Why did the pilgrim's pants fall down? Because he wore his buckle on his hat.
Ah, the collective groan. Doesn't that feel better? After all,
- GUESS WHO IS COMING TO DINNER? : The Sauer family of San Luis Obispo the Sauer Adobe across from the Mission is named after them sits down to a Thanksgiving Day dinner at the turn of the century.
It's certainly a beloved American holiday, one into which we indoctrinate our elementary school children via Thanksgiving Day pageants and crafts and quaint stories about Native Americans helping the starving pilgrims after their first hard winter.
You may not know, however, that it wasn't an official national holiday until Honest Abe Lincoln declared it so in 1864, saying, "It has pleased Almighty God to prolong our national life another year ... therefore, I ... do hereby appoint and set apart the last Thursday in November next as a day which I desire to be observed by all my fellow-citizens, wherever they may be then, as a day of thanksgiving and praise to Almighty God, the beneficent Creator and Ruler of the universe."
Naturally, the Southern States weren't particularly interested in giving thanks for having their arses whooped, and the holiday didn't catch on in that part of the country for some years at least not until good-natured nationalist Teddy Roosevelt held office. Likewise, about the only folks celebrating Lincoln's newly declared holiday on the west side of the Rockies were relocated New Englanders. San Luis Obispo's daily newspaper of the time first made mention of the holiday in 1871: "Thanksgiving passed of very tamely in San Luis. In fact, but few seemed to recollect that it had been set apart as a day of thanks."
Not to say it hadn't been celebrated locally before then. In a
- SMOKE EM IF YA GOT EM : The smokehouse at Old Country Deli does meat the old fashioned way by hand, in small batches, using the best ingredients possible.
And heck, Thanksgiving as a holiday isn't quite the clear-cut story we got in elementary school anyway. The New Englanders officially proclaimed the first Thanksgiving on June 20, 1676, by the governing council of Charlestown, Mass. June? The crops weren't even in! Must have been wishful thinking.
According to other accounts, the first observance of Thanksgiving in America was entirely religious in nature and involved no form of feasting. No turkey, mashed potatoes, and gravy nothing! "On December 4, 1619, a group of 38 English settlers arrived at Berkeley Plantation on the James River ... a location now known as Charles City, Virginia. The charter of the group required that the day of arrival be observed as a Day of Thanksgiving to God."
The first Thanksgiving story that most of us learned was the one about the celebration in 1621 in New England, a little less than a year after the Plymouth colonists had settled in America. The preceding spring, Samoset of the Wampanoag Tribe and Squanto of the Patuxtet Tribe taught the Pilgrim survivors how to plant corn and catch and use small herring-like fish to fertilize pumpkins, beans, and other crops. After the crops came in, they had a three-day festival and feast. You know how it goes: turkey soup, turkey sandwiches, yada yada yada. Sometimes it takes four or five days to dispose of all those leftovers.
But back to Thanksgiving on the Central Coast. Apparently if one wanted a turkey, one couldn't pull into Old Country Deli (more on them later) and buy a smoked turkey that was ready to eat. In 1880, the local SLO paper noted that, "Messrs. Venable, Hays, Spencer, and McMurtry went to the Morro on Thanksgiving Day and bagged over 100 ducks."
The next year, the paper reported, "The number of turkeys which were sacrificed upon the occasion has not been reported. We note with considerable satisfaction the absence of one old turkey-cock that for the last two or three weeks has paraded under our office window and gobbled defiance at everything human, in a most exasperating manner." Good riddance, Tom!
- ALL IN THE FAMILY : Old Country Deli owner Norm Eggen (center) runs the business with his kids Elizabeth and William. They have a reputation for making some of the best smoked turkeys and hams in town.
# In 1889, the South County daily paper of record reported, "The turkey shooting Thursday drew a big crowd of marksmen. Our old friend J.V.N. Young killed so many birds that he was ruled out early in the day. It didn't make any difference to him whether the turkey stood broad side, rolled over and stuck up one foot, or hid behind a log, his unerring aim was bound to reach them."
There are still local "turkey shoots" around, like the one that happened Nov. 19 at Atascadero's Santa Lucia Sportsmen Association's public turkey shoot, but instead of killing real turkeys, participants paid $5 a round to shoot in marksmen events, such as trap, rifle, running deer, and quail walk.
These days, if we want a game bird, we buy one at a chain grocery store, which seems to almost give them away.
"The traditional theory is the turkey and hams are a loss leader, but I like to think they're trying to get rid of their hams and turkeys because we have such good ones, so they have to price them down," said Old Country Deli owner, Norm Eggen, who offers smoked turkeys and cured, spiral-cut hams.
"We're doing great," said Eggen, who had to be rousted from a nap to be interviewed because he'd been working so much. "What a phenomenal year. Seems like everybody's coming back to the homemade ham. Thanksgiving is normally a turkey day, and we deal in smoked turkeys only, the type of turkey you serve at room temperature. We usually sell a couple hundred for Thanksgiving and usually 100 to 200 hams. At Christmas, we sell 500 or more. They're available year-round, but we generally sell maybe 10 a week, so the holidays are big business for us. We sell 200 or 300 at Easter time."
Eggen, who runs the business with his son and daughter, also operates his own smoke house.
- HOSPITALITY, AMERICAN STYLE : (left to right) Hostel Obispo owner Elaine Simer will cook up a Thanksgiving Day feast for her foreign guests with the help of Liz Marut and Neil Eckard.
# "We take a fresh pork leg buy 'em in combo bins of 2,000 pounds at a time and cure 'em in smoke in our own smoke house. It was in 1986 when we got the spiral slicer, and at that time there was only one guy in the world selling spiral. Now everybody's got 'em," he said. "But we cure our hams with honey, and that's why the flavor is there. The thing is, I suppose everyone has spiral-sliced hams, but not like ours. We don't add a lot of water, and the hams smoke in hickory for 20 to 24 hours, so it's like going back to the good old days, having something that's genuine and not mass produced."
It just seems like Thanksgiving is a time for traditions, and in SLO Town, it's no different though sometimes the traditions aren't that old. Take Elaine Simer's Hostel Obispo Thanksgiving Day feast, for instance. She began running a youth hostel out of her home 13 years ago and now runs a 22-bed facility on Santa Rosa Street near the train station. Every year, she has travelers from all over the world, and every year she whips up a traditional dinner for her foreign guests.
According to Simer, the foreigners "absolutely love Thanksgiving, love being a part of it."
But do these people from other countries know what Thanksgiving is?
"No, but they always want to know about it. We tell them the traditional story of Thanksgiving, the one everyone learns in elementary school with the pilgrims and the Indians. Then we tell them the Howard Zinn version," said Simer with a sly twinkle in her eye.
"We actually already had one Thanksgiving dinner last week," said Liz Marut, who lives and works at the hostel and works as a park ranger for the City of SLO. "Two of the people who work here were leaving before Thanksgiving, so we decided to have a dinner for them and the guests."
When Simer with help from Marut and Neil Eckard makes dinner again this Thanksgiving for her youth hostel patrons and a few friends, she'll ask everyone to make a dish for all to share or to help with the cooking.
"A lot of people make a dish from their own country, and some people give us a few dollars for the turkey," she said.
"There was talk of doing a turducken," Marut interjected.
For those not-in-the-know, a turducken is a chicken inserted into a duck inserted into a turkey, with layers of stuffing in between.
"The hard part is you have to de-bone each of the birds," Simer lamented. "It was a Julia Child creation, but I think we'll have a traditional turkey dinner, but with a lot of vegetarian dishes a lot of the people who stay here are vegetarians and everything is all from scratch. We don't do anything out of boxes."
Even the sourdough pancakes that the hostel serves to guests every morning are made from scratch using a sourdough starter Simer's had for years.
- TURKEYS ON PARADE : Students of the Fremont School held a Thanksgiving Day pageant during a time when kids could apparently get away with bringing guns to school.
# (Warning! Tangent alert!) A lot of people who have a starter in the fridge think of it as a pet that needs to be fed and loved. Sourdough starter is basically a batter of flour and water, filled with living yeast and bacteria. The yeast and bacteria form a stable symbiotic relationship, and as long as you keep the starter fed, it can live for centuries as a thriving colony of microorganisms.
Back to Simer's Thanksgiving.
Her biggest year boasted a whopping 28 people, but she guesses she'll have about 20 this year.
"And we always go for a hike. We put the turkey in the oven and take off. I like going up San Luis mountain, but last year we went up Terrace Hill," Simer said.
The most memorable Thanksgiving was the year she almost burned the house down.
"The turkey was too big for the pan, so as it cooked, the wings extended over the side. Then it started dripping grease that went all over the bottom of the oven and caught fire," she recalled good-naturedly. "When we got back from the hike, the turkey was still cooking but the oven was on fire, the house was filled with smoke, and all the fire alarms were going off. We pulled the turkey out of the oven and brought it to a neighbor's house to finish cooking it. I had to buy a new stove because every time we turned the old one on, the whole place filled up with smoke."
Most of us won't be entertaining foreign travelers or shooting turkeys or curing our own hams. No, we'll be celebrating Thanksgiving the way SLO County has for nearly 150 years: quietly, with family and friends gathered 'round, thanking providence that despite our personal or shared trials and travails, (insert the higher power of your choice here) has prolonged our national life another year.
Ah, Thanksgiving. Smoke-filled kitchens. Tryptophan-induced naps. Football overload. Life is good.
Need a place to go?
One way SLO County celebrates Thanksgiving is by sharing its good fortune with others, so if you don't have a place to go for Thanksgiving, read on. The Honeymoon Cafe (999 Price St., Pismo Beach) is serving a family-style turkey dinner from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., which is free to those in need (donations accepted) reservations recommended (773-5646). The Morro Bay Peace Officers' Association and the Rotary Club of Morro Bay are co-hosting their ninth annual Thanksgiving dinner the day before Thanksgiving (Nov. 23, from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Morro Bay Community Center, 1001 Kennedy Way). Local Boy Scouts will be serving dinner. Call 772-6225 for more info or to donate to the program. Also on Nov. 23, the Senior Center and "Thanksgiving for Paso Robles" will offer a meal from noon to 2 p.m. at Centennial Park (600 Nickerson Dr. volunteers and donations needed, call 238-2410 or 434-0031). If you'd rather spend the morning of Turkey Day losing weight than gaining it, you can hike with the Land Conservancy on Nov. 23, when they meet in the Black Lake parking lot at 9 a.m.
Hands in the past
New Times would like to thank volunteer researcher Allan Oshs and the SLO County Historical Society for their generous help in compiling facts for this story.
Glen Starkey is thankful to be near family and friends on the Central Coast. Wish him a happy Thanksgiving at firstname.lastname@example.org.