Escaping the stove - Eating out as a tradition

Friday, November 29, 2002

orget hours of slaving over a hot stove, washing piles of dishes and eating leftover turkey for days.

A growing number of local families are opting to skip the rigors of a traditional Thanksgiving meal at home and eat out instead.

About 900 area residents turned out in less than four hours to enjoy the massive Thanksgiving lunch buffet at Remington's restaurant inside Holiday Inn. And while all they had to do was open their wallets and eat, the amount of work required by the restaurant's workers was immense.

White, gold and silver-bedecked Christmas trees with sparkling lights stood in each room of the restaurant. The buffets and dining tables were decorated with colorful fall leaves, holiday confetti and miniature pumpkins.

A 3-foot ice sculpture in the shape of a cornucopia held a place of honor at the end of the main buffet table. Freshly-baked rolls, glistening with butter, spilled from a wicker cornucopia at one serving table.

"It's so beautiful, I wish I'd brought my camera," said Susan Welker of Cape Girardeau, who brought her family to Remington's for an 11:30 a.m. meal.

The elaborate decorations and the mountains of steaming food weren't an overnight project. Remington's food and beverage director, Andy Dirnberger, said planning began six weeks ago.

"Nine hundred is a lot of people to feed," Dirnberger said. "We always hope things go smoothly, but you never know."

Thirty-five years in the food industry has taught Dirnberger, a native of New Hamburg, Mo., something about serving large crowds. Just two hours before the big meal, he showed no signs of nervousness as he calmly strolled through the kitchen and dining areas, eyeing the buffet tables for imperfections and taking care of last-minute tasks.

"We don't get too fancy or extravagant," Dirnberger said. "Feeding that many people isn't easy, and food quality is important."

Quality and quantity -- it takes a lot of food to appease the appetites of 900 people. Dirnberger and his staff cooked 22 turkeys weighing 9 pounds each, 12 roast beef top rounds and six hams for the feast.

The buffet included the usual Thanksgiving staples: stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie.

Non-traditional items like fried chicken and Mississippi mud brownies took their places on the buffet too. The kitchen staff prepared around 15 gallons each of Waldorf, ambrosia, tossed and Caesar salads for the meal.

Dirnberger said there's no way all that food can be cooked in one day, or even two days. In fact, food preparation began Monday afternoon and continued non-stop through Tuesday and Wednesday. By Thursday morning, all that was left to do was re-heat and serve.

Suit-and-tie service

At 10:30 a.m., the first groups began to arrive. Dirnberger, who shed his white chef's jacket and donned a navy suit and tie, stood near the buffet tables answering questions and directing guests through the lines.

Although the restaurant was approaching capacity at 550 people around noon, everything ran smoothly. Dining room supervisor Penny Ressel attributed that to the planning and preparation.

Ressel said the telephone rang continuously Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. It was still ringing early Thursday morning, as people called to inquire about last-minute reservations.

"It's a big undertaking. They all want to be here at noon, and that's just not possible," Ressel said. "Most of the people here are regulars who come to the Thanksgiving buffet every year."

According to Holiday Inn general manager Karla Clifton, Remington's has held a Thanksgiving buffet for 30 years. Clifton, who has been involved for the past six years, said she's noticed a steady increase in the number of people eating out for the holiday.

Sisters Susan Welker and Mary Aldredge were among those who brought their families to Remington's for the holiday meal.

The memory of why they chose to eat out on Thanksgiving brought tears to Welker's eyes. She explained that the tradition began after their mother died four years ago.

"We'll never be able to prepare what we've had at home. We haven't even tried," she said. "But the food's great here and it's beautiful."

Among most of the women eating out, the reason for straying from a traditional meal at home was simple. Bernetta Davis of Cape Girardeau summed it up: "It's already cooked, and I don't have to clean up the mess."

335-6611, extension 128

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