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How Do You Feed 25,000 People On Thanksgiving?

Cooking a Thanksgiving feast for a dozen people may seem like a challenge, but imagine preparing the meal for 25,000. Well, that’s exactly what’s been going on at San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center all week as volunteers get ready for the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner. So what does it take to feed a small army of elderly, homeless, and less fortunate?

It’s early Sunday morning and a moving truck beeps as it backs into the underground loading docks of the convention center.  Inside the truck are 550 turkeys, each weighing about 15 lbs. A man in a white chef’s coat unlocks the gate for 50 volunteers.

“This is a special day, it’s the first day that we kick off all of the activities,” says Patricia Jimenez, chairwoman of the dinner and the coordinator of volunteers. She is the daughter of the man who started this tradition 36 years ago. “We’re in very good hands because of the chefs that we have here with the RK Group,” she says.

Getting the turkeys to a third flood kitchen is a big production.  Forklifts hoist the birds from their wooden pallets and drop them into elevators for the ride.

Jimenez says this is a labor of love.  Her father Raul had a vision of making sure no one was alone on Thanksgiving. “There’s really a need out there. When my father first started this event he fed 200 senior citizens, and now it’s grown to feed homeless individuals, single mothers who are in need, veterans. No one is ever turned away.”

On this first day of preparation the kitchens spring to life as chefs like Eva Hernandez instruct members of the Texas National Guard, including Specialist Geo Flores, on how to separate whole birds into pieces that will fit on plates. 

“Today kind of counts as our drill, this our involvement; giving back to the community is a big part of what the National Guard is,” Flores says.

A few tables away women from the Navy open thousands of cans of cranberry sauce.  They slather turkeys with butter and seasoning and pop them into ovens for roasting.

This is just day one of the preparation. Daniel Gomez, executive chef of the RK Group, knows there are three days to go.  And a lot more that needs to be done. “Roughly 6,600 pounds of items, close to each item, the stuffing varies, with everything else, it’s up there,” he says.

To be exact, it’s 9,400 pounds of turkey, 6,200 pounds each of stuffing and green beans, 4,600 pounds of yams and cranberry sauce, 650 pound of gravy, 15,000 dinner rolls, and 3,000 pies. It will take 4,000 volunteers  to put this meal together. Without them, Jimenez says, the dinner wouldn’t happen. “We have volunteers from all walks of life, some of them come from church groups, others come from civic organizations, high schools, and individuals who might have experienced homelessness before and now want to give back now that they’re back on their feet.”

Shawntay Scott, is one of those volunteers.   She remembers when she was among the guests who only had Thanksgiving dinner because of the Jimenez feast. “I grew up and my family was homeless so I can recall times where we didn’t have a meal and so to give back is really important to me.”

Vanessa Yantz, is another Jimenez alum who’s returned to volunteer.  She came to the dinner with her single mother when she was about  6 years old. “When she couldn’t make enough to have a full Thanksgiving, she brought us to the Jimenez dinner. I thought I just had like a huge family with hundreds of cousins and aunts and uncles so yeah, I thought they were our family and in essence they were.”

Yantz is now an insurance agent with her own family. She volunteers to cook for others every year. “Last year I cut about 1,000 pies and my hands were so sore, so we had a lot of fun.”

Raul Jimenez died in 1998 but through this dinner his spirit of generosity survives. Mary Jimenez, his widow, remembers her late husband’s motto. “He would say, we come into this world with nothing, we leave with nothing, what counts is what we do in between, I believe in caring and sharing.”

The Jimenez feast of caring and sharing may take four days to prepare, but for those who come to eat and those who volunteer, it leaves a lifetime of memories and gratitude.