Our ancestors would never have dreamed of forcing one or two wines to be all things to all guests at this, the most important meal of the year. Here is a suggested menu for Thanksgiving dinner, from the Boston Cooking School Cookbook, written by Fannie Farmer and originally published in 1896.
Opulent as this repast is, it still does not constitute a "full course" formal dinner, which would have proceeded precisely and graciously from shellfish to soup to fish to roast (beef) to vegetable to sorbet to game to salads to jellies, puddings, ices, cakes, bonbons, and then the inevitable crackers, cheese, and cafe noir. As to the wines at either style of meal, full or not, Miss Farmer's advice is brief.
"Where wines and liqueurs are served, the first course is not usually accompanied by either; but if desired, Sauterne [sic] or other white wine may be served.
"With soup, serve sherry; with fish, white wine; with game, claret [Bordeaux, e.g., a cabernet-merlot blend]; with roast and other courses, champagne."
That's all. Unless of course, you wish to add after-dinner cordials to the festivities.
"After serving cafe noir in the drawing room, pass pony of brandy for men, sweet liqueur (Chartreuse, Benedictine, or Parfait d'Amour) for women; then Creme de Menthe to all."
You'll be relieved to know that the very last thing "passed" was Apollinaris, sparkling water. And can it be that Miss Farmer did not much like Burgundy? For she seems to have forgotten it, whereas the table settings drawn up in the era's equally popular White House Cookbook make prominent room for it. To the right of one's plate at a formal dinner in Washington in Gilded Age days, one found six glasses, arranged in a sort of anchor pattern: glasses I, II, and III, the arms of the anchor, held Sauternes, sherry, and Rhine (German riesling) respectively; glass IV at the anchor's throat held water (thank goodness); glasses V and VI, making up the shank, held champagne and Burgundy.We know for example, from this same White House Cookbook, that General Grant's birthday dinner allowed for the serving of "Ernest Jeroy" along with filet de boeuf a la Bernardi. Ernest Jeroy seems to have fallen off the planet -- look for it in books in vain, google it and you will find it only turns up in retellings of General Grant's birthday dinner -- but it sounds like a Burgundy, doesn't it? The fact that it was also served at a state dinner to accompany saumon and then grenadines de bass leads me to suspect it was everything a supple, beef- and fish-friendly pinot noir should be. Perhaps Miss Farmer simply preferred her claret.
At any rate, the holiday wine and food pairing challenge is easy to face. Let our ancestors guide you. To each course, its appropriate wine. The good people at Epicurious appear to have some inklings. They suggest a trio of food pairings for each of several possible wines, based on the flavor profiles of some suggested recipes for the turkey, the stuffing, a vegetable, and so on. Chardonnay to match sweetness, a pinot noir to match anything herbal, a zinfandel to marry with Italian flavor profiles. All fine. But to General Grant, or Miss Farmer, I suspect such anxieties might have seemed rather mean. Rather too much concerned with efficiency and not pleasure. For heaven's sake, they might have said, all this has been thought out for you long since. Look at the six glasses beside your plate, and be glad to anticipate all the good, right things coming your way.