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Traditional Thanksgiving Herbs

December 9, 2016 Back to Picks >

November is the month when Americans gather for the traditional feast at Thanksgiving. This tradition started many generations ago when the country was young. Whatever the dishes served to the family at early Thanksgivings were, the seasonings were home grown. To give you a peek at what was used I’ve consulted American Cookery, published in 1796 and generally regarded as the first true American cookbook. Here’s what author Amelia Simmons said about the more commonly used herbs that were “useful in cookery.”

The first herb she mentions in her list is thyme. She describes it as being “good in soups and stuffing.” This mention of thyme as the preferred flavor in stuffing is a little surprising to modern tastes. She does mention sage (the herb we would use), but besides its use in cheese and pork dishes it is “not generally approved.”

Next on her list of herbs is sweet marjoram which “is used in turkeys.” That’s another surprise to modern tastes. Sweet marjoram is one of those vastly underused herbs in today’s kitchen. Cooks are more likely to reach for oregano, a close cousin, but food experts tell us marjoram has a sweeter, less sharp flavor.

Continuing on in Miss Simmons’ list of herbs, we find summer savory also recommended for turkey–as well as sausages, beef, and pork. Winter savory would have also been available but was generally thought to have a sharper flavor.

Last on the list of common cooking herbs was pennyroyal. She describes it as being “highly aromatic.” No surprise, there as it is a close relative of spearmint and peppermint. Strong flavored though it may be, it is definitely not recommended today for food because of its potentially negative effects on pregnant women.

You may not want to alter your family’s time-honored recipes for turkey and stuffing to imitate our colonial foremothers, but you can still bring a taste of tradition to your table. Take one teaspoon each of thyme, sweet marjoram, and savory, combine them with 8 ounces of softened butter, and mix well. Allow to chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour to help marry the flavors together. Serve with your Thanksgiving feast where it can be enjoyed on mashed potatoes, rolls, or steamed vegetables.

And with that, I wish you a very happy holiday with family and friends.