Everyone has a place at the Welcome Table

Barbara Hootman

Going to grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving may soon be only a memory of the past. Fewer families than ever before celebrate Thanksgiving with a traditional family meal in the home. More families are opting to eat out.

“Today families are fractured and do not gather as they once did,” Rick Burnette of the Bee Tree community said. “Up until a few years ago, we had five generations at our Thanksgiving table. Now there are so few, we may not get together this year.”

One place you will find the traditional annual Thanksgiving meal intact with turkey, dressing and all the side dishes anyone could want is the Swannanoa Welcome Table, held 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesdays at Swannanoa United Methodist Church. Putting on the spread - and spreading on the fellowship - Jackie Kitchen and her longtime, experienced kitchen and serving staff. This week they will make sure that everyone has Thanksgiving dinner.

According to a recent CNN pole, Americans will eat an estimated 46 million turkeys this Thanksgiving, regardless of whether they eat at home or out. During the day, Americans will consume about 4,500 calories, of which 3,000 will be from the Thanksgiving meal and the other 1,500 from nibbling and snacks, according to the Calorie Control Council.

Also 46.3 million American will travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, but not always to visit family. A whopping 50 million people will watch the annual Thanksgiving Macy’s Day Parade. Then there are the Thanksgiving NFL football games to watch - or at least to nod through after eating.

Thanksgiving continues to be an annual freeze frame moment when Americans pause briefly from busyness and acknowledge the people who matter to them most. The typical American family is multi-layered now, and that demands a lot of social correctness.

“Everyone should have Thanksgiving dinner,” said Kitchen, who has prepared the Thanksgiving meal for the Swannanoa Welcome Table for 12 years. “It is our pleasure to make sure that it happens for the 100-125 people that will join us for Thanksgiving. People come to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends both new and old, and for the love they receive.

“If one person eats that otherwise would not have anywhere else to have Thanksgiving, I am blessed. Everybody is equal here, from the homeless to the handicap to the seniors and their friends. We are thankful that we are here to serve Swannanoa, East Asheville and Black Mountain.

“So many people don’t have family members close by anymore, and if we weren’t here those people would be alone. People don’t come just for the food, but for the fellowship as well.”

Kitchen always makes dressing to go with the turkey using her grandmother’s recipe.

“I have to increase the recipe 10 times to meet the needs of our Thanksgiving lunch, but people always enjoy it,” she said.

After living in a tent in the Sandy Mush area, Randall Thomas recently returned to Swannanoa. He knew about the Swannanoa Welcome Table.

“I live close to the church and can walk here, even though I am disabled,” he said over lunch there on a recent day. “I can’t work, but I do a lot of ‘can hunting.’ I turn them in and get a little pocket change. People are friendly here in Swannanoa. They don’t have any reason to not be. The food is good here, and the people are friendly, and I don’t have any family close, so I really am glad these folks are here.”

Married for more than 60 years, Wilma and Fred Strickland have been having Wednesday lunch at the Swannanoa Welcome Table for the past 12 years. Thanksgiving lunch on Nov. 25 will be another occasion when they get to see their longtime friends.

“Every week is Thanksgiving here,” Wilma said. “It is a wonderful place to connect with people. Even when my sister and her husband come in the summer to visit, we bring them to the Welcome Table. We are so grateful for the humble staff that prepares and serves the food.”

Fred Strickland, 88, said he always enjoys the food and the fellowship of friends, even when it isn’t Thanksgiving. “We are able to reconnect with old friends here and meet and talk with new people,” he said.

Brenda Fennell is a retired special education teacher who has come to the Swannanoa Welcome Table for at least a decade.

“I like seeing the same faces each week,” she said. “Everybody here is always bright and cheery. I am really thankful that I live close by in Buckeye Cove. I enjoy sharing a meal with folks like the Stricklands and hearing about their lives.”

Robert Randolph, a retired chaplain from the Juvenile Detention Center in Swannanoa, volunteers at the lunches.

Jackie Kitchen’s grandmother’s Corn Bread Dressing

1/2 cup butter

1 cup chopped celery

1 cup chopped onion

About 6 cups crumbled corn bread crumbled

2-3 cups herb stuffing mix

2 teaspoons crushed sage

1/2 teaspoons black pepper

6 slices of white loaf bread torn into pieces

6 cups hot chicken broth

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a 13x9x2 inch baking dish. Melt butter in skillet; saute celery and onion until tender, about 3 minutes.

In large mixing bowl, combine cornbread, loaf bread, cooked celery and onions, sage and black pepper, add salt to taste. Stir broth into cornbread mixture and mix well.

Pour into prepared baking dish. Bake 30 minutes or until light golden brown.

You’re welcome

The Swannanoa Welcome Table is 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. Wednesdays at Swannanoa United Methodist Church, 16 Whitson Ave., Swannanoa, 686-5284. All are invited.