125 Years of Giving Thanks

Posted by on Nov 20, 2018

The chopping and marinating has already begun in preparation of The Pfister Hotel’s 125th Thanksgiving celebration. This year, the hotel plans to welcome 500 guests to the ballroom for a meal with all of the traditional trimmings. Chef Satian and his team are busily preparing the meal that will include eight 40 lb. hams, more than 20 turkeys, and a prodigious amount of gravy. The cubing of the brioche for the bread stuffing is underway and cranberries will soon be a-simmer. Silver is being polished and pianist Perry Petta is warming up for the big day; in every corner of the hotel the team is hard at work to ensure a wonderful holiday for all.

While for some, a big plate of turkey and mashed potatoes is the main draw of the annual meal, for others, it is just a precursor to the final, and most essential course, dessert. Executive pastry chef, Travis Martinez, will be delighting palates with a variety of bite-sized treats inspired by the classic pies of the season. This year, guests will be treated to an “action dessert station” where they will enjoy the dessert of the season, “Pfister Exclusive: Sweet Grilled Cheese.” The tasty concoction if comprised of sweetened brie, butter brioche, fresh berry compote and honey and will be prepared to order.

Modern Milwaukeeans have a great deal in common with those who celebrated the hotel’s first Thanksgiving in 1893.  Then, as now, football games were an important part of the day. While Turkey Trots had yet to be invented, the local curling club had a match that day and the North Side Cycling Club expected more than 100 riders in their Thanksgiving ride, with participants vying for a chance to go home with one of the six turkeys being offered as a prize for the event.

For many in the city, the celebrations began the night before, with private social clubs around town hosting Thanksgiving Eve balls. The revelers likely hid their finery under heavy coats, as the city had experienced its first major snow of the season that week and a cold snap engulfed the city. The next morning, many in the city donned their Sunday bests and gathered with their faith-based communities. Churches and synagogues were busy places on Thanksgiving morning, with most houses of worship offering a special Thanksgiving service, many including musical performances.

Today’s Milwaukee cooks makes a single trip to the grocery store in preparation for the feast, but the residents of 1893 Milwaukee had many more stops to make to procure the components of the meal. The baker, green grocer and the brewer were all separate shops to visit in order to prepare the meal. In those days, Haymarket Square was the place to purchase a fattened bird. The average Milwaukeean was as likely to have a goose on the table as it was to have a turkey. West Water Street was filled with the sounds of the honking gaggles and cooks haggling with their keepers over the birds that often sold for 10 cents per pound.

The typical Thanksgiving menu in a working-class home in the city 125 years ago reflects the city’s German heritage. Common offerings for the special day would include noodle soup, fried breadcrumbs, stuffed goose, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, kartoffel salad, tomato preserves, apple pie, coffee and, of course, several pitchers of beer. If a meat other than poultry was offered, it was most commonly venison. Most places of business were closed that day, so it was a time for families to gather together and indulge in the fruits of the fall harvest.

Menus may have changed, but little of the essence of the day has changed since the doors of the hotel opened 125 years ago. This is still a day of philanthropy with charitable organizations then and now opening their doors to feed those in need. It remains a time to gather with loved ones and reflect upon our many reasons to be thankful. Wherever Thanksgiving, 2018 find you, may it be a day filled with abundance and joy.

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