Giving Thanks: A Brief History of Cooking in Johnson County

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. How will you be celebrating? The iconic centerpiece of many American tables is the golden turkey surrounded by cranberries, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and pumpkin pie. Have you ever considered what the Thanksgiving meal preparations might have been like for Johnson County families when this area was first settled?

Woman with flock of fowl

Woman with flock of fowl, 1887. Original:

Preparation for meals served in the winter and spring months, when there was no fresh produce to be had, began in the summer when vegetables and fruits ripened, hens were laying and cows had not yet gone dry. In the days before refrigeration, Johnson County pioneers cured pork and corned beef by packing them between layers of salt. Meats, as well as vegetables and fruits, also could be pickled by soaking them in brine, a heavily salted water. Strips of beef, slices of fruit and whole green beans were dried in the hot sun. Eggs preserved in equal parts of coarse salt, unslaked lime and water could keep up to three years. Dairy products placed in a bucket and lowered into a cool well might last for days.

Cellar shelves filled with preserved foods

Cellar shelves filled with preserved foods, 1942. Original:

food preservation display

Food preservation 4-H display, 1942. Original:

Cooking began around dawn with the building of a fire on the open hearth. It took about two hours for the log fire to generate the coals needed for cooking first breakfast, then dinner at noon, and finally, in the evening, supper. Women spent much of the day in front of the open hearth – bending down to lift post in and out of the fire, to add more logs, to poke them, to shovel out hot coals and place them beneath the three-legged kettles that sat on the hearth and cooked several of her made-from-scratch fixings.

With the invention of tin cans in 1825 and machines that could mass produce them in 1849, processed and canned foods began to take the place of home-canned goods in middle-class pantries. Trains brought fresh fruits and vegetables from Florida, Georgia and even South America. Meats, dairy products and other highly perishable food started to trek across the rails in the decades after the first refrigerated car was patented in 1867.

By the early 1900s, time savings came from not having to produce one’s own food. Olathe housewives merely had to phone W.C. Elders & Co. at 123 for “prompt delivery” of the groceries they needed for dinner. Cooking dinner, however, remained a long, hard and hot task. Cast-iron stoves required constant feeding of fuel (either coal or wood) plus skill in manipulating a temperamental system of flues and dampers.

woman cooking at a wood fired stove

Mrs. Donham cooking at a wood-fired stove, 1936. Original:

By the 1950s, informality and practicality had become the hallmarks of daily dinners. A variety of convenience foods could be prepared with the assistance of a gas or electric range and a squadron of small appliances. Electric skillets, mixers, blenders, knives, can openers and percolators speeded up food preparation. TV dinners, frozen vegetables, brown ‘n serve rolls, bottled salad dressings, and desserts made from store-bought mixes eased cooking chores.

Hen House grocery ad from The Country Squire, November 1961

Hen House grocery ad from The Country Squire, November 1961. Original:

frozen turkey dinner

Frozen turkey (mostly white meat) dinner. Original:

Today’s ease in getting food to the dinner table is a continuum of the technological revolution that started with the industrial canning of foods more than a century ago. So is the year-round bounty Johnson Countians now enjoy. Regardless of the season, dinner can be lively in taste and healthy in nutrients. What’s served at Thanksgiving in 2013 is more than a matter of convenience; it’s one of unparalleled choice.


Source: ALBUM vol. 7, no. 4 (fall 1994)


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