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Encore: For 100 Years, Celery And Olives Were Thanksgiving Mainstays


Imagine digging through decades of Thanksgiving menus stretching back to the 1800s. What do you think you would find? Turkey, cranberry sauce, stuffing, sure. When journalist Hilary Sargent performed this feat of culinary archaeology, she found that two foods were more common than almost any others.


HILARY SARGENT: Celery and olives.

SHAPIRO: Yup, celery and olives. For nearly a century, they were staples of the Thanksgiving table. Two years ago, Sargent revealed this vintage pair in an article at She told us that celery and olives started to become holiday must-haves in the late 1800s.


SARGENT: I pulled almost a hundred years' worth of Thanksgiving menus from The Globe archives and realized really unexpectedly that these two items popped up again and 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 notice 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: We're talking about raw celery sticks and olives on the table, but you also go into 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 unbelievable.

SARGENT: ...Is my favorite.

SHAPIRO: 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...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

SARGENT: ...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 A Hundred Years - Until They Didn't." It was posted at in 2014. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.