OAKLAND — Thanksgiving is a holiday as much about good company as it is good food, and Thursday’s annual community meal at Messalonskee High School served up both for the 33rd straight year.
Upwards of 1,000 people came from near and far to the high school in Oakland on Thursday to enjoy a free Thanksgiving meal, either at Messalonskee or back at home.
For the 150 of those people who chose to eat-in, they were waited on by a squad of gloved volunteers. Volunteers maneuvered between tables of guests, taking drink orders and brandishing cafeteria trays piled high with full meals and fresh slices of pie. Hundreds more arranged for meals to be delivered to their homes, or more visibly, lined the cafeteria’s walls from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., waiting to collect a boxed dinner to-go.
This was the 33rd iteration of the annual meal. Mike Marston, 68, was a co-founder of the event and has been a central organizer of the event since 1989. He said Thursday that “it’s a blessing to be able to share and give,” and that while food insecurity is part of the reason behind providing the free Thanksgiving meal, it’s about combatting loneliness, too.
“We just want to help people out,” said Marston.
“It’s fantastic for people, especially if you’re alone,” agreed one senior from Winslow. She was one of many who came to the Thursday event alone, but over a shared meal, got to spend the holiday laughing and conversing with others.
The food itself was a focal point of conversation, with compliments steadily rolling in for the chefs. Each plate, both for eat-in and takeaway, was loaded up with generous servings of turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, mixed vegetables, stuffing, squash, cranberry sauce, and a warm bread roll with butter. The meal was followed by a broad selection of pies — chocolate, blueberry, apple, pumpkin, peanut butter, butterscotch and more.
Behind the delectable food was Jessica Garten, who has volunteered at the annual event for 18 years. Now, she runs the kitchen with her two grown sons. Jessica and her kitchen team started work at 5 a.m. Thanksgiving morning. During the event itself, Jessica worked with co-organizer Mike Perkins to box meals and handle other special requests. But whenever someone offered her a plate of her own throughout the day, she refused. “Wait till everybody gets fed,” she’d insist.
Jessica lives in Belgrade, and says she got her sons to start volunteering here young. “This is our family on Thanksgiving,” she said, gesturing about the cafeteria.
Perkins, who’s helped organize the annual event since its inception, said that like Garten, his own daughter has been involved with the event since she was 4. “Kids have to learn it’s not all about them,” said Perkins.
There are a lot of kids involved each year in putting on the meal, in fact, an Oakland Girl Scout troop made all 203 pies this week themselves. Even more kids from the high school were happy to come out on the holiday and volunteer, said Garten.
Perkins said events like these are important: they are a thread that helps knit a community close together. Indeed, whenever he and Marston have a spare moment, they go from table to table, and earnestly check in with every guest. Not only to make sure they’re well-fed today, but that they generally feel well cared for.
“People need someone to have a meal with.” said Perkins. “They need Thanksgiving.”