“It’s like family,” Jimmy Patterson said Tuesday inside Nantucket’s American Legion Hall as he and a small core of volunteers began prepping the island’s biggest meal of the year, a tradition started by his father.
More than 500 people will sit down inside the hall on Washington Street this Thursday for the 44th annual “Babe” Patterson Thanksgiving dinner. Even more meals will head out the door to be delivered around the island. And no one will pay a dime.
Stretching over four decades, the tradition began as way to feed those who didn’t have a place to go for Thanksgiving - the folks with no family on the island - and it has evolved into a sprawling act of kindness and generosity that also feeds hundreds of people who find themselves working on the holiday. A handful of island businesses donate food and other items, and the Sons of the American Legion make the magic happen.
Today, the “Babe” Patterson Thanksgiving dinner not only provides a meal for Nantucket’s homeless population and anyone seeking company on the holiday. It also feeds the island’s police officers, firefighters, members of Coast Guard Station Brant Point, the Our Island Home staff, Steamship Authority and Hy-Line Cruises personnel, and many more who are working on Thanksgiving and put in their orders for a home-cooked meal. And for the past two years, as President Biden’s security entourage of Secret Service agents and Massachusetts State Police Troopers have been on the island for the holiday, the American Legion team has also provided dinner for them as well.
“This all started out as my father’s idea of somebody who doesn’t have a place to go, doesn’t have family on the island, to come out in a casual scene and have a meal on us,” Patterson said Tuesday inside the Legion Hall’s small kitchen. “On Thanksgiving Day, it's a nice scene. It’s like family. It’s a big family. It’s really cool.”
Even before his father James “Babe” Patterson passed away in 2015, Jimmy Patterson has ensured the tradition continues each year. Other longtime Nantucketers who helped keep it going over the years - including the late Denny Dias and Bill Medeiros - may no longer be cooking, but their recipes and the way they prepared the meal live on.
“Bill stopped cooking a couple years ago - he’s 85-years-old now and would love to be here - all these guys I grew up with doing it and like Denny, he had his certain way to do the turkey, and we still do it,” Patterson said. “A friend of mine, Greg Wilson, he was the commander of the Sons of the American Legion here, so we had Greg’s onion soup. I still make his soup.”
A number of island restaurants donate food and other items for the cause - including Stop & Shop, Bartlett’s Farm, Something Natural, the Nantucket Bake Shop, and Holdgate’s Island Laundry which provides linens - while Patterson orders the rest from U.S. Foods.
A small group including Patterson and his son, along with Mark Roche, Brendan Beal, Jimmy Durette, Callie Pierce, Pat Cliney and others, do much of the cooking and prep work on Tuesday and Wednesday, before they’re joined by a larger group of volunteers who help set up the hall, create the meal bags, and deliver them across the island. Tom Coffin helps organize the routes and drivers.
Together they cook and distribute 20 turkeys and seven hams, dozens of trays of side dishes, and hundreds of pies. They ensure no one has to go hungry or spend Thanksgiving alone on Nantucket.
“So it’s gotten big,” Patterson said. “Especially for a little kitchen. But this is what American Legion members do. It’s always doing stuff for the public and serving the public. It’s a good feeling to do it. And we enjoy it.”