Al Roker Produced One of the Best Thanksgiving Specials Ever

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It aired in 2001 and maybe only a couple of times immediately after. It’s not available on DVD, streaming, or even uploaded to YouTube. It was a simple episode of Al Roker’s old Food Network show Roker on the Road, where he visited historic Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts to give viewers a taste of what an 1830’s Thanksgiving would be like. As a 10-year-old who was really into history, it captivated me. I recorded it onto VHS (remember those days?) and proceeded to watch it every year as a sort of tradition. Maybe five or six years ago, I had a friend burn it onto a DVD for me so that I may preserve it forever…and also use as a historical resource for when I teach. For all I know, I could have the only copy on this planet. Last year, I showed it to the elementary school class I was interning in and they enjoyed it. Even now, all these years later, it is not Thanksgiving in this house without a viewing. My love of history and food aside, it simply is just wonderful programming. You will learn plenty in this one hour show, and Roker’s goofy tongue-in-cheek humor will have you giggling from start to finish (with quips such as referring to ladies undergarments of the time as “Queen Victoria’s Secret”).

Roker leaves no stone un-turned. We get a little bit of everything, from 1830’s fashion and occupations illustrated by reenactors who worked at Sturbridge to how to cook any number of dishes in an authentic way. Pies, puddings, vegetables, and of course, how they roasted a turkey when there were no ovens available. The enormous workload of the women doing the cooking and cleaning is apparent. Many cooked a turkey by tying it to a string and hanging it near a fire. Wealthier people placed it in a metal box known as a “tin kitchen” in the fire-place and had to rotate it every 10 minutes for many hours. Baking was slower, preservation of fruits and vegetables was key to survival, and the post-meal fun of the day was target-shooting with flintlock rifles.

Did you know a pie without a crust covering is really a pudding and not a pie? How about the fork being used to push food onto a knife, and the people eating off of that instead? I learned those tidbits from watching this show. So, what we are really eating is pumpkin pudding at our Thanksgiving dinner…and don’t try eating off the knife at home! There is plenty of lively interaction between Roker and the village representatives. He even milks a cow which topples him over on the wooden stool he was sitting on (this was pre-weight loss Al Roker), as well as discusses social etiquette of the time and the history behind harvesting and Thanksgiving proclamations.

Now 14 years old, this special managed to be completely un-political. There are no politically correct topics mentioned, such as the real relationship between the pilgrims and Indians and how it has been misrepresented over the years. In fact, there is no mention of pilgrims or Indians at all. No Mayflower. No Squanto. No big feast. This is strictly Thanksgiving 1830’s style—all the more important because such a style is what we more closely mirror today. Thanksgiving was not an official holiday until the 1860’s, and this time period fits decently. There likely was no turkey at the “First Thanksgiving” and certainly no pumpkin pie, err, pudding. If you have a chance to see this (maybe its floating around online somewhere) then I strongly recommend you check it out. This has become an annual tradition for me and something which I value extremely high on my holiday viewing list. This is quite an intellectual piece for the Food Network, airing at a time when the channel was more about cooking and information than egos, annoying over-the-top personalities, and competitions. Such material will likely never grace their screen again.

Recipes from the episode are still available on the Food Network’s website. It is the only record of this show ever airing. Does anyone remember this? Furthermore, does anyone have a copy?

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