My father had died suddenly in February. The approaching holidays aroused more than the usual anxiety as we considered how we would celebrate without him. I was living in Albany, NY, working as a waitress at the Victoria Station steak house, having dropped out of college during what would have been my final semester. The Refer Switchboard, a community social services agency, put up a sign in the Honest Weight Food Co-op calling for volunteers to help with the preparations for the annual free Thanksgiving dinner, then in its eighth year. Word had spread that the dinner would be bigger than ever with roughly 2500 guests -- stranded students, the homeless, the lonely -- expected for turkey and all of the traditional fixings. The next day, I took a trip to the wholesale vegetable market in Menands, bought a bushel of butternut squash to roast and puree in my apartment kitchen. I dropped off my donation at cooking central, the kitchen in the First Presbyterian Church at the corner of State and Willet, and once there, decided to stay on to help out with the remaining preparations. Over the next several days leading up to Thanksgiving, I pitched in whenever I could and wherever extra hands were needed. I must have peeled and chopped a thousand onions, so many that I grew immune to my tears. The church kitchen was always warm and fragrant with the aroma of caramelizing onions, carrots, and celery, the holy trinity base of so many dishes. The volunteers during the daytime shifts were mostly older women involved with the church who were matter of fact and took no special notice of me. At night, the younger volunteers took over. I looked forward to walking in, tying my apron, and getting to it, all business.
The doors to the church opened at 11:00 on Thanksgiving day. The line of hungry diners waiting to enter wrapped around the block and into Washington Park. Inside the church, the tables were set with linen and adorned with flowers. The meal was served on China and eaten with stainless steel cutlery; no plastic or paper. The dining room, a gigantic auditorium, was decorated at one end with an overflowing horn of plenty. We served the main courses cafeteria style but from beautiful chafing dishes. Volunteers circulated like waiters in restaurants to refill coffee cups. At one point, the room fell silent then erupted in applause when several dozen cheesecakes arrived, a last-minute donation from Juniors, in Brooklyn.
My sister Amy, my brother Hunter, and my mom made the two hour trip from Monsey, NY to volunteer with me on Thanksgiving day. My roommates were away with their own families so everyone would have a place to sleep. (I lived in a three bedroom railroad flat above my landlord, a Pakistani couple with two small children. Mrs. Siddiqui cooked non-stop, with spices she brought back from twice-yearly trips to her homeland. The aromas drifting upward from her kitchen seduced my uneducated senses; I begged her to teach me to cook whatever it was she was making on any given day. That's another story. )
Our plan was to volunteer for a few hours and have our own dinner later back at my apartment. But there was so much to do and so many to feed. Plus, we were having fun. So we stayed on well into the evening, sharing dinner with the other volunteers and helping with the clean-up. Turkey never tasted so good. The secret, revealed to me by the head cook, was to turn the bird part way through roasting to let the fat trickle down into the breast meat.
The picture above was taken by Skip Dickstein, the photographer for the Albany Times Union assigned to cover the event. I'm in the middle, flanked by Amy and my mother. Skip had stopped by the church earlier in the week and taken my picture while I was at work chopping onions. I flirted with him shamelessly, thinking that by doing so I could get a print of the photos.