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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.

November 15, 1990|RUTH REICHL | TIMES FOOD EDITOR

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.

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