The more things change…
Mike Meyer, who was the coordinator for this year’s Thanksgiving community meal, covers a bucket of salad before it goes into one of the refrigerators at the VFW Hall in Owatonna. An army of volunteers spends three days preparing, then all day Thursday cooking, serving, and cleaning up. The meal saw an unofficial record number of diners last week. Staff photo by Kay Fate
More than a few things have changed in the 35 years since Virginia Stirens stepped out of the kitchen at the Kozy Korner Café and into the kitchen at the Owatonna Knights of Columbus Hall.
She and a group of friends – “they thought I was crazy” – fed about 100 people in that inaugural community Thanksgiving dinner of turkey and all the trimmings, all homemade.
It went so well the little crew decided to host a Christmas dinner for the community, as well.
The rest of the year, Stirens was back in the Kozy Korner, serving up traditional favorites and handing out life advice.
Within 15 years, 500 people were sitting down to eat at each of the dinners, and Stirens was ready to pass the torch.
The next year, 2003, Mike and Trudy Pierce took the reins, and moved the meals to the VFW Hall.
Another 15 years passed, and the Pierces, too, hung up their coordinator hats.
Enter Joe Faltysek and Mike Meyer, both members of the Owatonna VFW.
“I started out helping Mike and Trudy,” Meyer said. In 2018, “Joe asked me if we wanted to keep it going, so that next year, the two of us did it together.”
Though COVID-19 canceled the 2020 meals, things are clearly back to normal.
Last week, for the first time ever, there were more people than meals available.
In 2003, Stirens and her crew prepared 18 turkeys; Meyer and his crew used 48.
“We always prepare for 1,000” diners, he said last week, as volunteers bustled around. The meals are divided about equally between dine-in guests and deliveries to folks who can’t get out.
“So far, we haven’t run out,” Meyer added, knocking on wood.
The day after Thanksgiving, it was estimated they served about 1,100 meals.
Those turkeys – more than 750 pounds – and 13 large pans of dressing, yams, mashed potatoes, salads, pie, and buns: Gone.
The volume isn’t all that’s changed, though.
Stirens was never one to use a recipe, relying on her years of experience and wisdom.
Now though: “This is the bible,” Meyer said, holding up a three-ring binder with multiple plastic-protected pages.
“It’s got all the recipes in it; the table layouts for serving,” he explained, leafing through. “This stays at my house, travels back and forth; that way, it never comes up missing.”
The recipes include the one for mashed potatoes, with “Don’t use milk!” hand-written in the margin.
“Thanksgiving, we make the green salad,” Meyer said, pointing at a page. “Christmas time, we make the pink.”
The book also contains invoices from past years; Meyer estimated this year’s expenses were up by about $1,000.
Still, he said, “we didn’t have to buy any turkeys – they were all donated,” including some from the woman who started it all.
“Virginia donated some turkeys for us this year,” Meyer said.
The money collected from the free-will donation the day of the meal goes to defray the costs of the items they have to buy.
Nothing would be possible, of course, without literally hundreds of volunteers who help for part – or all – of the four days’ worth of preparation and eventual serving.
And one final change: The meals started as an option for residents who would otherwise be alone on the holidays or couldn’t afford the expense. Now, however, it’s become a tradition for entire families, and people who generously donate to the cause.
Meyer, who was a volunteer for nearly 20 years before becoming the coordinator, doesn’t have much time to recover from this year’s record-breaker.
Planning is already underway for the Christmas Day community meal, which will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Dec. 25, also at the VFW.
Call-in orders for delivery or pick-up begin at 7:30 a.m. that day, and delivery drivers are always welcome.
Meyer paused when asked how many drivers he’ll have.
“Hopefully a bunch,” he laughed.
Thanksgiving by the numbers
35 Years of community dinners in Owatonna
1,100 Meals served in 2022
48 Turkeys prepared totaling 750 pounds
13 Large pans of dressing, mashed potatoes and yams
$1,000 Increase in expenses this year