When Southern States Considered Thanksgiving An Attack From The North

By | November 25, 2020

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(Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal/Wikimedia Commons)

Today, Thanksgiving is enjoyed by people from different cultures and backgrounds across America, but in the 19th century, this turkey-based holiday was seen as little more than an excuse for politicians to push Northern rhetoric on the South. The culture war of Thanksgiving in the South extended to every part of the holiday, from the food to the good tidings and even the date.

The Push For Thanksgiving (And Abolition)

The first American Thanksgiving in the Plymouth Colony in 1621 transitioned into a Puritan day of gratitude to God in New England during the 17th century, and it continued to evolve through the 18th and 19th centuries as celebrants focused less on prayer and more on food and togetherness. At the time, there was no particular day on which Thanksgiving was celebrated, but many state governors in the North mandated a statewide holiday in late November or early December.

The regional nature of Thanksgiving was both challenged and upheld by Sarah Josepha Hale, a Northern writer who loved Thanksgiving. In 1825, she started writing letters to Northern governors, asking that they band together and create a national day of giving thanks, and if that day could be the final Thursday of November, that would be great. As the editor of Godey's Lady Book, a magazine with national distribution, she also used up pages and pages to pitch Thanksgiving to the American people.

By the 1850s, Hale's campaign inspired some 29 states to get into the Thanksgiving spirit, but at the same time she was preaching the gospel of friendship around the dinner table, other Northerners were angering the South with their push for abolition. It didn't take long before Hale's call for brotherhood was mixed up with anti-slavery sentiment, and Southern leaders wanted none of it.

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(Daniel Catt/Wikimedia Commons)

The Squash Controversy

Through her cookbook, American Cookery, Hale created the mythology of the Thanksgiving meal and unknowingly fired the first shot of a culture war. With recipes that called for squash and molasses—traditional New England staples—Hale sought to inspire home cooks to create the same sense of warmth around their dining tables that she came to love while growing up in New Hampshire, but her good intentions were seen as an attempt to erase Southern culinary culture.

By the time Hale had begun to campaign for her very New England version of Thanksgiving, the South had already developed a firm familial dining culture based on greens, grits, biscuits, fried chicken, and other items readily available in the region. It wasn't until 1976, with the release of The Taste Of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis, that Americans outside the South even understood the region's rich culinary history, but whether Southern cooks weren't aware of the North's ignorance or simply condemned it just the same, they didn't take kindly to being told they were feeding their families incorrectly.