The COVID pandemic has affected everything else, so of course it will have an impact on Thanksgiving dinner. Family gatherings will be small, intimate affairs. Smaller gatherings mean less demand for twenty-four-pound turkeys. Supermarkets are ordering more small turkeys, more hens and fewer toms. Growers are slaughtering their birds earlier.
Does this mean distributors’ freezers will be filled with unsold twenty-pound birds? Taking the Wayback Machine to 1953, we see ten railroad cars filled with 260 tons of frozen turkeys the Swanson Company had not been able to sell by Thanksgiving. Refrigeration only worked when the cars were moving. The train rumbled back and forth between Swanson’s headquarters in Nebraska and the East Coast while executives figured out what to do.
The solution was to put slices of turkey on partitioned aluminum trays along with sweet potatoes and cornbread stuffing. Thus was born the TV Dinner. In the first full year of production, Swanson sold ten million frozen dinners, turkey, beef, chicken and others. The company’s timing was good; by 1954, sixty-four percent of American homes had television. (A decade later, it was ninety percent, in time for the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show.)
During my twenty years in Santa Rosa, planning a turkey feast usually included a short drive to the Willie Bird store. Willie Bird’s farm was in the hills behind the store. Family-owned for four generations, Willie Bird was woven into Sonoma County life. The county fair or farmer’s markets or most other outdoor events typically included Willie Bird’s barbecue, grilling drumsticks. Willie Bird’s restaurant was a mainstay in Santa Rosa for years.
Diestel Family Ranch, also in California, purchased Willie Bird this past summer. The new owner says the Willie Bird name will continue. The restaurant was sold last year and now operates as “The Bird.”
“I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
– Jon Stewart
The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1863. Well, that’s when it became an official holiday in the United States. Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation for the new holiday, partly an attempt to assuage the nation’s deep divide during the Civil War.
The real first Thanksgiving, to celebrate and express gratitude for a bountiful harvest, lasted three days at Plymouth Colony. Over the following decades, Thanksgiving observance became an annual tradition in New England.
Only a few women partook of the Thanksgiving at Plymouth Colony in 1621. That’s because only four of the twenty women who arrived on the Mayflower survived the first winter. By that time, about half of the approximately fifty colonists were children and teenagers.
Native Americans outnumbered colonists by about two to one. Ninety men from the nearby Wampanoag joined the colonists. They soon became BFF with the Pilgrims.
There was no Black Friday shopping after the First Thanksgiving as there were no retail stores. And there was no UPS to deliver Amazon parcels. Nor was there NFL football, as the Pilgrims had no television.
Native Americans had no tradition of formal Thanksgiving; giving thanks was integral to daily life. “Every time anybody went hunting or fishing or picked a plant, they would offer a prayer or acknowledgment.”
Wild turkeys were abundant in the region, but probably not a centerpiece of the feast. Goose and duck and even pigeon were the wildfowl of choice. Eels and shellfish, such as lobster, clams and mussels, likely were on the table. No mashed potatoes and gravy; potatoes, white or sweet, had not yet made their way to North America. Cranberry sauce? It was not until fifty years later that an Englishman reported what resulted from boiling the red berries with sugar.
Thanksgiving at Plymouth colony began the centuries of friendship between European immigrants and Native Americans. America’s manifest destiny even gave inspiration to Adolph Hitler and his lebensraum.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving. If you need a conversation starter at the dinner table, try “How about that impeachment?”
E.J. Jackson, founder and president of Jackson Limousine Service in Los Angeles, died last week of a heart attack. He was sixty-six years old. His thirty-plus-year project of providing Thanksgiving turkey dinner to those who really need it will continue.