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Bell’s Seasoning, a Thanksgiving favorite, has local ties

By ERIC STANWAY - Special to The Telegraph | Nov 25, 2021

If you took all that stuff you learned in grade school about Thanksgiving seriously, you could be pardoned for thinking that the day was one continuous celebration from 1621 until the present day. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. That long-ago feast with the Wampanoag tribe and newly arrived Britons was actually an attempt at fostering peace between the two parties. The Native Americans had their own internal political problems, exacerbated by the nascent Plymouth Plantation. For a while, at least, the feast represented a temporary truce between all concerned.

However, it took some time before Thanksgiving became an official holiday. On Oct. 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation, designating Thursday, Nov. 26 as a national day of thanks:

“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor – and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”

Of course, that Thursday jumps all over the calendar, depending on the year. As a result, local authorities would designate their own Thanksgiving, on any random Thursday within the month.

This situation continued for about 70 more years, until a magazine editor by the name of Sarah Josepha Buell Hale decided to intervene. Hale was the “Lady Editor” of “Godey’s Lady’s Book,” a popular periodical in the early 19th century. Incidentally, she also was the author of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”

Born in New Hampshire in 1788, she was a noted reformer, fighting to recruit more women into the field of medicine. But her big bailiwick was to make Thanksgiving a national holiday, with a fixed date.

In 1863, after about 25 years of lobbying, she finally managed to convince Abraham Lincoln to endorse such a decree. Of course, as the country was in the throes of an extremely bloody Civil War, the president needed something to build up morale. Turkeys were selling for about a quarter apiece in those days, allowing any family to cook up a prodigious feast for relatively little money. The government also bought up their share, shipping meals to their troops fighting on the front.

All this brings us to Massachusetts inventor George W. Bell, inventor of Bell’s Seasoning, so beloved by the residents of New England. To this day, you can see those strange little yellow boxes multiplying on the shelves, with a weird blue turkey adorning the front.

Bell was born on a farm in New Hampshire, where his mother, Sophoronia, tutored him in the art of spices, using the family garden as a classroom. Soon, he could identify every herb growing there, and his interest only increased.

At the age of 11, he convinced his father to allow him to drop out of school, so he could help support the family, collecting ashes for pennies and raising chickens. Seven years later, he took a job with a pork merchant at Quincy Market in Boston, where he began concocting a recipe for flavoring sausages.

He was also keeping his eye on current events, particularly the new fondness for turkey that had developed among the populace. Accordingly, he developed a new blend, using oregano, sage, ginger, marjoram, thyme and pepper, working in his Newton, Mass., kitchen.

The result was a resounding success, and Bell formed his own company in 1867, expanding the business to various factories around Boston.

Bell’s Seasoning remains a firm favorite to this day, and the company presently sells one and a half million of those little boxes a year, the majority of which is purchased from October until January.

Here is a side dish that utilizes the seasoning. It might make a side dish, or a good main dish for anyone who isn’t particularly keen on turkey.



4 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 1 tablespoon for buttering the casserole

1½ cups white onion, chopped

1 pound white mushrooms, sliced

1 tablespoon fresh sage, finely chopped

1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped

6 ounces Gruyère, grated

2 ounces Parmesan, grated

4 ounces soft goat cheese, crumbled

1 pound baguette or other hearty bread, cut into 1½ inch cubes (approx. 8 cups)

8 large eggs

2 cups whole milk

1 cup half & half

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon Bell’s Seasoning

Melt butter in a large, thick-bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms and sauté until cooked, about 5 minutes. Add sage, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon Bell’s Seasoning; cook for an additional minute before removing from heat. Set aside.

Butter a deep 3-quart baking dish and evenly distribute one-third of the bread cubes over the bottom. Top with one-third of the sautéed onions and mushrooms, and one-third of each cheese. Repeat twice.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, half & half, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon Bell’s Seasoning. Pour mixture evenly over strata. Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight.

The next day, let strata stand at room temperature for 45 minutes before baking. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bake strata, uncovered, for 50-60 minutes, until custard is set and the bread is puffed and golden brown. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving. Makes 8 to 12 servings. (Recipe adapted from ediblesouthshore.com.)


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