A thanksgiving meal sits on a table in this 2014 file photo. Credit: Brian Feulner / BDN

Thanksgiving is one of the most food-centric holidays in American culture. Though menus vary across the country, the fourth Thursday of every November is usually marked by turkey, potatoes, cranberry sauce and stuffing

But what about Maine? Residents in the Pine Tree State haven’t historically adhered to the menu that has cemented itself on dining room tables across the country.

One Maine researcher has taken an intimate look at how Mainers’ have celebrated the holiday going back more than 100 years. Jefferson Navicky, an archivist for the University of New England’s Maine Women Writers Collection, has access to dozens of diaries written by Maine women from the 1870s to the 1940s. Through those, he’s seen what Maine women thought about and ate that day.

“I think the takeaway is there were many different ways of celebrating Thanksgiving during that time period,” he said.

Thursday, Nov. 17, he will give a talk about the diary collection at the Wilson Museum in Castine.

One woman in 1871 said she had a little party and was feeling happy on turkey day. In 1904, Nancy Smith in Brooksville was “feeling very sad all day.” One woman’s diary said she had got dressed up but didn’t end up going anywhere.

“There’s a real span,” Navicky said.

A 1943 Thanksgiving menu written down in the diary of Waterville resident Eva Twist. Credit: Courtesy of: Eva A. Twist and Bertha M. Connor diaries, Maine Women Writers Collection, University of New England, Portland, Maine

But one of the most fun things to look back at in the diaries is what these women ate for Thanksgiving.

At his planned talk entitled “A Day in the Life of Maine Women: Diaries of Everyday Life,” Navicky plans to show some historic menus and Thanksgiving musings of diarists across the decades.

One menu from 1943 written down by Waterville resident Eva Twist noted everything she had on the table, down to the apples and name cards that stood in as party favors.

Twist served baked chicken with dressing and gravy, mashed squash, turnips, hot biscuits, cranberry sauce, mustard pickles, sugar cookies, mince pie, chocolate cake with orange icing and coffee.

Lisa Simpson Lutts, the director of the Castine Historical Society, said that chicken was often served, as turkey wasn’t always abundant.

In a 2019 Bangor Metro story on Thanksgiving, Mary Ellingwood Andrews, a retired real estate broker and antique dealer from Bangor, is quoted reminiscing about how her holiday feasts in the 1940s also featured chickens.

“A chicken from our hen house was slaughtered the day before and mincemeat, and pumpkin pies were baked in the cast iron Wood and Bishop kitchen wood stove,” she said.

In that, Andrews also hit on a pillar of the northeast Thanksgiving cuisine: pie.

The 1919 Thanksgiving menu enjoyed by Farmington Resident Sarah Stanley. Credit: Courtesy of: Eva A. Twist and Bertha M. Connor diaries, Maine Women Writers Collection, University of New England, Portland, Maine

“New Englanders are really big into pie,” said Lutts.

Multiple diary accounts mention pies and such an affinity shines through in the 1919 diary of Farmington resident Sarah Stanley, where the fowl wasn’t a standalone dish as it is now.

The menu jotted in her journal featured not a roast turkey, but a turkey mince pie, in addition to plum pudding with sauce, hot rolls, and celery. In a humorous stroke, she also noted right alongside the menu that one apparently clumsy or boisterous eater named Charles broke his plate, cup and saucer.

For Navicky, it’s small details like these that make looking at history through diaries interesting. They can note historic events right alongside the quotidian and the common threads through most diaries are comments on the weather, daily humdrums, and, of course, food.

“Everybody loves something to eat,” Navicky said.