Thanksgiving dinner for 25,000 guests

SAN ANTONIO Wed Nov 23, 2011 5:49pm EST

SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Nervous about cooking Thanksgiving dinner for a dozen people? One family, with the help of 4,000 volunteers, is preparing turkey and all the trimmings for a guest list expected to exceed 25,000.

The Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner, which is now in its 32nd year, is a tradition in San Antonio, Texas.

It is held each Thanksgiving Day in a huge ballroom at the city's Convention Center and features volunteers basting more than 500 plump turkeys, whipping huge vats of mashed potatoes, and digging into a stack of yams that towers to the ceiling.

The food is either donated or paid for by donors and the dinner is free with no tax dollars subsidizing the event.

"We're ready to feed the people," said Patricia Jimenez, whose father, the late restaurant owner Raul Jimenez, started the tradition of a community Thanksgiving dinner in 1979, when he noticed as he delivered turkey to homebound senior citizens how many people spent the Thanksgiving holiday alone.

Since then, it has grown into one of the largest regularly scheduled Thanksgiving dinners in the United States.

"You can't grow up in San Antonio without knowing the significance of the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner," Mayor Julian Castro said at a news conference.

Volunteers are never hard to find. Rotary Clubs, businesses and neighborhoods organize regiments of volunteer cooks, dishwashers and servers, who spend their Thanksgiving Day not watching football on TV, but making sure this treasured tradition remains a success.

Local elementary schools vie to make the most creative cardboard turkeys, Pilgrims, and other displays for the carefully prepared tables -- complete with white linen tablecloths -- for the diners.

In many families, two and three generations have volunteered for the dinner, which has branched out from simply serving seniors to serving active duty military members from the area Army and Air Force bases, as well as poor people or anybody who wants to spend Thanksgiving with 25,000 close friends.

The local city bus company offers free trips to the Convention' Center for anybody 55 and older who is going to the Jimenez dinner.

"I know that even though I get to have a nice Thanksgiving dinner, I am glad to be helping other people so they can have one also," said Marian Gonzalez, a college student who will be volunteering on Thursday for the third straight Thanksgiving.

Dallan Young, who was head chef for the event for several years, says it is a daunting event.

"The difficult part is to try to coordinate 4,000 volunteers to cook in a kitchen they have never worked in before," he said.

The first of the 520 turkeys went into the huge ovens at the Convention Center on Sunday, and large racks of pies, potatoes and stuffing rumbled through the cavernous kitchen -- from preparing, to cooking, to garnishing, to freezing stations -- with almost military precision.

"And Thursday, we'll come out very early in the morning, firing up everything, making sure it's hot, and making sure it goes out the right way," says Roy Orozco, who has spent years cooking for the Jimenez Dinner. "Just to see a smile on their face makes you feel good."

Patricia Jimenez said that due to the sour economy, the tables will be full on Thursday, and organizers are preparing for what may be their largest crowd ever.

"I know a lot of people have fallen on hard times with the economy, but we are prepared," she said.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)

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