Traditional holiday meals live on in Walla Walla

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An elaborate setup at the Kirkman House Museum recalls a formal era of dining.

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WALLA WALLA - While turkey continues to be the main dish most Americans will gobble down on this national day of thanks, the goblets (not to be confused with giblets) will be fewer than in generations past.

Just not at Carol Bennett's house, where the hostess already spent an hour Wednesday night setting out her best wine and water goblets, as well as her best salad plates, dinner plates, salad forks, dinner forks, soup spoons, dinner spoons and knives and everything else she and her guests will need to consume tonight's turkey and trimmings.

"I set the table completely," the co-owner of Clarette's Restaurant said, noting it adds to the atmosphere to have the table set and waiting all day with a homemade centerpiece.

"I like to set a pretty table. This year it will probably be for nine," Bennett said.

As for the food that will be set on the table, historians are quick to point out that turkey was not the traditional meal for the first couple centuries Europeans celebrated a day of thanks in North America.

More than likely, turkey became the main dish sometime around the mid-20th century, when improvements in turkey breeding and turkey marketing persuaded most Americans to serve turkey today. That being said, the tradition of carving the turkey on an elaborately set table has not had the same success as either the bird or the buffet.

Pam Myers remembers when she used to go all out and set and serve at the table, but in recent years has done buffet style. Now she struggles with trying to remember what all those special utensils are for.

"I was looking at my silver chest today, cleaning things up, and I thought I don't know what most of these do," Myers said. Myers wasn't polishing up her silver to go back to the family tradition of going all out on Thanksgiving.

Instead, she and a group of volunteers went into great detail to set an elaborate table for 26 at the Kirkman House Museum.

Two Sundays before Thanksgiving, the volunteers combined some of their own family silverware with that of the Kirkman House Museum collection to put on a Victorian dinner, complete with table service and elaborate table settings, much like what would have been set out by Fanny Ann Kirkman more than 100 years ago.

"I thought it was really nice to see how the people in the house originally probably lived. And the food I thought was really good. It was from farm to table, and that was really nice. But I didn't like the cardoons," said Bennett, who was one of the guests in attendance. Then she added how pleased she was to find out what pease porridge was - green lentil soups.

Guests were also treated to other Victorian favorites, such as roast mutton, roast beef, "masht" potatoes, steamed pudding, apple pandowdy and braised cardoons.

"The first time I tried them I was shocked because they were so bitter," chef Melissa Davis said about her own cardoons. Though they come from the artichoke thistle, cardoons taste far different than artichokes.

"I was a little disappointed because it is quite an acquired taste," Davis added.

All the other Victorian foods were well received and consumed. The apple pandowdy, an apple pie with no bottom crust, was from a Victorian recipe Davis found online.

The steamed pudding was really a bread pudding that was steam cooked, though the Victorian recipe didn't fully explain how to do the steaming.

"It (the recipe) said pretty much just put it on top of a thing and steam it for two hours," the chef said, only minutes before plating the pandowdy and steamed pudding with whipped cream and a glaze for the 26 guests.

The event was a successful fundraiser for the museum, one they may be tried again, Myers said.

Of course, a key part of the success was the elaborate table setting, which Myers pointed out may or may not have been the standard in the house in the late 1800s.

"There were just different ways for different families. I think on the west of the country you had a little less formal style of serving than on the east," Myers said.

So what would have been the style for the Kirkmans?

"I think they probably would have been somewhat formal, but not as formal. But I am not sure because I have not read anything that explains how they did their dinners," she said.

What Myers and other volunteers ended up doing on Sunday was laying out a dinner plate, a salad plate, two forks, two spoons, a knife, a wine goblet and a water goblet - 26 times.

"They had the beautiful period dishes which I loved, and the silverware. I thought it was really nice to see how the people in the house probably lived … I think once in a while it is nice to sit down like we did at the Kirkman House," Bennett said.

Though there is nothing wrong with buffet style, for tonight's dinner, Myers has committed herself to setting a full table like she used to years ago, as she did at the Kirkman House, just not for 26.

"From my generation back … most of us learned to set a table. Whether it was in home economics in school or from our grandmother, that was one of the things we always learned - how to properly set a table," Myers said.

Alfred Diaz can be reached at alfreddiaz@wwub.com or 526-8325.

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