If you follow any organization that studies naval history, chances are you have recently seen several ship and shore holiday menus posted or shared on their respective social media sites. Institutions like the Naval History and Heritage Command, Puget Sound Naval Museum, Hampton Roads Naval Museum, and Battleship Cove are showcasing their unique collections of Thanksgiving and Christmas menus this week. Thanksgiving menus are particularly interesting, as the main focus of the holiday centers around the meal and its subsequent fellowship and merriment. Holiday repasts are a common and ongoing naval tradition provided to sailors in times of war and peace, from the war torn shores of Okinawa to the arid climate of the Persian Gulf. What better way to remind a sailor of the comforts of home than with a simple (if not elegant) spread of comfort food?
Type in “U.S. Navy holiday menu” on the Internet and you will find a slew of these menus from private collectors, museums, and enthusiasts. The story began in 2003 with a general call for these items from the Navy Department Library in Washington, D.C. According to the Library, these menus are “important memories for past and present sailors of special times away from home with their shipmates.” The Library put on an exhibit of over 100 menus that same year.
Through a series of fortunate Facebook encounters, I was able to take a peak at a colleague’s incredible collection. Jim Dolbow, editor of the 10th Edition of the Naval Institute’s Coast Guardsman’s Manual, is one such collector.
Before Jim took his current position on the hill in Washington, D.C., he worked as a contractor for the Naval History and Heritage Command. It was there that his interest in holiday menus began.
“My shipmates at the Navy Department Library would put on display some of their holiday menus for all to see,” Dolbow reminisces in an online interview this week. “I used to walk past the display case a dozen times a day to get to my desk and I thought what a neat hobby this will make.” So it became a hobby. As he says, “the rest is history.”
Like any historical document, the menu items included on these collectibles must be taken in historical context. Although turkey is the main staple at Thanksgiving meals across the United States, many naval vessels and installations included rather peculiar items on their menus. Dolbow notes how many of these vittles are similar from year to year. Some of the more “curious” menu items include:
- Stuffed Celery
- Lettuce and Tomato Salad with Mayonnaise Dressing
- Oyster Dressing
- Snoflake Potatoes
- Sweet Mixed Pickles
The strangest of all? Dolbow gets a personal kick that many list cigars and cigarettes as options, “especially the naval hospital menus.”
Jim is the first one to admit that his newfound hobby is rather unusual. Yet his interest is inspiring him to begin a collection of postal covers of naval ships. Sadly, “that is a topic for another interview.”
Dolbow’s favorite menus are from Christmas and Thanksgiving of 1945. “Talk about something to be thankful for with the end of World War II and being the first Christmas in 5 years not at war.“
These menus are both historical documents and discussion pieces. Dolbow imagines the conversations amongst the newly christened peacetime sailors. “If I had to guess, everybody wanted to get home. Since most of the ships are no longer around, the menus are the only things left to remind us of holidays gone by.” I think that is all something that we can be thankful for.
All photos courtesy Jim Dolbow and Navy Department Library.
A special thanks to Jim for use of his private collection to be reposted on this site. If you have any menus that need a home, Jim and the Navy Department Library would be more than happy to put them to good use.
Share your Thanksgiving stories in the comment section below, or email them to Matthew Eng at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will be sure to post them. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!