by Frank Dunnigan
As families and friends gather for Thanksgiving, we take a look back at some of the many reminders of vintage holiday celebrations contained in the OSFH archives.
Most of us grew up in San Francisco with many relatives and family friends living nearby. Grandparents often had numerous siblings, in-laws, cousins, and decades-long friends who might be part of the family’s Thanksgiving celebrations. Meals like this were the perfect setting for kids to learn the meaning of “2nd-cousin-once-removed” by linking names and faces to otherwise vague genealogical titles.
My own grandmother, who hosted our 1960’s Thanksgiving dinners, was a long-time resident of the Mission District and there was no supermarket shopping for her at holiday time—she visited many different stores in order to select just the right products for her Thanksgiving table.
Root vegetables played a big part in the meal, and she often liked to visit the Alemany Farmers Market where she could inspect each carrot, potato, yam, and onion before making a final selection. Sometimes she did not like what she saw there, and would then visit smaller neighborhood produce markets for certain items.
See a history of the San Francisco Farmers Market from its founding at Duboce & Market in 1943 to its later expansion on Alemany Boulevard
The turkey invariably came from the legendary New Mission Market where Grandma could chat with her favorite butcher and obtain the largest possible turkey that would fit into her roasting pan and oven—22 pounds would fit perfectly—23 pounds, maybe, depending on the shape—24 pounds—NOT. As late as the 1950s, the store still employed “pluckers” who would remove the feathers from freshly slaughtered poultry in a back room, and then singe the tiny “pin feathers” with an open flame so that the bird would be ready for the store’s most persnickety customers.
In the days before chain supermarkets, many Thanksgiving turkeys came from poultry-only shops such as the long-gone Royal Poultry that once shared a building with the local Bank of America branch on Mission Street near Geneva Avenue.
Living on Capp Street for several decades before moving to the Outer Mission, Grandma would be up and down 24th Street for many additional dinner items—wine and liquor at stores like the Kitchen Cupboard, day-old bread for her stuffing at Mrs. Bigg’s Bakery, and perhaps some Pepto-Bismol for over-indulging guests from Murphy’s Pharmacy.
For many families, though, it’s just not Thanksgiving without fresh crab from Fishermen’s Wharf, though recent news reports in late October of 2022 state that the opening of the Dungeness crab season will be delayed for the fourth year in a row—meaning that crab will not be available again this year for Bay Area Thanksgiving tables. Perhaps a side trip to Liguria Bakery in North Beach for focaccia will help to fill this culinary gap. See mouth-watering Liguria images.
Like many families in the 1950s, Jell-O salads were a typical start to our Thanksgiving meal. We went though some odd choices for a while—lime green Jell-O made with canned fruit cocktail was present for several years—to decidedly mixed reviews. Finally, in 1967, the St. Cecilia Parish cookbook printed a recipe for Mandarin Orange Salad (canned Mandarin oranges in a mixture of orange Jell-O and softened orange sherbet), which has been our family’s standard Thanksgiving salad for 55 years now.
Grandma always insisted on a colorful mix of foods on each plate—light and dark turkey meat with a rich brown gravy, mashed russet potatoes plus orange sweet potatoes, a dark green vegetable, a corn dish, deep red cranberry sauce (both whole berry and jellied—our family had die-hard fans for each type), plus golden-brown rolls and fresh butter. One year, to prevent squabbling at the table, Grandma purchased and cooked an additional dozen turkey drumsticks, thus keeping everyone happy, though the platter looked like a chorus line of Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in the middle of the table. The cranberry sauce was always served in an antique crystal dish that appeared only once a year and was never used for anything else.
There were always three choices of pie—apple, pumpkin, and mincemeat. The whipped cream for the pumpkin pie was always freshly made, and Grandma supervised the precise amounts of sugar and vanilla, with the eye of a chemist, as well as the beating time so that the whole thing was NOT churned into butter—a culinary mishap that used to occur occasionally when she was not watching closely enough.
Only when the meal was plated and everyone served, would Grandma sit down and relax, still wearing her apron—confident that all was well and grateful that her family was together for yet another year.
Regardless of where the celebration takes place—at someone’s home, in a restaurant, or communal dining amongst the warm camaraderie of others who might be working on the holiday, Thanksgiving is the time for all of us to express our gratitude for having come through another year.