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    A Thanksgiving for 23,000 in the Merrimack Valley

    Ryker (center), 3, and Annalyse Rivera, 6, of South Lawrence ate with relatives Joe Rivera and Rosalie Davis in Andover.
    Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
    Ryker (center), 3, and Annalyse Rivera, 6, of South Lawrence ate with relatives Joe Rivera and Rosalie Davis in Andover.

    This is what it takes to feed a community on Thanksgiving: 6,000 turkeys, 10,000 pounds of stuffing, 10,000 pounds of gravy, 12,000 pounds of mashed potatoes, and 8,000 pounds of green beans.

    Beyond the ingredients are the scores of people who came together on a frigid Thursday to make Thanksgiving a reality for the many families of the Merrimack Valley still struggling with the effects of the Columbia Gas fires and explosions, which left one dead, more than two dozen injured, and thousands without heat in their homes.

    “This is important work,” said Luz Nunez, a Lawrence resident working at the nearby MultiGrains Bakery where the meals were prepared. She recently had her gas service restored and could have stayed home and cooked a Thanksgiving meal, but “I was the first to say, ‘Let’s go. I love this. It doesn’t matter if we don’t cook a meal today, let’s help out.’ ”

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    Columbia Gas, the utility whose construction work has been cited by federal investigators as the trigger for the disaster, arranged and paid for the massive holiday feast of 23,000 meals. It used Tuscan Brands to cater the event — the food company had been providing meals to utility workers on the restoration effort.

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    “To be able to sit down with your family in spite of all the hardship that you’re going through right now and be able to have a nice, home-cooked, warm Thanksgiving Day meal — I think it allows you to reflect a little bit,” Tuscan Brands founder Joe Faro said. “Sometimes when bad things happen good people come together, and that’s really what it’s all about.”

    Evelyn Corona of South Lawrence (center) danced with Jose, 3, at one of the heated tents set up at South Common Park in Lawrence, where a makeshift trailer encampment has been set up for people unable to stay in their homes.
    Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
    Evelyn Corona of South Lawrence (center) danced with Jose, 3, at one of the heated tents set up at South Common Park in Lawrence, where a makeshift trailer encampment has been set up for people unable to stay in their homes.

    The trick to such a massive undertaking, Faro said, was timing: making sure everything was cooked to the proper temperature, packaged, and delivered warm and in a timely manner. The food was either distributed or served in communal meals at locations across Andover, Lawrence, and North Andover, including heated tents set up at South Common Park in Lawrence, where a makeshift trailer encampment has been set up for people unable to stay in their homes.

    At the park, the food was accompanied by music — A DJ blasting disco in one tent, salsa and merengue in the other — and the meals also included rice and peas and pork shoulder, traditional Thanksgiving servings among the area’s Latino community.

    “This is a happy moment in the sad situation that we’re living in,” said Evelyn Corona, 43, a mother of six including triplets currently staying in two trailers. “I loved the music and the options to eat: Hispanic and American food. That’s what I was the most thankful for; that gesture made me feel welcomed and among family.”

    Tuscan Brands workers dished up containers of gravy to go inside boxed Thanksgiving dinners.
    Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
    Tuscan Brands workers dished up containers of gravy to go inside boxed Thanksgiving dinners.

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    A spokesman for Columbia Gas, Scott Ferson, said, “It’s Thanksgiving. People generally spend it with their family. We wanted to make sure that they were able to do that.”

    Among the families at the senior center in Andover was 70-year-old Rosalie Davis, her granddaughter, and two great-grandchildren, who have been living in a trailer since shortly after the explosions. The family couldn’t make her traditional German apple cake for Thanksgiving, but she’s hoping to be back in her home for Christmas and serve it then.

    “It’s been tough, but it could’ve been worse,” Davis said. “It could’ve been my house that exploded and lost everything. All we did was lose a couple of months’ worth of heat and hot water. We’re in a trailer. We’re making it.”

    Tuscan Brands workers sliced turkey breasts as they prepared food for boxed Thanksgiving dinners donated by Columbia Gas.
    Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
    Tuscan Brands workers sliced turkey breasts as they prepared food for boxed Thanksgiving dinners donated by Columbia Gas.

    On a cold day with biting winds, the turkeys went into the ovens at MultiGrains Bakery at 2 a.m. Each room in the warehouse had a different production line — workers slicing up slabs of turkey breast in one, dishing out gravy in another. The stuffing, green beans, and cranberry sauce were already in the works at Tuscan Market in Salem, N.H., Wednesday, and the mashed potatoes looked more like ice cream as they were poured into plastic containers.

    Each box contained a Thanksgiving to go, enough to feed a family of four, that was then delivered to drop sites including the Elks Lodge, where volunteers worked most of the day in the bitter cold handing them out to families in the parking lot.

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    “It’s well-prepared,” said 72-year-old Altagracia Pimentel, who got one of the packaged meals. “Thank God everything is better now. Thank God we have a home and they gave us a new stove. We’re doing OK.”

    Among the volunteers handing out food was Belinda Perigny, who came down from Vermont to help out her daughter. She was also there to honor her late husband, Robert, who passed away five months ago.

    “He wrote to me in a card, ‘Keep doing good and expect nothing in return,’ ” she said.

    Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.