It was Monday morning and Donnie Rodgers had just gotten off the phone. Thanksgiving was three days away and he was extending an invitation.

Rodgers wasn’t talking with his parents, brothers or sisters or some close friends. He was on the phone with the team at Yellow Iron Excavating and Waste Removal. Clad in an apron, the longtime valley chef wanted to make sure the company’s garbage men weren’t forgotten about on the holiday.

“I said, ‘Well, tell all your drivers, if they want to stop and get something to go or sit here and eat it, please come in,’” Rodgers recalled saying. “Those guys, you know, kind of get overlooked because they’re garbagemen. But without them, where would we be?”

Sitting in the dining hall of Elks Lodge No. 1713 Monday morning, Rodgers took a break. Though he’d worked in the valley for over 30 years at places like Grand Teton National Park, the Alpenhof and the Million Dollar Cowboy Steakhouse, the chef is retired. Mostly. He cleans the Elks Lodge and, around this time of year, makes time to throw turkeys in the oven for the lodge’s now-annual Thanksgiving dinner.

“I’ve been working in this kitchen for 24 years,” he said, remembering that he cooked every meal the first five years he was an Elk. That means all the Friday night dinners, the New Years crab cracks and all the parties in between. After that, and working all over the valley, cooking the turkeys was “easy.”

“I just season ‘em with salt and pepper,” Rodgers said. “That’s it.”

That should serve as a subtle reminder that some of the best things in life are simple. Rodgers’ turkey is great. It’s not boastful, but it’s salty and cooked just right: a perfect combination for the free Thanksgiving dinner the Elks Lodge will put on for anyone who wants it from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday, Thanksgiving Day.

For those four hours, the lodge will open its doors to the public for a full on seasonal buffet. Nearly 100 turkeys are on the menu, with some slated to be given away to families who want to take them home and cook them themselves. Mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole and stuffing have also made the list, as well as apple, pumpkin and peach pies.

Zia Yasrobi donated the 100 or so turkeys, as he has for the past few years. Grocery stores have already begun to drop off the donated pies and the Elks’ Grand Lodge provided a grant to cover the rest. That grant means everything on the menu is free.

“We have to give it away,” Rodgers said. “We can’t charge for it.”

Other Elks share the same reason Rodgers does for getting involved with the dinner: “just knowing that you helped somebody.”

Longstanding tradition

With dozens of turkeys on the menu, it might seem like the Elks have been doing this forever — it requires hours of planning and cooking to get the birds cooked and prepped.

Instead, the Elks are in their sixth year, building on a tradition of charitable giving in the valley. For years before the lodge took over the dinner, Jan and Ann Bates served up a free Thanksgiving meal out of Teton Steakhouse, which used to sit on the lot Pearl Street Market now occupies. The Bates sold the steakhouse in 2012, MacPhail’s Burgers hosted the dinner for a year and the Elks took over in 2014.

“When they stopped, there was a need,” said Valerie Peterson, an Elk who, along with Rodgers and Exalted Ruler Pete Kendzior, is heading up the planning for this year’s dinner.

In 2006, the Bates cooked up 35 turkeys. In 2014, the first year the Elks took over, they did the same. As of Monday night approximately 90 turkeys were destined for the oven, more than doubling the event. This year was Peterson’s fifth working on the dinner. The lodge, she said, is ready for the crowd that comes with the bigger meals.

Between the dining area and the meeting room, “it’s a pretty good sized room,” she said. “We can comfortably fit around 300 people.”

The dinner is for everyone, regardless of socioeconomic status or background.

“It’s for people, regardless of need,” Kendzior said. He’s been involved with dinners for about 25 years, and used to help out with the Bates’ meal. “We want more people. We want everybody to come.”

Getting messy

On Monday afternoon, four volunteers were getting ready for those crowds. Ruffner Alexander, who goes by Ruff, said it was his first year. He described what the volunteers were doing — carving the birds — as “dismantling turkeys.”

Dark meat went in one tray. White meat went in another. Legs and wings in others.

“If you’ve seen the movie ‘Hostile,’ it’s kind of like that with the turkeys,” he said, getting a laugh from the rest of the crew.

The trays they were assembling were set to be put in the fridge and pulled back out Thursday, when they’ll be reheated as crowds arrive. The turkey is one of the only parts of the meal made ahead of time. The stuffing and green bean casserole are made Thanksgiving Day.

But that means volunteers like Millie Escobedo, a three or four year veteran of the meal preparation, have to get dirty days in advance, starting Sunday.

By Monday, Escobedo said she’d already had her hands on 30 birds.

For her, just like Peterson, Kendzior and Rodgers, the reason for getting involved was simple: “Just helping out,” she said.

“It’s second nature for us to help people,” Kendzior said. “It’s just a place for everyone to gather and give thanks for the year.” 

Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7062 or entertainment@jhnewsandguide.com.

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