Thanksgiving meals reveal family history

November 22, 1990|By Ruth Reichl | Ruth Reichl,Los Angeles Times

Most of us believe that on the fourth Thursday in November, everybody in the United States sits down to the same dinner.

It isn't true -- and nobody knows this better than Ian Dengler, a food historian who has devoted much of his life to asking people what they eat on Thanksgiving.

"After you've asked a few hundred people," Mr. Dengler says, "it all starts to fall into a pattern and make sense. When I ask people what their family eats for Thanksgiving, 95 percent begin by saying, 'Turkey.' If they don't, it's significant and usually tells me that I'm dealing with a very special region or group. But the thing to remember is that people keep what they really think is themselves hidden underneath the turkey."

Mr. Dengler has perfected the art of seeing through the turkey. In fact, he now does this so well that he sometimes seems psychic. He amazed a woman he had just met by telling her not only what city she was from -- based on her description of her family's Thanksgiving dinners -- but also that her mother felt she had married beneath her.

"How do you know?" she cried. "It's absolutely true!"

"It was the cranberry ice," he replied. "You said that your mother always served it in fancy silver goblets -- and that nobody ever ate it. Clearly it was a holdover from


her own childhood Thanksgiving dinner -- I guessed that those goblets were family heirlooms. I wondered why nobody ate it.

"And then, listening to you talk about the rest of the meal, I began to realize that the cranberry ice was completely out of place. I suspected that nobody ate it because it didn't belong -- and most of the people in your family resented the fact that it was there. So I just put two and two together."

It is not for nothing that Mr. Dengler has been called "the food sleuth."

He told another woman -- short, round and with dark curly hair -- that her account of her family's Thanksgiving meal showed she was from a Swedish farm family in the West Texas Bible Belt.

"I thought that the fact that I was adopted would throw him off the trail," she said, "but it didn't."

"She gave me the first clue right away," said Mr. Dengler, pulling out one of the little index cards on which he collects his data. "She said, 'We used to have just a big fat hen and dumplings, although now we sometimes have turkey, too. Then we have corn-bread dressing.'

"There are very few surviving areas where only chicken is eaten, and the rural area in West Texas is one of them. The occasional use of turkey suggests a middle-sized farm, and the recent introduction of it suggests a farm in one of the semi-urban areas of West Texas. Lubbock seemed like a logical choice.

"What I am looking for in this are logical sequences. When she got to the desserts, she said they had chocolate pie or chocolate cream pie, coconut cake and mincemeat pie. The order, of course, is significant. Western Texas is a chocolate area, and it

is common to find other variations, like coconut cake, before there is any mention of the more standard pies."

But how did he figure out that her grandparents or great-grandparents had migrated through Missouri before coming to Texas?

"It was the dumplings," he said. "She mentioned that they always had chicken with dumplings. As a Thanksgiving dish this comes from further north, but not as far north as Iowa. It could be from Kansas, but that would be really unusual. Missouri is the logical ,, choice."

And what about the guess that the family was Swedish?

"That was the easiest part," he said. "At the end she mentioned an odd item her family always served:

curdled custard. In Sweden that is called lustikaka, and it is a traditional Swedish festival dish. It is usually served with lutfisk, pickled dried cod. Her family, however, did not serve the latter, and had lost the name for the former. That seemed to indicate several intervening generations.

"What you look for in this," he went on, "are more than three items that are non-standard. Once you've got three, you can almost always classify the meal by region, especially if you pay attention to the words that people use. Do they say 'stuffing' or 'dressing'?; are the potatoes 'mashed' or 'whipped'? Is it 'gelatin salad' or 'Jell-O'? It all falls into patterns. Other comments are also clues; if someone starts out with, 'It's just the usual . . . or, 'It's the ordinary. . . .' I know right away I'm in the Midwest."

Mr. Dengler rifled through his cards, pointing out examples. "Food choices," he said, "are like handwriting. You have to collect at least five or 10 items in any given meal before you can make sense of it, but if you've got enough items, collected in order, no one can hide his social background from you."

"The wonderful thing about Thanksgiving," says Mr. Dengler, "is that it is the one standard meal model in America. It is perfect for historians, because it is a meal that is dedicated to the past.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.