Cooking For a Crowd

Larry Nighswander

As a master coordinator, I've always taken pride in my skills whenever I've been in charge of Thanksgiving dinner. There is something rewarding about successfully executing such a big, multicourse meal. After all that planning and cooking, I love being able to turn to family and friends and triumphantly announce, "Dinner is served."

Well, my inflated sense of worth shrank a bit last year, when I attended the annual Thanksgiving dinner organized near my home in Orlando, Florida, by volunteers from the Salvation Army. The group pulled off a holiday feast for more than 21,000 people, and it was an amazing sight. From 10:30 in the morning until four in the afternoon, a nonstop stream of guests—families with grown children, mothers with babies, senior citizens, and every type of person in between—poured into the local Salvation Army's gymnasium, lined up at the buffet tables, and sat down at communal tables decorated with fresh flowers to a meal of roasted turkey with stuffing and gravy, baked ham, green beans, sweet potatoes, and various pies. Their hosts were a team of 40 students, moms, dads, grandparents, and a few professional cooks, most of whom had been strangers to one another before that day.

I was humbled as I watched them come together as a well-organized kitchen staff, moving in unison to transform some 22,000 pounds of food into dinner. Turkey breasts, donated by Eric Holm, an owner of 20 Golden Corral restaurants, had been cooking all morning in ovens that were shipped in from a local restaurant supply company. Industrial mixers rendered boiled potatoes into buttery mashes, and gravy was thickened in big soup pots and poured into large sheet pans for serving. "It's amazing what you can do with this many volunteers," said Holm, who has managed the meal for 17 years and grew up receiving donated food baskets from the Salvation Army each Thanksgiving. Holm advised one crew to slice pumpkin and apple pies into neat pieces; another rolled silverware with paper napkins. Diners and servers chatted and laughed. Introductions were made. Glasses were raised.

There are hundreds of Thanksgiving meals that are orchestrated by volunteers around the country. In Chicago, I've heard about mobile kitchens that bring hot Thanksgiving dinners from neighborhood to neighborhood. And at the New York Rescue Mission in Manhattan, tables are set with china and linen, and musicians and gospel singers perform for the crowd. But nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced in Orlando. Suffice it to say that next year there will be a little less swagger in my declaration "Dinner is served."