By Michele J. Kuhn
COLTS NECK – The roots of the Colts Neck Reformed Church’s annual turkey luncheon and dinner can be traced to the time of the Johnson Administration – that’s Andrew Johnson, not Lyndon.
The traditional event, initially slated for Election Day on Nov. 6, was impacted by Super Storm Sandy. Shortly after the storm, church members gathered “in the cold and dark” and decided to postpone the event until Tuesday, Jan. 22, one day after Inauguration Day, said the Rev. Scott Brown, the church’s senior pastor. With many people scheduled to be off on Monday for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and able to help with the preparation work, it seemed like a perfect time to hold the lunch and dinner.
The event is the melding of two church traditions: The annual Harvest Home Supper, originally held on a Wednesday evening beginning in 1866 – the year after Abraham Lincoln was assassinated and 10 years after the church was founded – and the church’s first Election Day luncheon, held in 1922, when church members served hot dogs, clam chowder, crackers and coffee to those casting ballots nearby.
The luncheon and dinner “has been part and parcel of who we are almost since the very beginning,” Brown said. “Though the congregation has changed significantly from a very small rural congregation … to a now larger, vibrant congregation, there has been great respect for tradition. What the dinner does is remind us that we are part of that great stream of the people who came before us, who we owe a debt of gratitude, and also that there will be people after us who will, hopefully, continue this great tradition.
“It’s wonderful to be part of something with that longevity,” Brown said.
The Oct. 29 storm left most of the area without power and many people with devastating property damage. Many of the church’s members were involved in volunteer work to help others recover; the church property was without electricity. The perishables on the shopping list for the dinner were needed elsewhere for those affected by Sandy but church members did not want to cancel the event. It was decided that January was the best time to reschedule.
“We figured that people would be ready to come together for a great community event,” Brown said.
Over the years, the meal has morphed from food that included roast beef sandwiches, pie and ice cream to turkey. “The first turkeys were served in 1949,” Brown said. “It’s been full turkey ever since.
“It’s an exciting event. The whole church is involved. It really is something of a great community connection,” he said.
Proceeds from the luncheon and dinner go to the church’s benevolence fund that is used to help those in Colts Neck and surrounding communities. The idea of postponement – rather than cancellation – was supported because members did not want to lose the opportunity to donate funds raised from the event to the community, Brown said.
“Everyone who has a meal here will not only get great food and good conversation but also will be able to help those in need,” he said.
The event, the 146th, will be held in the congregation’s Fellowship Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 22 with lunch being served from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and dinner seatings at 5, 6 and 7 p.m. Those attending the lunch will have a choice of a turkey salad or a hot open-faced turkey sandwich. Dinner is a full turkey dinner. Takeout is available. Tickets bought in October are being honored and those who bought tickets but now cannot attend may get a refund.
“It’s a wonderful tradition,” said Sherre MacClellan, who is coordinating the event.
The grocery list calls for 54 turkeys, which will be roasted in ovens at volunteers’ homes – MacClellan will again be roasting four turkeys in her two ovens – plus 165 pounds of bread for stuffing, 250 pounds of potatoes and 40 pounds of carrots. Desserts are homemade by members of the congregation.
McClellan, who has many checklists, often consults what she calls “the Election Day Dinner Bible,” a compendium of information that is handed down from past coordinators to help present coordinators plan the event. That information is now being put into computer files that can be transferred onto memory sticks.
The day before the event, dozens of volunteers converge on the church at about 9 a.m. to help prepare the meal. “Bags of potatoes are peeled, carrots are peeled. Everything, all the prep work is done. The turkeys are prepped and the stuffing is made,” she said. “You go in there and you have kids helping … and then you have the 85-year-old grandmother helping … Everybody really plays a part in this.”
After the prep work is completed, another group comes in during the late afternoon to set the tables for Tuesday.
The food and labor is all donated with Saker Wakefern Foods ShopRite donating most of the food, including the turkeys. Other big donors are the nearby Delicious Orchards, which includes cider and cranberry relish among its donated items, and Orgo Farms, located just up the road on Route 537. Tom Orgo, a church member, donates items and allows the congregation to use his refrigerated truck.
During the 2011 edition, the church served 383 lunches and 550 dinners, both sit-down and takeout. The sit-down dinner is served family style. The event almost always sells out.
How good is the meal?
“It’s always good,” Pastor Brown said. “The biggest decision is to figure out at lunch whether to have the hot turkey platter or the turkey salad … At dinner it’s amazing how much the food is there in abundance. It can’t all fit on the table … It’s delicious, top to bottom.”