My father-in-law turned 90 this year. Getting ready for his party we looked through old photos and mementos he had tucked away. We learned a lot about where he grew up in Yonkers, NY, about his education, his family and his service in the Army during WWII.
Among the documents, photos and other memorabilia was a folded sheet of aged brown paper. I was drawn to it and carefully unfolded it. Inside I found the menu for a Thanksgiving dinner celebrated 75 years ago.
My father-in-law didn’t recall it’s particular significance. He wasn’t sure why he had kept this menu tucked away with his army records and childhood photos all these years. In some ways it seemed insignificant filed among transcripts and discharge records, photos from army hospitals and postcards from Europe. We took a photo of it, like we did the rest, and turned the page.
Fascinated by history and all things food related, I came back to that menu after the party. I wondered why it had been there, in my father-in-law’s folder, what it might have meant to him at the time he folded it and tucked it away.
Looking it over I noticed that it was carefully formatted and typed. I smiled at the detail, the way it broke out “bread” and “butter” and the relishes offered, to fill the page. Then it was inserted in a folder illustrated with a traditional Thanksgiving scene. The art deco style lettering on the illustration suggests the era confirmed by the date "1938" in the lower right corner.
Curious about the setting I looked up the events surrounding Thanksgiving 1938. After nearly a decade the US was still in the throes of the Great Depression. Unemployment was on the rise again at 19%, lower than at the peak of the depression but higher by roughly 5% than the year before.
The world was in turmoil. In the spring German troops had marched in, occupied and then annexed Austria. Earlier in November Kristallnacht had shocked the world and resulted in the deaths of nearly 100 Jews across Germany and many thousands more being taken to concentration camps as their shops and synagogues were destroyed.
And in New York, where my father-in-law grew up, there was turbulence as well. In September, over 600 people were killed when an unexpected hurricane wreaked havoc on Long Island and New England. Then in October, nationwide hysteria is said to have ensued when War of the Worlds was broadcast on the radio and many people believed, however briefly, that aliens had actually landed in New Jersey.
Still Giving Thanks
Given the realities of 1938 it is easy to understand an atmosphere of uncertainty. People felt uneasy about fluctuations in an economy they wanted to believe was improving. They were also disturbed about events around the world, not to mention climate fluctuations and even the effects of the media on the minds of the masses. And yet, what was not uncertain in 1938 was the celebration of a traditional Thanksgiving.
Looking at this menu it is clear that, at least in some important ways, little has changed over the past 75 years. This menu, though quaint, is recognizable. Without its title we would still guess the occasion given the featured Roast Young Tom Turkey with Giblet Gravy and the meal’s conclusion of Pumpkin Pie. Even the side dishes are scarcely different than those served at Thanksgivings I remember as a child. My father always prepared a relish tray for Thanksgiving including celery hearts and sweet pickles. And, while Ham Dressing may sound a bit unusual, dressing is one dish that often differs from table to table but has long been a hallmark of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, as is Cranberry Sauce and even Sweet Potatoes.
This year our feast will look much the same. My Thanksgiving Planner, highlighting posts from My Own Sweet Thyme that have been a part of my Thanksgiving feast, includes recipes for most of the items on this 1938 menu. It is my daughter who is hosting our Thanksgiving dinner this year and she is planning to use many of those recipes as well. A dish may change here or there but on the whole this Thanksgiving feast will look much like our feast and most everyone else’s, last year, when I was a child, and even in 1938. And this year, as in 1938, despite the world’s uncertainties, we will still count our blessings and offer our thanks!