Dinner is served thanks to many hands

Virgie Downey

Cooking for a crowd is second nature to Virgie Downey. One of nine children, she was helping out in her mother’s kitchen when she was a very young girl. She was making pies for her family by the time she was eight. Now she’s sharing her culinary talents on a much larger scale. Virgie and her husband, Jim, are in charge of the Thanksgiving meal that will be served next Thursday at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Elkader. About 100 are expected to attend; others get their meals delivered.

This is the seventh year the Downeys have been in charge of the dinner. It takes a lot of planning and many hands to get the meal together. Virgie roasts all five turkeys and bakes the ham. She gets help with the sides dishes, salads and desserts, most of which are contributed by members of St. Joe’s.

“My husband, our son, Don, and Harley Patrick just love peeling potatoes so that’s their job,” she said, adding that the three men will peel between 30 and 35 pounds of spuds.

Virgie also makes the stuffing and like the rest of the meal, it’s made from scratch.

“I don’t believe in instant anything,” she said.

The two community dinners—Peace Church hosts the Christmas Day meal—present a bit of a guessing game of their organizers. Virgie bases her headcount on reservations and previous years’ attendance. She keeps numbers and other information in a thick folder she inherited when she took over the responsibility.

“After I look at the numbers, I always make a bit more,” she said. “We never run short. The people at the church are good about donating food and working that day. People who don’t even sign-up donate food.”

Though planning begins a month in advance, work on the actual dinner begins the day before when Virgie does the turkeys. A small army of volunteers helps her debone the meat, which is stored in its juices until the next day. Virgie and her volunteers also set tables a day in advance. Many workers are at the church by 7 a.m. Thanksgiving Day.

Many churches across Iowa host Thanksgiving dinners, generally for people who are unable to provide the meal themselves. The thing that makes the Elkader meal different is that it’s open to anyone.

“It gives people a place to go,” she continued. “Lots of families celebrate Thanksgiving the weekend before or after the actual day, and some don’t get together until Christmas. So the meal meets a real need.”

Though Virgie spends much of the day in the kitchen at St. Joe’s, she can hear the chatter and laughter of the dinner guests, and that makes her feel good about what she’s doing.

“It’s such a heartwarming feeling,” she said. “It makes me feel so good inside. I guess that’s the big reason I do this.”

By Pam Reinig, Register Editor

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