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For A Century, Thanksgiving's Must-Haves Were Celery And Olives


Families build their entire Thanksgiving Day around traditional foods. Of course, those traditions vary from family to family and from year to year. For about a century from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, no Thanksgiving table was complete without two must-have's. We're not talking about Turkey - not cranberry sauce. We're talking...

HILARY SARGENT: Celery and olives.

SHAPIRO: That's com editor Hilary Sergeant. She found out that this odd pair, celery and olives, was once about as Thanksgiving as pumpkin pie.

SARGENT: I pulled almost 100 years' worth of Thanksgiving menus from the Globe archives and realized really unexpectedly that these two items popped up again and again, and didn't understand why.

SHAPIRO: And so you write, for example, that celery was almost a palate cleanser that people could use if they couldn't afford servants to serve sorbet between the other courses.

SARGENT: Yeah, so you noticed around the mid-1800s, the Thanksgiving menus shift away from actually suggesting the types of palate cleansers that would require a servant. A sorbet is something that's frozen, so you couldn't put it on the table at the beginning of the meal. And olives and celery were also both considered items that were not everyday. And by that I mean celery, for instance, was one of the few vegetables that people ate uncooked.

SHAPIRO: Other things were just stewed beyond comprehension, you say.

SARGENT: Yup. So olives were different. Olives were something that hadn't been available and then all of the sudden were. So while they became available here, they were still considered sort of a luxury, upper-crust item. And Thanksgiving naturally would be the day where you would sort of strive to include them in your menu.

SHAPIRO: You also include these amazing grocery store ads. What were your favorite ads that you found as you were doing this research?

SARGENT: I think my favorite one was a full-page ad for Spanish olives that really shamed any hostess who dared not include them. It legitimately suggested that if you didn't include olives at your Thanksgiving meal that you would run the risk of being shunned.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) And from your research, do you get the sense that that was actually true - that if you had a Thanksgiving meal without celery and olives, people would be aghast?

SARGENT: It would be the modern-day equivalent of serving turkey without cranberry sauce. It just - it wouldn't make sense.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about raw celery sticks and olives on the table. But you also go into to some of the very strange recipes involving celery and olives that are the more creative ways of presenting these two ingredients over the years. Do you have a favorite?

SARGENT: I think the mayonnaise of celery...

SHAPIRO: Oh, this was...

SARGENT: ...Is my favorite.

SHAPIRO: ...Unbelievable. Describe it.

SARGENT: I think the recipe is pretty simple. You could make it at home. It is celery with mayonnaise, garnished with celery. And that is completely the entire recipe.

SHAPIRO: My mouth is watering. So celery and olives ruled the Thanksgiving table for about a century. How did they finally fall out of favor?

SARGENT: So in addition to Americans having always thought about holiday eating as something that was aspirational, they also really have always looked at - what you eat on holidays should be different and more special than what you eat every day. So celery, to some extent, became a real everyday item.

SHAPIRO: So if you're crunching on celery sticks every day in your lunch bag, you don't want to put it on the Thanksgiving table.

SARGENT: Exactly.

SHAPIRO: Well, Hilary Sargent, after immersing yourself in celery and olives for all these weeks, will they be making an appearance on your Thanksgiving table tonight?


SHAPIRO: (Laughter) I can't say I blame you.


SHAPIRO: Hilary Sargent is an editor at Thank you so much for joining us.

SARGENT: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Sargent's article is called "Celery And Olives Dominated Thanksgiving For Nearly 100 Years - Until They Didn't." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.