Preparing the Big Meal

Thanksgiving Day is for many the biggest holiday next to Christmas. But for the dining facilities at Fort Lee, it’s the day they make the biggest meal of the year.

Most military members served by the dining facilities go home on leave during the winter holidays. During Thanksgiving, Families come here to visit their military members.

“We have an open invitation for them to be able to eat with their sons or daughters,” said Johnnie Durant, Installation Food Program manager.

This year, Durant is planning enough turkeys, hams, cornish hens and other meats to feed 4,000 service members, Family members, Civilians, retirees and guests. That amounts to more than 1,700 pounds of turkey, more than 1,200 pounds of ham and more than 900 pounds of cornish hen. Other meats on the menu include prime rib, beef steamship round, shrimp cocktail and french fried shrimp.

Food service personnel begin their turkey operation the night before and work all night to ensure they have enough for the noon meal Thursday.

“Some of those people will work Thanksgiving morning after working all night long,” Durant said. “The meal is so big, and it takes time to prepare it to perfection.”

Dining facilities prepare about three times as much as they normally would, especially since patrons can choose two meats out of seven. But emphasis remains on the turkey because “you can’t have a Thanksgiving meal without turkey,” Durant said.

Durant understands that some people may not actually like turkey and that’s why there’s a variety to include a vegetarian alternative.

Each year, turkeys are ordered in accordance with the number of service members being served plus 15 percent to account for Families and guests. Last year, the military “head count” was 4,500. This year it’s 3,300.

Durant said he has been part of the dining facility Thanksgiving meal for 40 years and has never missed one.

“Thanksgiving is something we always look forward to,” he said. “It makes people feel good. That’s my mission, to make sure all the Soldiers are happy with the meal they’ve been served.”

Annette Tomes, dining facility manager for Company T, 266th Quartermaster Battalion, 23rd QM Brigade, has been part of the Thanksgiving meal at Fort Lee for 26 years.

“It’s the one meal that’s most ecstatic,” she said.

During the big meal, her facility will feed four companies which amounts to about 800 Soldiers. She’s expecting to prepare about 700 pounds of turkey, 400 pounds of ham, 400 pounds of cornish hen and about 120 pounds of steamship round. About 24 turkeys will be going into ovens at 4 a.m. as they start preparing the other meats and food items.

Yet Tomes said the intensity of the preparation is almost welcomed by the food service personnel.

“There’s so much excitement in the kitchen because it’s the most precious meal of the year,” she said. “Everybody is cheerful to give Soldiers a good meal. It’s really busy, but people are working hard and with one mission, to do it for the troops.”