I don't think anybody knows exactly how many years St. John's has put on a Thanksgiving Dinner, so I'm declaring this year's to be the 25th. You can declare it to be another year, if you'd like, but 25 has got to be close to right. The dinner was the idea of Irene and Bolton Anderson, both of whom I was privileged to know in my first years at St. John's, though both passed away about a decade ago.
There have been only a few changes to the menu in the years I've been around. I'll never forget standing at the stove with Gary one Thanksgiving eve as the turkey gravy, made from a
roo rue roux according to instructions handed down from Bolton and Irene, burned to the bottom of the pot. What do you do when when you're supposed to serve 75 people Thanksgiving Dinner, and your gravy tastes like burned flour?
Answer: Pretend it doesn't. Guess what! One guest said it was the best gravy he'd ever had!
That was the last year for gravy prepared from a roux.
This year was another major change. For years we had served a revolting concoction known as "Jello Salad," which was Jello (with extra Knox gelatin added to keep it from melting - yum!) on top of a romaine lettuce leaf, covered with a runny topping made with yogurt, mayonnaise, and sugar. Blech! This was, I'm sure, a very popular dish in the Midwest from about the Depression through the 1950s. My mother-in-law served the same thing (minus the added gelatin) until I knew her well enough to make barf noises.
Bill and Dave had guilt pangs after preparing last year's Jello.
"How can we feed this to people?" they wondered.
"It's tradition!" was the cheerful reply.
And as you know, tradition is one of the legs of the Episcopalian three-legged stool, so we have to take it seriously.
But this year the menu was an appetizer of mixed nuts, cheese and crackers (a new tradition!), a relish tray, turkey, stuffing, green beans almondine, mashed potatoes, mashed sweet potatoes, pumpkin bread, cranberry nut bread, and pie, pie, pie. N0 Jello Salad.
Some preparations for Thanksgiving Day dinner begin in October (when Suellen, aka the Turkey Commissar, starts making gravy and turkey stock), but you don't notice much at church until the Sunday before, when the turkeys get piled in the refrigerator and various canned goods get piled around the church hall. The real action begins on Tuesday night, when the round tables are put away, the rectangular tables are put out, and the tables are dressed with tableclothes, napkins, and silverware. It's a short but physically demanding night, made easier this year by the appearance of two wonderful volunteers from the Old Irving Park neighborhood
Wednesday night is food preparation night. Fifty-five pounds of potatoes are peeled:
and cut into quarters in preparation for cooking on Thanksgiving morning:
As on Tuesday, we had extra help, as neighbors (like Joe and Kim, seen in the above pictures) answered a call for volunteers in an Old Irving Park newsletter.
Gary's mother, known as the Celery Queen, comes down from Wisconsin every year just to help:
While here, she also pops by to visit her son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren for a few minutes.
Nora, Deborah, Julianne (not shown), and Kim prepared floral arrangements for the Thanksgiving tables. (Hugh's just walking by.)
Finally, it's Thanksgiving morning, and the church kitchen is ready for action:
We're nervous. We have 92 reservations – almost maximum capacity – and attendance generally exceeds reservations. In 25 years, we've never turned anyone away for lack of a reservation.
It doesn't take long before the action begins.
Meanwhile, upstairs our guests have been arriving. Many attended the 11 a.m. service, and have been waiting since. Talented members of the congregation, like Susan, below, have been leading them in hymns or playing music for them.
Table assignments have been made to the volunteers, who wait for word from the kitchen that all is ready.
Some of the kitchen crew pose for a picture:
The volunteers pose for a group picture just before the doors open (click on the picture for a better view, then use your browser's back arrow to return here):
As you can see, we had an abundance of volunteers this year – a blessing, but an organizational challenge – ably handled by Lourdes, allowing Suellen to focus on activities in the kitchen.
And right on time, our guests are invited to come down for dinner:
Total attendance was almost 100.
Suellen: only 10 months until gravy production begins again.