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An Italian restaurateur remembers Thanksgiving 1963, darkened by JFK's death




Piero Selvaggio, about to celebrate his 53d Thanksgiving in America, in the special events room of his restaurant Valentino in Santa Monica.
Piero Selvaggio, about to celebrate his 53d Thanksgiving in America, in the special events room of his restaurant Valentino in Santa Monica.
John Rabe

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Late November, 1963. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas just days before Thanksgiving. The nation mourned but carried on. Here's an excerpt from a wire story printed in the Chicago Tribune on Nov. 28.

(UPI) Hyannis Port, Mass., Nov. 27 -The kitchen at the home of Joseph P. Kennedy bustled with Thanksgiving preparations today as the family drew together once again for the annual reunion. The Kennedys went ahead with plans just as if the President were alive. Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy and her children were scheduled to arrive tomorrow in time for the traditional dinner. A breeze off Nantucket sound held the half-staffed flag on the late President's home as stiff as if it were starched ... A second huge turkey was delivered to the house today, indicating that most of the clan will be present. Should all of the children arrive, there would be about 30.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, the family of Piero Selvaggio was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner — 25 people, a table laden with bounty, two uncles carving two enormous birds.

In nine years, Piero would open Valentino in Santa Monica and usher in the food revolution with then-unheard items like carpaccio and arugula and good Italian wine. But now he's just 16, fresh from Sicily, experiencing his own food revolution: cranberry sauce, Brussels sprouts and turkeys — which they'd fed to the livestock back home in Italy.

Talking with me at Valentino last week,  Selvaggio remembered the exact day he arrived in New York: 10/10/1963. He got a job washing dishes at a university dining hall at a dollar a day and settled in with his family, who had started to come over from Italy in the 1950s.

"On this Thanksgiving Day, as we gather in the warmth of our families, in the mutual love and respect which we have for one another, and as we bow our heads in submission to divine providence, let us also thank God for the years that He gave us inspiration through His servant, John F. Kennedy."

— LBJ's 1963 Thanksgiving message to the nation.

"The first time I heard of Thanksgiving," he says, "was a few weeks after I arrived, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and there is this conversation that the Kennedys, the whole family will celebrate Thanksgiving because they don't want to break the tradition." It floored him, and gave him a sense of how "holy" this holiday was to Americans.

(JFK pardoning a turkey on Nov. 19, 1963. Kennedy Presidential Library/NARA)

Listen for much more of our interview on the audio player above, and stayed tuned: next week, Piero will give us some fresh ways to serve the old Thanksgiving leftovers.