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Thanksgiving in Joseon Korea: Baked beans gobbled up, but no turkey

The Jinhae market, circa 1910-1930. Robert Neff Collection
The Jinhae market, circa 1910-1930. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

Not quite turkey but close enough in the late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection
Not quite turkey but close enough in the late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection
In 1884, the handful of Americans living in Korea celebrated American Thanksgiving in a rather humble manner.

According to Horace Allen ― an American missionary ― it was "a cold, crisp day [minus 3 degrees Celsius] with the ground frozen for four inches below the surface."

His small family and their two guests, Mr. Charles S. Scudder (the Secretary of the American Legation) and James F. Mitchell (an English shipbuilder), "celebrated the day by a little altar worship by singing 'My Country Tis of Thee' and by eating 'Boston Baked Beans' for tiffin [lunch]."

Another American, Ensign George C. Foulk, was exploring the southern part of the peninsula in Gyeongsang Province. He was having a very bad day.

He and his team spent the morning trudging through the dreary icy weather ― grousing about the previous night's experiences. In the middle of the night, someone had stolen Foulk's assistant's tobacco pipe ― and, considering a large part of the population smoked (men, women and children), this was a serious loss. Foulk was also upset that the previous evening's meal had cost him nearly three times the usual price.

Fortunately for Foulk, things improved when they reached a small inn near Jinhae.

He described the establishment as being "a dirty little place" where he had his Thanksgiving lunch. It wasn't traditional but Foulk was quite pleased with it and declared the food at the dirty little inn to be very good. He and his party had fish, rice and some "Chinju soju, which makes my belly warm!"

Jinhae port, circa 1910-1930. Robert Neff Collection
Jinhae port, circa 1910-1930. Robert Neff Collection

For many years it was difficult to get a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in Korea. It wasn't until the early 1890s that the occasional "enterprising foreigner" would have a live turkey sent from China to grace a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner table.

Apparently, in 1899, an American missionary living in Gunsan was blessed with the entrepreneurial spirit and he acquired "two hens and a gobbler" from Japan and soon had a flock of 22 fine turkeys.

The editor of The Independent, an English language newspaper published in Seoul, wrote: "If the weasels, cats, dogs, hawks, etc., can be kept at a distance, it is evident that these toothsome birds may be raised in Korea for the adornment of our Christmas tables."

It seems somewhat strange that until a couple of years ago, it was very difficult to find turkey in Korea ― aside from the military camps. Now, however, turkeys can be purchased with all the fixings in many places in Seoul.

Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving.


The Jinhae market, circa 1910-1930. Robert Neff Collection
The Jinhae market, circa 1910-1930. Robert Neff Collection

By Robert Neff

Not quite turkey but close enough in the late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection
Not quite turkey but close enough in the late 19th century. Robert Neff Collection
In 1884, the handful of Americans living in Korea celebrated American Thanksgiving in a rather humble manner.

According to Horace Allen ― an American missionary ― it was "a cold, crisp day [minus 3 degrees Celsius] with the ground frozen for four inches below the surface."

His small family and their two guests, Mr. Charles S. Scudder (the Secretary of the American Legation) and James F. Mitchell (an English shipbuilder), "celebrated the day by a little altar worship by singing 'My Country Tis of Thee' and by eating 'Boston Baked Beans' for tiffin [lunch]."

Another American, Ensign George C. Foulk, was exploring the southern part of the peninsula in Gyeongsang Province. He was having a very bad day.

He and his team spent the morning trudging through the dreary icy weather ― grousing about the previous night's experiences. In the middle of the night, someone had stolen Foulk's assistant's tobacco pipe ― and, considering a large part of the population smoked (men, women and children), this was a serious loss. Foulk was also upset that the previous evening's meal had cost him nearly three times the usual price.

Fortunately for Foulk, things improved when they reached a small inn near Jinhae.

He described the establishment as being "a dirty little place" where he had his Thanksgiving lunch. It wasn't traditional but Foulk was quite pleased with it and declared the food at the dirty little inn to be very good. He and his party had fish, rice and some "Chinju soju, which makes my belly warm!"

Jinhae port, circa 1910-1930. Robert Neff Collection
Jinhae port, circa 1910-1930. Robert Neff Collection

For many years it was difficult to get a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in Korea. It wasn't until the early 1890s that the occasional "enterprising foreigner" would have a live turkey sent from China to grace a Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner table.

Apparently, in 1899, an American missionary living in Gunsan was blessed with the entrepreneurial spirit and he acquired "two hens and a gobbler" from Japan and soon had a flock of 22 fine turkeys.

The editor of The Independent, an English language newspaper published in Seoul, wrote: "If the weasels, cats, dogs, hawks, etc., can be kept at a distance, it is evident that these toothsome birds may be raised in Korea for the adornment of our Christmas tables."

It seems somewhat strange that until a couple of years ago, it was very difficult to find turkey in Korea ― aside from the military camps. Now, however, turkeys can be purchased with all the fixings in many places in Seoul.

Wishing everyone a happy Thanksgiving.




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