Volunteers log hundreds of hours cooking the annual community holiday meal.
They started the Sunday before Thanksgiving, flipping on the kitchen lights most mornings around 7. They cooked batch after batch of birds, baked tray after tray of pies, warmed sheet after sheet of rolls.
By Turkey Day, Elks Lodge No. 1713 had 100 birds to offer at its Thanksgiving Day dinner, a feast that’s become an annual tradition since the Elks took the reins of the event in 2014. Before that, Teton Steakhouse hosted the community dinner, which sizzled once the restaurant went out of business several years earlier.
“It’s great for the community, and it helps people in need,” said Donald Rogers, who opened the kitchen at 4:30 a.m. on Thanksgiving. “Around the holidays you got to take care of people in need.”
It takes dozens of volunteers to prepare the dinner, which was expected to feed hundreds. Approximately 250 chairs had been set up at long tables, and the bar was estimated to have space for another 50.
“We never run out of food,” said Jill Callaway, former exalted ruler. “We wish we could just one year.”
The volunteers — about 25 are at the core of the operation — spend hours in the kitchen the week before, preparing dozens of birds donated by Zia Yasrobi, peeling potatoes, whipping up pies. Three people largely run the kitchen: Valerie Peterson, Thanksgiving Kitchen Committee chairwoman; Matt Mueller, SpringHill Suites general manager, and Robert “Boo Boo” Story, the sous chef at the Gun Barrel Steak and Game House.
“I just like to volunteer,” said Story, who’s been an Elk for 14 years. “It gives you good karma.”
They all pitched in on all parts of the meal, which included traditional sides of mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and green bean casserole (two house favorites), stuffing, cranberry sauce and a table of pies, many donated from local grocery stores and a few created in the lodge kitchen.
Though picking a favorite side is “like picking your favorite relative or kid,” Mueller, when pressed, named the gravy, of which he made 16 gallons, as the best item on the menu. The thick, bubbling sauce started in the pans of the cooked birds, which were then deglazed with red wine before he bolstered the gravy with fresh herbs, he said.
“Every year we take what we get and we make it as good as we can,” Mueller said. “Everyone comes with their home recipes. … Feeding our community is something near and dear to our heart.”
The volunteers — many Elks, some Jackson Hole Lions, others Boy Scouts and AmeriCorps volunteers — have been a part of the production for years. Pete Kendzior has been an Elk for 20 years. While typically the overseer of building maintenance, Kendzior was working the bar and answering the tough questions during the final minutes of preparation.
Lee Burbank, center, serves green bean casserole Thanksgiving Day at the Elks Lodge community dinner. Dozens of volunteers chip in to prepare free meals for about 500 people.
Namely, “How many wishbones we got back there?”
It was estimated about 10 were left. Of the 100 turkeys cooked, all but a few dozen were served at the Elks Lodge. Others went to the community — a few to the staff at Big O Tires, a few to veterans. Plates were also taken to emergency personnel, an annual tradition, and to-go plates were boxed up for anyone who wanted leftovers.
“If someone says ‘I need a turkey,’ we give them a turkey,” Peterson said.
Though the focus of Thanksgiving, turkeys are just part of what the Elks hand out. Since the lodge opened in 1946 it has grown to a membership of over 500 and has given approximately $13 million to the community, Callaway said.
“We don’t just sit in here and drink — well, some of us do,” she said, gesturing to Peterson.
The sarcastic jab solicited a smile. Peterson took most of the week off from her job at Jackson Hole Lodge to log well over 50 hours in the Elks kitchen in preparation for the big day. Though it takes about 75 people to pull off the production, those who come in for a plate tend to end up lending a land as well, Peterson said.
“Most people jump up and start clearing plates or doing dishes,” she said.
It ends up feeling like a family meal, Exalted Ruler Lisa Sprague said. Albeit a family of 450 to 500 family members.
“Val and Matt really try to make it like home,” Sprague said.
“None of our families live around us,” Peterson said. Though her family isn’t quite a few hundred strong, the dinner, she said, “is almost like being around them.”