By Kelly Duffy, National Museum of the American Sailor Contract Curator
It’s that time of year again, where families and friends gather ‘round tables for delicious home-cooked meals made from recipes passed down through generations with an occasional new dish sprinkled in here and there. The holiday season is a time for many to eat, drink, and be merry. Sailors too crave the cozy, jovial atmosphere of the holiday season and Culinary Specialists on-shore and aboard naval vessels do their best to replicate that home-cooked feeling by preparing special holiday meals, filled with traditional dishes.
In the past, for each Thanksgiving and Christmas a special meal was prepared for sailors. Akin to many homes across America, the menus changed very little from the 1900s to 1950s consisting of traditional and well-known favorites. The menus often included three courses.
The first was an appetizer such as soup. Soups varied between years and vessels; however some examples were cream of chicken, celery, tomato, or turkey soup. In 1907, sailors aboard the USS Kentucky (BB 6) were served oyster soup and crackers for their appetizers during their Thanksgiving dinner. Sometimes a salad, perhaps a Waldorf was served or a salad bar was available. Other appetizers included stuffed olives or celery and shrimp or tomato cocktail.
The main dish was usually stuffed turkey or ham. Side dishes included mashed potatoes, oyster or giblet dressing and different vegetables like peas prepared in a variety of ways, corn, sweet potatoes or candied yams trimmed with cranberry sauce and different types of relish and gravy. On some occasions sailors were given more than one meat option, like Thanksgiving 1917 on the USS New Jersey (BB 16) where sailors were given a “roast turkey a la New Jersey” and “prime roast beef au jus.”
The last course was a dessert or other sweet treats. Sailors were often offered ice cream for their dessert of choice. Other dessert options included apple and other pies; cakes (fruit cakes were the most common), and/or various fruit. For Thanksgiving 1942, cooks on the USS Augusta (CL 31) served both apple pie and ice cream as a sweet treat at the end of the meal. During Christmas sailors would sometimes get candy canes to give that extra holiday feeling like they did in 1956 on the USS Barry (DD 933).
Often menus included one last non-food element of the meal, cigars and cigarettes to wind down from the holiday fanfare. This after dinner smoking party no longer continues as evident from the Christmas 1982 menu from the USS Cavalla (SSN 684).
Holiday meals are just as important to sailors as they are to civilians. They provide a feeling of home and comfort while sailors are far away from home by recreating the same smells, tastes, and atmosphere of a traditional family table. For many their fellow shipmates are family and breaking bread with them is a tradition upon itself.
Check out the General Mess Manual and Cook Book U. S. Navy, 1902 at https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/g/general-mess-manual-and-cook-book.html for more naval menus and recipes.
For an in-depth look at Thanksgiving menus check out Navy Thanksgiving: A Sampling of Holiday Menus Through the Eras .
For more information on the National Museum of the American Sailor visit our website.