A very Durango Thanksgiving

Durango Herald file photo

Homemade pies are a regular feature at the event, and pumpkin s always is a favorite of the thousands of dinner-goers.

By Karen Brucoli Anesi
Special to the Herald

Finish that cup of coffee and get moving. In a few hours, we’ll be jockeying the leaf to the dining room table so 10 can fit where six usually sit.

Who will find the gravy separator that got stashed God-knows-where, this week last November? And why does this pie crust still look like a map of Africa?

Ah, the Day Before We Eat the Big Bird.

Maybe it needs to be declared a national holiday, too. It’s when the red states join the blue states, united, at least, in blue-in-the-face, holiday preparation frustration.

By the time we sit down to show gratitude for so much – including the end of election season – mothers from sea to shining sea will be plain worn-out.

Multiply your family dinner by 100 and you’ll get a feel for how a bipartisan, half-secular, part-ecumenical committee of fewer than a dozen people hosts Durango’s biggest family Thanksgiving dinner. They’ve done it year after year, 25 times. It’s arguably Durango’s biggest holiday party.

Who will show up for a free dinner at noon Thursday at the La Plata County Fairgrounds? About 1,000 guests, give or take 100.

They are Democrats and Republicans, young and old, rich and poor, well-dressed and not-so-well-dressed. Some will carry pies to share. Others will carry babes in arms.

But don’t expect too many Fort Lewis College students, 17-year volunteer Lee Goddard said. Maybe they’re skiing or home for the holidays, Goddard said. But they, too, are most welcome. It’s not just a dinner for the needy.

Organizers expect the number of mouths to feed to increase by about 20 percent each year, said kitchen boss Goddard, who started out as a turkey carver but got promoted rather quickly. It’s an effort by the community for the community.

Guests will be hosted, fed and sent home satiated, thanks to about 200 volunteers who come together “in joy and with great faith,” said event coordinator Mary Ralph.

Ralph, pastoral associate at St. Columba Catholic Church, said she is grateful for the collective effort that “shows a big heart – our community’s compassion and (spirit of) cooperation. We have that in Durango.”

Ralph’s tiny feet had to fill some big shoes – those of the man who started it all 26 years ago, Mercy Medical Center chaplain Mike Darmour, who also is credited for starting Durango’s Meals on Wheels.

Darmour insisted there be no donation basket. He didn’t want anyone to feel pressured to pay for dinner on this national day of bounty, when Durango can demonstrate that more still unites us than divides us, Ralph said.

“It was important to Mike that we not set out a basket. I like to honor that, too,” Ralph said.

In the beginning – 26 years ago – four local clergy from Durango churches loaded their cars with old charcoal grills and headed for the fairgrounds with a handful of donated turkeys. Cooking began the night before 2 a.m. Thanksgiving Day on the patio of the Extension building.

The next day, church members dropped off paper goods, home-baked pies and enough food to round out the holiday meal. That first meal served 165 guests, former Durango Herald columnist Sally Morrissey said in a look back at the annual event, published some 13 years later.

Those who could afford to, slipped Darmour a few bucks that year – and every year – until he retired. Often he got just enough cash to buy the turkeys for the next year’s dinner.

Ralph said that City Market and Albertsons used to run a tab for Darmour, so he could buy the last-minute fruits and perishables. Once the floor was swept clean and the tables and chairs were put back in place, Darmour would wander in on Friday morning to pay the bill with whatever cash donations were quietly slipped into his pockets the day before.

Goddard recalls Darmour as confident that, no matter what, God would provide.

“Everything that he did was faith-based,” Goddard said.

Still, Goddard’s job was to hit up the bread distributors and bakers to seek last minute donations on Thanksgiving Eve.

Other businesses stepped up to the plate, too, joining the churches as they organized teams to cook mashed potatoes, green beans and stuffing. Printers donated invitation posters. Schoolchildren made placemats that were laminated for reuse. McDonald’s donated orange drink.

Thrift shops gathered table decorations. Volunteer Romelle Maloney shopped for and created family-oriented tablescapes, packing box after box of decorations she stores in her garage from year to year.

Though the menu hasn’t changed much over the years, the logistics of planning and preparation have evolved, Goddard said.

No longer are food and monetary donations informally solicited during the first week of November. Now, many good causes compete for the same dollars, and corporate sponsors may require that requests be made up to a year in advance.

Donations from local religious congregations usually amount to $300 to $400, Ralph said. That much and more goes just for paper goods and supplies.

Every Thanksgiving Eve, an ecumenical service rotates between First United Methodist and Christ the King Lutheran, and Sacred Heart and St. Columba have Thanksgiving Day Masses. Offerings are handed over to Shared Ecumenical Ministries, the organization of Durango’s synagogue and churches that sponsor the annual dinner.

On the food-preparation front, turkeys that for a time were roasted in Mercy Regional Medical Center’s big kitchen ovens and transported to the fairgrounds now are roasted in home ovens by employees who work under the direction of Mercy kitchen supervisor Andy England.

First United Methodist’s “green bean team” will crack open about 30 to 40 gallons of canned green beans and add bacon bits, seasonings and plenty of butter.

“Everyone knows that calories don’t count on Thanksgiving,” team member Marcia Welker said.

A crew from Sacred Heart Church also will use their kitchen to prepare green beans for the holiday feast.

John Condie, a member of Christ the King Lutheran Church, will slice and dice at least 10 pounds of celery and onions for a traditional bread stuffing that will be heated in new kitchen ovens at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and ferried over in time to be served with at least 15 gallons of gravy donated by Mercy.

Ralph recalls how the youth group from St. Columba used to tackle the “Mashed Potato Project,” the behemoth task of peeling, boiling and mashing pound after pound of potatoes.

“Now we doctor up the instant, fresh-dried with plenty of butter, milk, cheddar cheese and, yes, sour cream.” The crowd-pleasing potatoes now taste more like twice-baked, she said.

The yams start out in cans, but are “sugared up with pineapple juice and brown sugar,” Ralph said. Fruit salad and crudités, including carrot, celery, pickle and olive plates “just like at home” offer a combination of fresh and canned starts to the meal.

Kassidy’s Kitchen donates sturdy commercial pans that fit in the steam tables and the catering know-how to get all 136 cans of cranberry sauce prepped in time to pack more than 120 take-home meals to be delivered to shut-ins or folks who can’t make it to the feast.

Volunteer coordinator Gordon Clouser will have a team packing to-go boxes for a second crew on hand to make the deliveries. There will be greeters, pie-slicers, food-expediters, table-setters and dishwashers.

As for what hasn’t changed, both Goddard and Ralph talk of the anxiety that predictably falls over the dining room at around 10 a.m.

“There might be only one table full of donated pies, when we need four tables. But then suddenly all the pies come in at once. It really is a ‘fishes and loaves’ thing,” Ralph said.

It’s not a dinner just for the poor or for folks who can’t cook. It’s for the whole community, Goddard said.

“You come to expect the familiar faces. You miss the regulars you see from year to year. Some have passed on … Many times, it looks like a gathering of the older pioneers of Durango,” Goddard said.

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