravy and plates of vegetables disposed in that quarter. A goose and pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the table; the middle being graced, as it always is on such occasions, by that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie. This pie, which is wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper, and covered with an excellent puff paste, is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving; the size of the pie usually denoting the gratitude of the party who prepares the feast …

Plates of pickles, preserves and butter, and all the necessaries for increasing the seasoning of the viands to the demand of each palate, filled the interstices on the table, leaving hardly sufficient room for the plates of the company, a wine glass and two tumblers for each, with a slice of wheat bread lying on one of the inverted tumblers….

There was a huge plum pudding, custards and pies of every name and description ever known in Yankee land; yet the pumpkin pie occupied the most distinguished niche. There were also several kinds of rich cake, and a variety of sweetmeats and fruits. On the sideboard was ranged a goodly number of decanters and bottles; the former filled with currant wine, and the latter with excellent cider and ginger beer – a beverage Mrs. Romilly prided herself on preparing in perfection.”

— Clare Teeling contributed to this story


Makes 6 to 8 servings

Apple Cider Shortcake

Sarah J. Hale, who convinced Abraham Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday, had this recipe in her cook book:

"Cider cake is very good, to be baked in small loaves. 1 1/2 lb. of flour, half a pound of sugar, quarter of a pound of butter, half a pint of cider, 1 tea-spoonful of pearl ash; spice to your taste. Bake till it turns easily in the pans. I should think about half an hour."

Culinary historian Amanda Moniz has adapted Hale's recipe for contemporary cooks. She recommends serving the cake with sauteed apples, ice cream (vanilla, cinnamon or dulce de leche) and cider syrup. Or cut back the sugar in the cake and serve with roast meat, especially ham, pork or turkey.


  • Shortcake
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter, cold
  • 3/4 cup apple cider, plus a few tablespoons for a cider wash
  • Sugar for sprinkling

  • Sauteed Apples
  • 2 crisp firm apples, such as Granny Smith, Empire, Cortland
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/4 cup sugar, or to taste
  • Cinnamon

  • Cider Syrup
  • 2 cups apple cider
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 2 teaspoons cider vinegar
  • Coarse sea salt
  • Raisins (optional)


For the shortcake, preheat the oven to 425 F. Line a 9-by-13-inch baking sheet with parchment paper or grease lightly.

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl.

Add the cold butter and cut into the dry ingredients with your fingers by rubbing the butter between your fingers until the size of small peas and the mixture resembles coarse cornmeal. (Alternately, you can pulse the dry ingredients in the food processor and then add the cold butter and pulse until it resembles coarse cornmeal.)

Place the mixture into a large bowl.

Make a well in the middle of the mixture. Add the cider and mix with a wooden spoon only until combined.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board. Using a rolling pin and your hands, gently and quickly roll and form the dough so that it is the thickness you want (typically about an inch or so thick). Use round cookie cutters or a drinking glass to punch out biscuits the size you want.

Place the biscuits on the baking sheet. Brush each biscuit with a little cider and sprinkle with a little sugar.

Bake until the biscuits are a nice golden brown. Rotate the baking sheet after several minutes. The baking time will be 6 to 12 minutes, depending on the size of the biscuits.

While the biscuits are baking, prepare the apples and syrup.

Peel, core and cut the apples into thin slices -- 12 to 16 per apple.

Over medium heat, melt the butter in a saute pan. Add the apple slices and saute for several minutes until the apples begin to soften.

Add the sugar and sprinkle on some cinnamon. Stir. Saute for several more minutes until the apples are soft. Serve hot or warm.

For the syrup, in a small pot, put the cider, sugar, butter and vinegar, and bring to a simmer. Let simmer 15 minutes, or until the cider reduces by about half. Turn off the heat.

Add a pinch of coarse sea salt and, if you like, some raisins.

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3 Responses to Sarah Josepha Hale knew how to do Thanksgiving

  1. Helen Free November 27, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

    So interesting, Michele, Amanda and Clare. Curious- what is pearl ash. Googed it but came up with fertilizer!

    • Amanda Moniz November 28, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

      That’s pearl ash! It was an early chemical leavener. Weird, huh?

      • Profile photo of Michele Kayal
        Michele Kayal November 29, 2013 at 7:48 am #

        I don’t know. Makes me wonder what we’re using today that will someday be declared fertilizer.