by Cathy P. Ross
Nov 9, 2012
01:28 PMCulture Cat
A Purely American Holiday
I recently visited the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum in Old Wethersfield, a historic gem made up of three meticulously restored homes along Main Street—the Joseph Webb House, the Silas Deane House and the Isaac Stevens House. The complex offers a glimpse at life in Connecticut from the time of the American Revolution to the early 20th century. George Washington really slept here—at the Webb House, for five nights when he came to meet with French general Comte de Rochambeau to plan the campaign that led to the defeat of the British at Yorktown.
But I came to experience a magical event, a Connecticut Thanksgiving (the most important holiday in Colonial times) at the museum hosted by “Mr. and Mrs. Silas Deane.” Executive director Charles Lyle credits a Connecticut forebear, Miss Juliana Smith of Sharon, for making a significant contribution to what has become a highly anticipated annual event. A handwritten letter from Smith (courtesy of the Centerbrook Historical Society) describes in detail the events of the day as well as the menu of the bountiful Thanksgiving dinner she served to her own family and friends in November 1779. The Smith letter was the inspiration Lyle needed to complete his plan to reenact a lavish 18th-century Thanksgiving.
For my visit, many guests arrived for dinner in period attire (but it wasn’t required) and were greeted by “Mr. and Mrs. Deane” (part of a large cast dressed in period costume). The elegant home was filled with the sounds of live music of the period and the front parlor was set up for game playing. Wine and hors d’oeuvres were served in the dining room (one of the wines was a Madeira, considered a patriotic drink back then because it wasn’t subject to British taxation). And while people mingled, I followed a delicious aroma to the kitchen and discovered a turkey roasting on a “spit jack” (an early rotisserie, and an indicator of the family’s wealth) inside the large hearth. Katie Sullivan, a museum representative, told me a slave named Hagar was the Deane’s cook and that they had six slaves in all. The image was sobering.
The clang of a dinner bell signalled that it was time to head out to the barn to feast upon venison pie, roasted goose, turkey and chine of pork with all the trimmings, including a potage of cabbage, leeks and onions, a variety of vegetables and Marlborough and plum puddings—a modern take on Miss Smith’s original menu (created by local food historian Paul Courchaine and prepared by Ascot Caterers) that would’ve made her proud. May the bounty of the season fill your heart and home.
This year's 18th Century Thanksgiving takes place on Nov. 11 at noon; tickets $75; Tours run Nov. 3-25 at the Webb-Deane-Stevens Museum, Wethersfield
For tickets and further information, call 860/529-0612 or visit webb-deane-stevens.org.