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How one woman turned Thanksgiving from a 'Yankee, East Coast experience' into a national holiday

Thanksgiving celebration traditional dinner. Roasted turkey garnished with cranberries on a rustic style table decorated with pumpkins, vegetables, pie, flowers and candles.
Alexander Raths
Stock Adobe
Thanksgiving celebration traditional dinner. Roasted turkey garnished with cranberries on a rustic style table decorated with pumpkins, vegetables, pie, flowers and candles.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and this year many of us are looking forward to having a house with a crowded table, at least compared to last year’s festivities. And as a food holiday, Lake Effect contributor and culinary historian Kyle Cherek naturally dives into it deeper and deeper every year.

"I'm struck this year more than any other on how it's just this aspect of national mythology that evolved very much from an East coast phenomenon, but it is such an American holiday because we completely made it out of nowhere," says Cherek. "... It's really interesting from a sort of sociological standpoint in that there really isn't much ritual to it — it's all about the meal."

He admits there is some history that is celebrated, but the story we have is so wrong and inaccurate, yet most buy into it.

>>: Struggling Puritans, The Civil War & The Great Depression: The Real History Of Thanksgiving

While Thanksgiving might make you think of Plymouth Rock, pilgrims, turkey, and stuffing, Cherek says you should also think of one person in particular: Sarah Josepha Hale.

"We got Christmas from...Clement [Clark Moore's] 'Twas the Night Before Christmas' and Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol.' That's really kind of like where we have that concept of Christmas," says Cherek. "And Thanksgiving pretty much came from one lady, and it was a very Yankee, East Coast kind of experience, and we just carried it forth."

Wikimedia Commons
This portrait of Sarah Josepha Hale was in a publication of "Godey's Lady's Book" — a national magazine that she was the editor of with over half a million subscribers according to Kyle Cherek.

According to Cherek, the first four U.S. presidents all declared days of Thanksgiving that varied in the calendar, but Hale, who was the editor of "Godey's Lady's Book" at the time, took up a letter writing campaign to five presidents in a row.

"She has a personality. [It] was sort of like an Oprah meets Barack Obama meets Martha Stewart," says Cherek. "She weighed in and shaped and was the source of all things domestic, many ... things moral, and many things of style and a sense of cultural awareness."

Hale also wrote "Northwood: A Tale of New England "in 1827 that included the Thanksgiving meal described and laid out. "Literally if you read that book and then you look at most American Thanksgiving meals today, with the exception of some technological advances, it's verisimilitude to what she put in the book," notes Cherek.

Wikimedia Commons
This letter was written in September of 1863 from editor Sarah Josepha Hale to President Abraham Lincoln discussing the need for a national Thanksgiving holiday.

She finally prevailed with President Abraham Lincoln, who wanted to use the holiday as a way to bring the country together after the Civil War. "What I love about it is the poetry," notes Cherek, "... 74 years to the day that George Washington had signed his Thanksgiving Proclamation, Abraham Lincoln signed what we now celebrate as the Thanksgiving Proclamation on that day in November."

If you want to try a new recipe that changes up the traditional pumpkin pie, Cherek shares a recipe for a roasted butternut squash pie, which his wife made because he had forgotten to get pumpkin pie filling at the grocery store.

"We all sat back and said 'This is better.' ... And then in diving deep into Sarah Josepha Hale's book, where she lays out the Thanksgiving table it literally says 'pumpkin and squash pies.' And I thought we're more legit than we ever thought! If you want to have an authentic Thanksgiving meal, butternut squash is actually easier," says Cherek. "So if you follow this recipe I promise it will be at least as delicious, if not more delicious, than the pumpkin pie. And you will be stepping in the foots of history, which from a culinary standpoint I am always in favor of."

Roasted Butternut Squash Pie

Kyle Cherek's daughter taste-tests a roasted butternut squash pie.
Image courtesy of Kyle Cherek
Kyle Cherek's daughter taste-tests a roasted butternut squash pie.


  • 1 large butternut squash
  • 6 TBL unsalted butter, diced into small cubes
  • 1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 TBL granulated sugar 
  • ½ cup butter, chilled and cut into 1 inch pieces
  • ¼ cup ice cold water
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 cups roasted butternut squash puree
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract 
  • ¾ cup light brown sugar
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 ½ tsp pumpkin pie spice 

Step 1 - Roasted Butternut Squash Puree

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.
  2. Slice the butternut squash in half lengthwise; scoop out and toss the seeds. Place the halves flesh-side-up on a foil-lined baking sheet.
  3. Sprinkle the diced butter evenly on both halves.
  4. Roast for 45-60 minutes or until the butternut squash can easily be pierced with a knife. 
  5. Remove squash from the oven; allow to cool for about 10 minutes. Scoop out the flesh and liquid and place into your food processor or blender. (A liquid mixture of caramelized butter will form in the wells of the squash; make sure you include this deliciousness with the puree!)

Step 2 - Pie Crust (if using store-bought pie crust, skip to Step 3)

  1. Place the flour, salt, and sugar in a food processor and pulse to combine.
  2. Add butter and cold water; process until mixture resembles a coarse meal, begins to stick together, and holds together when pinched. 
  3. Remove dough from the processor and form into a ball.
  4. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 60 minutes.

Step 3 - Pie Filling

  1. In a large bowl, beat the eggs. 
  2. Whisk in the roasted butternut squash puree, heavy cream and vanilla extract until combined.
  3. Add brown sugar, salt, cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice and mix until completely combined.

Step 4 - Putting It All Together

  1. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. 
  2. Place a metal baking sheet in the oven to preheat at the same time. (This creates a wonderfully crispy pie bottom.)
  3. Lightly grease a pie pan and set aside.
  4. Roll out your pie dough on a well-floured surface to fit the size of your pie pan, plus 2" for decorative crust edge.
  5. Carefully transfer the dough to the pie plate and shape the crust edge how you want it to look. 
  6. Pour the filling into the unbaked pie crust. Any extra pie dough can be used to cut out decorations, such as autumn leaves, to place around the top of the pie.
  7. Place pie plate onto the preheated baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees F. 
  8. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees F and continue to bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until a knife inserted comes out clean.  It should be just a bit wobbly when you pull it out; it will firm-up as it cools.
  9. Allow the pie to cool on a wire rack for 2 hours. 
  10. Enjoy!
Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kyle Johnson Cherek is a culinary historian and food essayist. He was the former host of Wisconsin Foodie on PBS, and for over a decade he has chronicled regional food stories, exploring where our food comes from, and how it shapes who we are. His signature wit and keen observations have made him a sought-after keynote speaker, media contributor, and culinary storyteller. Kyle has been awarded the Wisconsin Broadcast Association Award twice for his compelling essays on food culture.
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