Celery and Olives Dominated Thanksgiving for Nearly 100 Years—Until They Didn’t

Sweet potatoes. Turkey. Cranberries. Pumpkins. Stuffing. These are the foods Americans think of when they think of Thanksgiving.

But for nearly a century, two unlikely foods were absolute must-haves on every traditional Thanksgiving menu.

Celery and olives.

From the late 1800s until the 1960s, these two foods — which usually only come together in the murky depths of a Bloody Mary — were a must on seasonally decorated tables in homes across America.

Fix yourself a cocktail—extra celery, extra olives—as you witness the rise and fall of the menu items for which Americans were once the most thankful. Until, all of a sudden, they weren’t.

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Discovering “Sellery’’

Back in 1779, a Connecticut girl named Juliana Smith wrote to her “Dear Cousin Betsey’’ describing the Thanksgiving meal she had just enjoyed. The menu included: “pigeon pasties,’’ “suet pudding,’’ “plumbs and cherries,’’ as well as a new and exotic vegetable which Smith described to Betsey as “one which I do not believe you have yet seen.’’ She went on: “Uncle Simeon had imported the Seede from England just before the war began and only this year was there enough for table use. It is called Sellery & you eat it without cooking.’’

Smith’s letter is the earliest known association of celery and Thanksgiving in American history—an association that would continue for nearly 200 years. If, that is, Juliana Smith actually existed.

“I’ve never seen the original source and it just doesn’t look right,’’ said Andy Smith, a culinary historian at the New School in New York. Smith conceded, however, that there was “certainly celery in America in the late 18th century’’ and its early placement on Thanksgiving menus is likely attributable, at least in part, to celery having been “relatively unusual’’ and “something new.’’

Celery was also “very plain, and could easily be dressed with sauces,’’ said Lucy Long, director of the Center for Food and Culture, in Bowling Green, Ohio. The vegetable “fit nicely with British-American and German-American palettes, which became the foundation for mainstream American food culture.’’

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Celery was unique in another way that may have played a role in its Thanksgiving significance. In the 1800s, Long explained, the medical establishment considered the consumption of raw foods to be unhealthy. Food, and vegetables in particular, were invariably braised or stewed beyond recognition. “Having something raw—like celery—was a marker that it was a special occasion,’’ said Long, who was actually en route to the grocery store to buy (wait for it) celery.

As for olives, she said, they were thought of as “exotic and kind of upper crust’’ and “were always considered a celebration type food’’ as opposed to an “everyday’’ food, Long said olives were “markers that this was a special occasion.’’

Celery vase, U.S. Glass, 1899

To become a Thanksgiving staple, however, celery had to transform from an unusual crop to a profitable industry, which is exactly what it did. Grown first in Michigan and then soon coast to coast, it was by the late 1800s“considered a fancy new food worthy of celebrating; in season only from November through March.’’

Rick Rodgers, author of Thanksgiving 101, says the placement of celery and olives on Thanksgiving menus has more to do with transportation and advertising than with anything else.

“Whatever is in vogue worms its way onto the Thanksgiving menu,’’ Rodgers told Boston.com. “Many of the things we eat don’t have much to do with the history of Thanksgiving, but more with the history of advertising and the history of transporting food.’’

Fresh celery became readily available in cities when trains began transporting produce from warmer climates, Rodgers explained. Black canned olives came into vogue in the late 1880s and 1890s when production began in California. Olives had previously been only available from Europe.

Ad for olives, Fitchburg Sentinel, October 1910
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The pairing of the two was both a result of the fact that they were introduced and made readily available around the same time and they served a similar purpose: both celery and olives were palate cleansers, and ones that didn’t require a servant.

“People were looking for a palate cleanser in between Thanksgiving’s richer courses,’’ explained Rodgers. “At a family meal where you don’t have servants, the tray of celery and olives could be put on the table and you didn’t need a servant to serve a sorbet course.’’

The Menu Item That Wouldn’t Budge

Once they were on Thanksgiving menus, celery and olives were there to stay. The New York Press gave first prize to an 1892 Thanksgiving menu featuring olives and celery salad, along with broiled bluefish and caviar sandwiches. The celery dish on The New York Times model Thanksgiving menu in 1895 was “mayonnaise of celery.’’ Instructions for preparing the dish were simple: dice the celery; “cover’’ with mayonnaise; garnish with more celery. The dish was sure to pair well with olives.

1904 Thanksgiving menu, Good Housekeeping

Good Housekeeping hammered home the celery and olives point, including both in a 1900 menu designed to “formulate a dinner in accordance with the best thought and most cultured taste of today.’’

In 1901, The Boston Globe’s “very elaborate’’ Thanksgiving menu included cream of celery soup in addition to plain celery, olives, and “reed birds on toast.’’ (The White House recipe for “reed birds on toast’’ was straightforward: “Remove the feathers and legs of a dozen reed birds, split them down the back, remove the entrails … brush a little melted butter over them.’’ Then just season “nicely’’ with salt and pepper, “dip the birds in it, and arrange them nicely on slices of toast.’’ Simple enough!)

The celery frenzy only seemed to increase. “The entire country seems to have been enamored of celery.’’ Celery with olives. Curled celery. A stuffed olive paired with a stalk of celery. Celery hearts with Mission olives. Queen olives with stuffed celery. Stuffed olives with chilled celery. Daring Bostonians were urged in 1883 by The Boston Globe to pair celery and roast turkey with an exotic new delicacy known as “macaroni.’’ (The Globe admitted: “People generally have to learn to like macaroni, but the result of the lesson when learned is worth the study.’’)

Boston Post, April 1904

No longer was celery just the rare raw food—it was also advertised as a cure-all for pain, anxiety, kidney disease, rheumatism, constipation, and virtually any other ailment or physical discomfort a human being might experience.

Plus, it was beautiful:

“There is something so clean and refreshing about the straight, regular rows of celery plans, and the color of the celery foliage is perhaps the most restful that the eye can look upon.’’

A children’s Thanksgiving play published by Harper’s in 1910 featured “Miss Celery,’’ and not in a supporting role.

Celery wasn’t just an ingredient. It was a culinary celebrity.

Turkey: Optional; Celery: Not so much

Beginning in the early 1900s, more and more Americans were opening up to the novel idea that thanksgiving need not include turkey. What they could not – or would not – fathom was Thanksgiving sans celery.

In 1907, The New York Times questioned the necessity of eating turkey on Thanksgiving, noting that “very few have the courage to admit that they are not enraptured with the notion of a turkey dinner.’’ The paper did not, however, risk suggesting that celery or olives were optional. “Thanksgiving menus for turkey pessimists’’ offered options ranging from “clear green turtle soup in cups’’ and “live codfish boiled with egg sauce’’ — both paired with the requisite celery and olives.

The Boston Globe targeted the thrifty diner in 1911, offering up a suggested menu that cost only 69 cents per person. Celery, of course, made the cut, along with codfish, oatmeal, dry toast, and “pumpwater,’’ presumably the yesteryear equivalent of tapwater. Turkey was nowhere to be found.

In 1936, The Boston Globe dared to suggest that turkey could be “vetoed for any one or more of a number of good reasons’’ and that “a roast domestic duck’’ could serve as a viable replacement. No questions were raised about the possible ouster of celery and olives.

Turkey was back in the good graces of The Boston Globe by 1938, when its menu offering suggested a festive glass of “tomato juice cocktail’’ to wash down the “ripe mission olives’’ and “celery curls.’’

American Cookery, Volume 24, 1920

To spice up an otherwise humdrum holiday menu, The Boston Globe suggested in 1927 that readers include cream of celery soup followed by two separate courses of plain celery.

Even the First Family enjoyed celery. President and Mrs. Roosevelt weren’t the first – or last – White House occupants to enjoy “curled celery and stuffed olives’’ in 1941.

Celery ad, 1931

(Good Housekeeping offered instructions for preparing curled celery: “To make the celery more attractive, cut several gashes in the tops of the stalks before crisping them in water. Under this treatment, the celery will have a tendency to curl.’’)

And celery without olives was unthinkable too. Celery and olives were peanut butter and jelly. Burger and fries. You offered them, and you offered them together, dammit.

A 1924 newspaper ad didn’t mince words.

“Of course the expert hostess serves green olives at her Thanksgiving dinner … And social custom all but demands them. Not only to add a welcome touch of color to the table. But also because their presence proclaims the correctness with which the meal is prepared and served.’’

In other words, get some olives on that table or risk living out your days as a social outcast.

Celery in Good Times, and in Bad

In 1933, during the Great Depression, media reports recounted one man’s horror after he realized his government food aid did not cover the olives he so desperately needed to properly celebrate Thanksgiving. (Luckily, celery was covered.)

“Wait, no olives…This is going to be a hell of a Thanksgiving,’’ he said.

“Queen olives’’ and “celery cabbage salad with piquante dressing’’ were suggested on a 1934 menu, best served beside potato chips smeared with “tomato ketchup’’ and “cold water.’’ World War II draftees looking for a taste of home in 1940 enjoyed turkey, “celery hearts,’’ and a dessert assortment that included cigars and cigarettes, likely to make up for the missing olives. Wartime rations in 1943 required “cleverness’’ when it came to menu-planning. “All stores have good supplies of olives, black and green,’’ The Globe reported. Phew.

(Weirdly, the 1946 Thanksgiving menu at the Vegetarian Society of New York—for “vegetarians and their 250 sympathizers’’—somehow did not include olives, or celery. Instead the meal included “pot cheese, nut melange, cereal beverage and soy blueberry and whole wheat date and raisin muffins.’’ It’s a miracle the movement didn’t catch on.)

America was all about tradition in 1950, when the Globe reported that: “no New England Thanksgiving is complete without a dish of our own native grown celery, which is at its most crunchy now.’’ In November 1953, the New York Times reaffirmed celery’s place on the Thanksgiving menu. “Celery remains a Thanksgiving essential.’’

With celery and olives having a secure lock on Thanksgiving menus, the New York Times urged its readers to go ahead and purchase a special vessel in which to display the beloved edibles. The “eight-inch dish shaped like a carrot’’ is “ideal for celery and olives, a traditional part of the Thanksgiving menu.’’

Signs of Early Celery and Olives Fatigue

After World War II, American consumers experienced an explosion of food options.

“Frozen food galore’’ meant celery and olives now had to compete with, well, basically everything. “Quickly you had grocery stores everywhere, offering more and more things. Virtually everything you want, you can get,’’ explained Andy Smith.

By 1957, women were “sick and tired of spending all Thanskgiving Day morning working in the kitchen, rushing around madly to finally serve dinner 30 minutes late and too tired to enjoy it!’’ The Globe reassured exhausted women with a reminder that “olives and stuffed celery’’ could be made in advance and refrigerated!

But the same year, at least one New York Times writer showed celery and olives fatigue, remarking on the holiday’s “inevitable celery, olives.’’

And the Globe showed celery infidelity in 1958 when the paper discovered the strange white vegetable known as cauliflower, calling it “cabbage with a college education.’’

By 1963, the Globe’s menu suggestions began to indicate a growing awareness of a new and exotic phenomenon: nutrition. (It’s been downhill ever since.) Pumpkin pie, the Globe promised, was not only “delicious’’ but provides “valuable nutrients’’ because it is “rich in Vitamin A and minerals.’’

Throughout the 1960s, stores continued to feature celery and olives prominently in display ads, often above turkey.

Newspaper ad for celery, olives, etc., 1962

1970 marked the dawn of a new era: “Thanksgiving dining 1970 is different … What’s new is a different dining philosophy now spreading across the USA. The keyword is ‘nutritious’ and it’s suddenly on the lips of everyone young and wanting to be,’’ reported The Globe.

Celery, it would seem, was perfectly positioned for another century in the Thanksgiving limelight. It was low-fat! Low-calorie! In 1972, the Weight Watchers Thanksgiving menu highlighted celery, as did Gourmet Magazine.

But nothing lasts forever.

America Turns Over a New (Celery) Leaf, but Why?

In 1974, celery was five years away from its bicentennial. But suddenly, the traditional Thanksgiving menu began to show remarkable variety.

The seats once held by celery and olives now featured shrimp cocktail, cranberry soup, seafood bisque, and endless varieties of dishes incorporating the word “supreme.’’

The Berkshire Eagle, November 1977

Andy Smith and Lucy Long have slightly different theories for why celery and olives disappeared from Thanksgiving menus.

According to Long, Thanksgiving has always been about eating “aspirationally.’’ On non-holidays, most Americans have long followed one rule: “All the food goes on the table at once.’’

But, Long explained, the country’s upper classes – especially on the east coast – continued to dine in the European standard, with “starters followed by palate cleansers, entrees, and so forth.’’ Celery and olives may have retained their spot on Thanksgiving menus because they allowed ordinary Americans to create “an idealized performance,’’ complete with easy-to-prepare palate cleansers between courses.

To Smith, the downfall celery is simple: “It’s just boring. It’s just tasteless.’’

With a country increasingly focused on calorie counting and nutrition, it makes sense that celery didn’t make the Thanksgiving menu cut.

“Typically, Thanksgiving is an opulent affair with lots of fat,’’ Smith said. “Celery moved from being a special vegetable to a normal vegetable to a health and diet food. It just doesn’t hold up to the image as what we see as Thanksgiving.’’

Celery was just losing the battle against the newly expanded assortment of competitors.

By 1979, when the country should have been well into months of plannig celebratory celery festivals, the vegetable that once had a reserved spot on Thanksgiving menus from the “sunlit fields of Florida’’ to the White House and beyond was, well, just celery, lit only by the fluorescent lights in an otherwise crowded produce section.

Celery on display at Wegman’s in November 2014. —Hilary Sargent/Boston.com

There were occasional glimpses of hope for a celery and olives comeback, but they were fleeting at best. A 1997 New York Times piece cited the “households in the Midwestern diaspora — where the true sign of Thanksgiving dinner is a lead-crystal dish full of Spanish olives.’’ In 2001, President Bush served a Thanksgiving meal in the Red Room at The White House that included a “50’s-style appetizer plate of celery, carrots and black olives.’’

Some 235 years after Juliana Smith (allegedly) wrote to her cousin Betsey about her discovery of “Sellery,’’ the vegetable that sat for a century at the head of Thanksgiving tables is largely relegated to the ingredients list.

You need only check Pinterest or the Food Network to understand that Americans still look at Thanksgiving as a chance to cook – and eat – aspirationally. It’s just that their aspirations now extend far beyond celery and olives.

The grandchildren and great grandchildren of those who shopped for the perfect celery tray now list the item in between hummus and cat litter on grocery lists. Needing only a single stalk or less, they find themselves with an entire bag. The unused stalks live out their final days in the deep corners of a refrigerator drawer, growing limper and limper, until finally, we remove their corpses from the nursing home of vegetables and take out the trash.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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April 27, 2017 | 7:15 AM