Thanksgiving tradition in Duluth now draws thousands

Wild rice
Bonnie Lou Dunphy stirs wild rice, part of the Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet, a free meal that will provide an estimated 4,800 people with a Thanksgiving dinner.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

An army of volunteers is putting the last touches on a Thanksgiving feast for thousands in Duluth. The annual free buffet started 20 years ago as a much smaller event in Superior. Now it draws hundreds of volunteers to cook and serve as many as 5,000 turkey dinners.

A few days before the event, Jack Teske looks a little harried. He's been looking for 8 or 10 cases of bread that were delivered to the wrong address, six miles away. Much of that bread goes in the stuffing.

But it doesn't really matter since the celery hasn't arrived either. And that's the way it goes, when you're preparing Thanksgiving dinner for thousands.

Teske has been with the event since the beginning, when he managed the kitchen in a restaurant across the bay, in Superior, Wis.

The restaurant owner was inspired to give back to the community that supported his business. But he needed some help.

"You know he was finding it was getting a little bit difficult to have enough people to do this," Teske said. "So he put an ad in the paper, and that was the start of the volunteer aspect of this meal. From that point forward we've been blessed with many, many volunteers."

Turnout was decent that year; more than 200 meals were served.

Volunteers work early this week in the kitchen of the Duluth Entertainment and Convention Center.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

"The first couple of years, it was kind of small, because people were maybe a little reluctant about coming there, not knowing what to expect," Teske said. "You know, 'Something free at Thanksgiving time? Where is the catch here?' And there was no catch. All we wanted to do was give back to the community."

For whatever the reason, the Thanksgiving buffet quickly took off. It became a destination for free food, companionship and entertainment.

"And by the fifth year it had grown so large, that we'd decided to come to Duluth and the DECC, where we are right now," Teske said.

Today the numbers are staggering. More than 800 volunteers are pitching in to cook more than 1,600 pounds of turkey roasts, a ton of potatoes and 6,000 dinner rolls.

"I hope I can do it for the rest of my life, while I'm on this earth."

Dozens were in the DECC kitchen early this week, already at work on the salads and dressings.

Art Fisher was hunched over a kitchen counter, knife in hand, slicing a small mountain of grapes. He retired after a career with General Mills, and now is a seasoned volunteer for the Twin Ports Thanksgiving Buffet.

"Well, this is my second year," he said. "I just stumbled on this activity last year."

Fisher's philosophy is a common one in this kitchen -- it's all about giving back.

"I think it's important that those of us who can, pitch in these days, with the economic conditions that exist, and try to help the situation," he said.

'Hobo Pete'
'Hobo Pete', who declined to identify himself further, moved from Chicago to Duluth several years ago and found himself on the receiving end of the Thanksgiving feast two years ago. He volunteered at the event last year and is back again this year.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

Across the kitchen, there's been an incident at the wild rice cooker, which is roughly the size and shape of a small cement mixer. The rice has suddenly boiled over, but Hobo Pete is on it.

He won't provide his real name, but he tells a story of having no home of his own a couple years ago and finding a warm meal here on a cold Thanksgiving day.

He's got a home now, and last year he joined the volunteers.

"You know, I'm saying, 'Why not prepare for the people that I've left behind?'" he said.

Pete's clearly a favorite with the kitchen staff. He said he'll be working with them again next year.

Serving up meals
Volunteers serve hungry guests during the 2008 Thanksgiving buffet in Duluth, Minn., an annual event that now draws thousands during the holiday.
Photo Courtesy of Ruth Erdman Sluka

"Gave me a whole lot of strength, I hope I can do it for the rest of my life, while I'm on this earth," he said. "I wouldn't miss it for the world."

The dinner has tons of community support, from businesses providing food, paper products or cash. Volunteers deliver 1,000 meals to people who can't leave home.

The local transit authority provides free bus service, with the drivers working for free.

Smaller satellite operations provide meals in both Superior and Cloquet. In Two Harbors this year, the local community is taking over the remote operation there.

Event co-founder Jack Teske said even a huge Thanksgiving feast isn't enough to meet the community's need. He figured that out while dining with the guests a couple of years ago.

"This man was sitting next to me. He was on the floor, actually. And he was putting food underneath his coat," Teske said. "And I'm thinking, 'This is really great.' Thanksgiving time we're giving food to these people. But how about tomorrow, when this man has maybe nothing to eat? Maybe that's why he's putting away food.'"

That image inspired a second meal, which is now an annual event organized by College of St. Scholastica students. It's a lower-key free meal in February, in the dead of winter, when hot food might be the only thing keeping a person warm.

Rain, snow, or shine, there again will be plenty of warm and full bodies in the Duluth area tomorrow, 20 years on and counting.

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