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November 22, 2013

A short course on the history of Thanksgiving foods

(Continued)

LOS ANGELES — Americans have been stuffing turkeys with oysters for centuries. Now a treat, oysters were once plentiful and for centuries were the most commonly eaten shellfish in America. At home, cooks filled turkeys and other birds with oysters to stretch the pricier fowl. They also made loaves, sauces, pies, soups and stews with the inexpensive protein.

Eaten as cooked food at home, oysters were often consumed raw from street carts, typically run by African Americans who found grueling but independent work in the oyster trade. Americans also ate their favorite shellfish at the oyster saloons that proliferated in the 19th century as stagecoaches, canals and railroads made it possible to distribute the bivalves, which had been shipped inland in the 1700s, even more readily. Although special dishes - such as oyster stuffing in New England, Oysters Rockefeller in New Orleans or Hangtown Fry in San Francisco - distinguished particular regions, by the mid-1800s, the expanding country had a national oyster market and was united in a national oyster craze.

SWEET POTATOES WITH MARSHMALLOWS

For many, the Thanksgiving meal must include sweet potatoes with marshmallows. The happy marriage of the tuber with caramelized, gooey goodness owes itself to two developments of the 1800s. In the late part of the century, in the decades when the national Thanksgiving holiday took hold, Northerners discovered sweet potatoes - long eaten in the South - and incorporated them into the special meal.

Meanwhile, marshmallows had been recently invented by those culinary trendsetters, the French, who beat the roots of the marshmallow plant with egg whites and sugar to make a chewy treat. Handmade and something of a luxury at first, marshmallows became more affordable after entrepreneurs substituted more widely available gelatin for marshmallow root and, in an era that was developing mass production techniques more generally, figured out how to manufacture an affordable product on a grand scale. In 1917, the Angelus Marshmallows company distributed a recipe booklet that taught Americans how they might use marshmallows. With that, the classic pairing had arrived.

               

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