Food Sleuth: He Can Read Your Past on a Plate : Holiday: Food historian Ian Dengler says he can tell a lot about people just by asking what they eat for Thanksgiving dinner.


Most of us believe that on the fourth Thursday in November, everybody in the United States sits down to the same dinner. It isn't true--and nobody knows this better than Ian Dengler, a food historian who has devoted much of his life to asking people what they eat on Thanksgiving.

"After you've asked a few hundred people," Dengler says, "it all starts to fall into a pattern and make sense. When I ask people what their family eats for Thanksgiving, 95% begin by saying, 'Turkey.' If they don't, it's significant and usually tells me that I'm dealing with a very special region or group. But the thing to remember is that people keep what they really think is themselves hidden underneath the turkey."

Dengler has perfected the art of seeing through the turkey. In fact, he now does this so well that he sometimes seems psychic. I once watched him amaze a woman he'd just met by telling her not only what city she was from--based on her description of her family's Thanksgiving dinners--but also that her mother felt she had married beneath her. "How do you know?" she cried. "It's absolutely true!"

"It was the cranberry ice," he replied. "You said that your mother always served it in fancy silver goblets--and that nobody ever ate it. Clearly it was a holdover from her own childhood Thanksgiving dinner--I guessed that those goblets were family heirlooms. I wondered why nobody ate it. And then, listening to you talk about the rest of the meal, I began to realize that the cranberry ice was completely out of place. I suspected that nobody ate it because it didn't belong--and most of the people in your family resented the fact that it was there. So I just put two and two together."

It is not for nothing that Dengler has been called "the food sleuth."

He told another woman--short, round and with dark curly hair--that her account of her family's Thanksgiving meal revealed she was from a Swedish farm family in the West Texas Bible Belt. "I thought that the fact that I was adopted would throw him off the trail," she said, "but it didn't."

"How did he do it?" I asked.

"Ask him," she replied, "it all seemed pretty complicated to me."

"She gave me the first clue right away," said Dengler, pulling out one of the little index cards on which he collects his data. "She said, 'We used to have just a big fat hen and dumplings, although now we sometimes have turkey too. Then we have corn-bread dressing.'

"There are very few surviving areas where only chicken is eaten, and the rural area in West Texas is one of them. The occasional use of turkey suggests a middle-sized farm, and the recent introduction of it suggests a farm in one of the semi-urban areas of West Texas. Lubbock seemed like a logical choice. Corn bread, of course, is Southern.

"What I am looking for in this are logical sequences. In your friend's case, I found them. When she got to the desserts, she said that they had chocolate pie or chocolate cream pie, coconut cake and mincemeat pie. The order, of course, is significant. Western Texas is a chocolate area, and it is common to find other variations, like coconut cake, before there is any mention of the more standard pies."

"OK," I told him, "I can see that. But she said you told her that her grandparents or great-grandparents had migrated through Missouri before coming to Texas. How did you figure that out?"

"It was the dumplings," he replied. "She mentioned that they always had chicken with dumplings. As a Thanksgiving dish this comes from further north, but not as far north as Iowa. It could be from Kansas, but that would be really unusual. Missouri is the logical choice.

"When she went through the rest of the meal she corroborated everything I was thinking. She said that they had buttered boiled onions, which are common as one moves northeast toward the Missouri area. But she mentioned lots of rural Panhandle and West Texas foods too--cabbage salad with hot boiled dressing, chopped apples, eggs, salt, pepper and vinegar, and potato salad. She said that they drank buttermilk, hot tea and water. The Bible Belt is not only temperate, but coffee is not much used there either."

"OK," I said, "but what told you that her family was Swedish? And how did you know how long ago they had arrived in this country?"

"That was the easiest part," he said. "At the end she mentioned an odd item that her family always served: curdled custard. In Sweden that is called lustikaka , and it is a traditional Swedish festival dish. It is usually served with lutfisk , pickled dried cod. Her family, however, did not serve the latter, and had lost the name for the former. That seemed to indicate several intervening generations.

"What you look for in this," he went on, "are more than three items that are non-standard. Once you've got three, you can almost always classify the meal by region, especially if you pay attention to the words that people use. Do they say 'stuffing' or 'dressing'?; are the potatoes 'mashed' or 'whipped'? Is it 'gelatin salad' or 'Jell-O'? It all falls into patterns. Other comments are also clues; if someone starts out with, 'It's just the usual . . . or, 'It's the ordinary . . . ' I know right away that I'm in the Midwest."

Dengler rifled through his cards, pointing out examples. "Food choices," he said, "are like handwriting. You have to collect at least five or 10 items in any given meal before you can make sense of it, but if you've got enough items, collected in order, no one can hide his social background from you."

He pulled out another card. "Here's someone who began by saying, 'We had nuts and pretzels with cocktails.' She mentioned this before the turkey, which was immediately significant; I knew right away I had a minority group on my hand. And nobody in my experience has ever mentioned pretzels in connection with Thanksgiving. Pretzels are Central European--what I am looking for are logical sequences--and I ought to find something to go with them."

Dengler did; the next thing the woman had said was that her family did not have soup for Thanksgiving. "That's not strange," Dengler said. "Almost nobody has soup for Thanksgiving anymore. What was strange was that she mentioned it at all. It probably meant that her family normally eats soup." Putting it all together, Dengler began to think that the woman belonged to a minority group from Central Europe. "Of course," he said, "I could be wrong--I've still got to find other evidence to corroborate this."

The woman had mentioned chestnut and mushroom stuffing, which pleased Dengler. "That is definitely Central European--it's what you use to stuff a goose." But what pleased him even more was that the woman said, "We sometimes had gravy, but sometimes my mother forgot to make it." This was exciting. "The No. 1 meal," says Dengler, "is turkey, stuffing and gravy--and no really assimilated American family could possibly forget the gravy.

"Next comes cranberries--that's standard and proves that they are American. Then she said that they had 'sweet potatoes with marshmallows melted on the top,' and you've got to see that this does not go with the rest of the meal. This is clearly a family without a long cultural tradition in the U.S.; the meal is still a bit awkward."

Dengler found more clues in the salad, which was served on glass plates to the side of the dinner plate. "That's important because it is, once again, European. And finally," he went on, "there was one small item that made the whole symbol structure work. She said that they had rye bread on the table. It was all starting to fit together."

Dessert provided the ultimate clue and corroborated everything Dengler had been thinking. The woman said that her family had pies--"apple, pumpkin and sometimes pecan." Dengler found two things significant about this. "Once again, she had said 'sometimes'; with a real Thanksgiving, nothing is supposed to be 'sometimes.' It's supposed to be a tradition. It indicates to me that the family has not been in this country more than one generation."

And there was something else.

"She mentioned all the traditional pies, but she didn't mention mincemeat," says Dengler. "That's significant. Jewish families rarely eat mincemeat pie and often don't even know what it is." Dengler concluded that the woman was from an East Coast Jewish family that had not been in America more than one generation. And he was right.

"The wonderful thing about Thanksgiving," says Dengler, "is that it is the one standard meal model in America. It is perfect for historians, because it is a meal that is dedicated to the past; people have taken a tradition and made compromises with it. So you can see through the food to the things that limit people--the life they are forced to lead either by society, their families, the previous generation or their background. You can always tell a lot about a person from what he eats, but you can tell more about an American by what he eats for Thanksgiving than from any other meal."

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