It began as a way to make sure down-on-their luck veterans and others ate as well as anyone else on Thanksgiving Day.
Tom Arhontas, known for his Greek cooking, big heart and Marine Corps pride of service, cajoled other Southenders to help him make turkey and all the trimmings and deliver free meals on Thanksgiving morning.
The traveling turkey tradition took off, growing bigger year by year.
This week, it turns 20.
Longtime organizers are recognizing Arhontas and the origins of the community tradition as they gather again.
Dubbed the “turkey brigade,” the spirited cooks, food prep people, meal assemblers, coordinators, drivers and others vow to carry on the Mobile Turkey Unit as a living tribute to Arhontas, who died in 2008.
“It was Tom’s original vision that if a person asks, they would receive it,” said organizer Gwendine Norton. “We don’t ask questions. We provide a free meal to all who request one from Clinton to Coupeville.”
Norton’s husband, Tom, along with Dave Johnson, oversee the kitchen. The Nortons are co-presidents of the organization’s new board of directors.
Saturday, Nov. 17, at 5 p.m. is the deadline to get in orders to the Mobile Turkey Unit. Last year, 513 meals were delivered. The count for this year’s holiday dinner orders was 500 as of Friday morning. Volunteers are still needed.
Elderly people, home bound or homeless individuals, low-income families and people working on Thanksgiving Day, such as law enforcement officers, all benefit from the grassroots organization.
“Meals on Wheels does not deliver on holidays,” Norton said, “so we pick up the slack there, also.”
Longtime volunteer driver Laura Canby recalls one delivery to a young couple as particularly poignant.
“The woman had just miscarried. She didn’t feel like cooking and they had no family close by,” Canby said. “To have a home-cooked traditional Thanksgiving meal brought to them, she couldn’t believe.”
Tuesday, 28 fresh turkeys will be roasting at St. Hubert Catholic Church in Langley, longtime host for the event. Then comes time to mash the spuds — some 300 pounds. And don’t forget the tubs of stuffing, vats of gravy and piles of pumpkin pies.
All of the pies, rolls and turkeys are being purchased at the Goose Grocer, Norton said.
The days of thanks and giving will begin early Thursday morning as it always does — with volunteers gathering in a circle and Father Rick Spicer blessing the food.
Then the rush begins. Turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, rolls and pumpkin pie are scooped into a flat container as it moves down an assembly line of volunteers. Boxes are loaded into a bag marked with a zone that identifies a section of the island.
Once a bag is full, a coordinator hands it off to a driver whose multiple deliveries have been plotted like troop movements.
“It’s very well organized,” said Rebecca Semanie, whose family has helped in several capacities over the years. “One year, we started at 7:30 in the morning assembling 508 meals and by 9 a.m., they had all gone out the door.”
From being one man’s notion in 1999, the Mobile Turkey Unit has grown to an official not-for-profit organization with a board of directors, tax identification number and ability to receive grants and raise more funds.
“We live in a generous community and are thankful for the donations by churches, service organizations, Goosefoot Foundation, local businesses and individuals,” Canby said.
For the first several years, the cooking was done in the South Whidbey School District Bus Barn kitchen as Arhontas was a school bus driver. As requests for the Thanksgiving meal increased every year, cooking moved to the Eagles Aerie restaurant off of Highway 525.
In recent years, organizers have been using the kitchen and multipurpose room at St. Hubert Catholic Church. But finding enough refrigerator space to store huge quantities of cooked food for a day or two before Thanksgiving became problematic.
The solution? Ice cream. And tacos.
Jill and Steve Rosen, owners of Rocket Taco restaurant and Whidbey Ice Cream, both located in Freeland, offered to help.
“They called us needing some cold storage and we are fortunate enough to have our (refrigeration) trucks,” Steve Rosen said. “We really admire what they do.”
People without home addresses can also enjoy a home-cooked turkey dinner. Chevron Short Stop in Freeland and Mobil Gas Station in Bayview have become the designated spots where numerous meals are delivered to be given out to the island’s growing homeless population.
Additionally, the North Whidbey Community Harvest, started in 2004, will be providing free meals to thousands of people at Oak Harbor’s Elks Lodge Thursday as well as delivering dinner to hundreds of people.
The two organizations work together by referring people in need of meal deliveries to each other, depending on home addresses, Norton said.
“Nobody on this island needs to go without a meal on Thanksgiving.”
• Mobile Turkey Unit orders must be placed by 5 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 17. Call Gwendine Norton at 360-321-9782 to order a dinner or to volunteer. Or go online to www.mobileturkeyunit.word press.com
• On Thanksgiving, free traditional holiday turkey meals are also being served in Langley from 1 to 5 p.m. at American Legion Post 141, off Highway 525, and from noon to 1:30 p.m. at Soup’s On Kitchen at Langley Island Church on Whidbey.