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Thanksgiving Memories Afloat

While I make no claim to being a prophet, a seer,  a soothsayer, or even flat-out smart, I can predict with utmost confidence what will be on the minds of the approximately 70,000 men and women of the Navy and Marine Corps who will be at sea or in port overseas on Thanksgiving Day: food and home.

I imagine, too, if one were to visit the Mississippi Veteran’s Retirement Home in Collins, or the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Biloxi, these two subjects would also be front and center with just about everyone.

There’s not much that can be done to shorten a tour of duty and return a person home for the holidays, or to enable an older person to step back into their lives of long ago; however, we can examine the other phenomenon that unites so many of us on Thanksgiving Day: food.

No one knows, for sure, what the Pilgrims ate for the first Thanksgiving dinner in 1621. Unfortunately, they did not leave us a menu. The only first-hand, written record of the three-day harvest festival, recorded by William Bradford in his book, Of Plymouth Plantation, says that the meal included deer and wildfowl. Everything else is educated guess work: cranberries and onions grew wild, chestnuts hung from the trees, fish and shellfish were in the bay, pumpkins were in the patch, etc.

Bradford’s book, by the way, is known in literary circles as the “world’s longest overdue library book.” An early copy was removed from the Old South Church in Boston in 1776 and did not surface again until 1855 when it was found in a private library in London.

Years ago, when I was on a ship out of Newport, Rhode Island, I had the opportunity to take my family over to Plymouth, Massachusetts, for the annual traditional Thanksgiving dinner at the historical site of “Plimoth” Plantation. The menu included several non-pilgrim items, such as potatoes, which hadn’t been brought to the New World in their day, and roast beef, but just being in the historical setting was exciting. Plymouth “Rock,” where the Pilgrims supposedly stepped ashore from the Mayflower in 1620, was smaller than I had envisioned; however, it did break in half when they tried to move it to the town square in 1774.

There’s no way of knowing how the turkey became the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal, or even how it got its name. Europeans were already familiar with the smaller Guinea fowl, which were imported by Turkish merchants. They had nicknamed such birds “turkeys.” Consequently, when similar-looking birds were spotted in the New World, they, too, were called turkeys by the pilgrims. Another theory says that Luis de Torres, a Jewish interpreter who accompanied Christopher Columbus in 1492, gave the holiday bird its name, “tukki,” which is the Jewish word for “big bird.”


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