At this annual Thanksgiving Day dinner, “amens” get served up nearly as often as mashed potatoes and praising the Lord pairs perfectly with pumpkin pie.
All were on the menu Thursday as Jennie Dudley and her Eagle Ranch Ministry served up faith and food for the needy under the 500 South viaduct in downtown Salt Lake City.
It’s Dudley’s 32nd year serving the homeless, a job she said God called her to do — and one she does here each Sunday, not just on Thanksgiving or Christmas.
“God told me, ‘Go feed my people — mind, body and soul,’” she said.
Unsure of exactly how to do that, the now 86-year-old Dudley, who spent much of her life living on a ranch, decided the chuckwagon was the right vehicle for her mission.
“What do you do on a ranch when you have hungry people out back?” she said. “You send a chuckwagon.”
The ministry began small: She took a cowboy coffee pot, a camp stove, a cast iron skillet and a ball of dough to a Pioneer Park sidewalk in 1985, where she fed about 10 people.
From there, she bounced around a few downtown locations — with the support of Salt Lake City — until settling under the freeway on-ramp posted with a “no trespassing” sign after the Olympics in 2002.
At each step, the ordained minister says, faith and prayer were her only business plan.
She’s never had a budget or a pantry brimming with food stores or even an organized plan for volunteers.
Still the people have come, hearing mostly by word of mouth that there’s a place for hot meal or a place to give time. Fate also connected her with the state courts, which counts time dishing up food for Dudley toward community service.
Dudley’s not interested in any credit though.
“It’s all to his glory, and it’s the Father within me that does the work,” she said. “I love being a vessel.”
On Thursday, about 60 homeless men and women were fed from the open-air kitchen — a fraction of the usual Sunday service for 250 people. Another 153 meals were delivered to homebound seniors across the Salt Lake Valley, a service Dudley added in the past few years.
Entirely dependent on donations, the chuckwagon’s weekly menu can change based on what’s on hand, although it typically includes scrambled eggs, pancakes, potatoes with country gravy, and bacon, as well as coffee and hot chocolate. Always included: a pre-meal prayer and religious music.
On Thursday, the offerings included turkey — precooked and then heated on a large propane grill affectionally called Big Bertha — and all the trimmings, right down to pre-cut pumpkin and apple pies that were donated by Sizzling Platter, the Utah-based parent company of restaurant chains Sizzler, Red Robin, Little Caesars and more.
About two dozen Sizzling Platter employees also were on hand sorting piles of donated clothing, staffing the food prep tables and filling the plates of hungry patrons.
As volunteer experiences go, this one feels richer, said Melissa Tresko, who runs Sizzling Platter’s charity arm, including the weekly, Sunday delivery of baked treats from its Dunkin’ Donuts stores.
“Honestly, I think it’s the intimacy [Dudley] has with every person here,” Tresko said. “You really feel that you are needed.”
Truck driver Tim Turner has spent nearly every Sunday under the viaduct for the past 10 years, fetching water, setting up food warming tables and making coffee in oversized blue enamel cowboy coffee pots.
In the beginning, Turner’s service was involuntary; the 64-year-old came with his then-teenage son, who had been court-ordered to 160 hours of community service.
Neither father nor son wanted to quit when the time was up.
“It recharges my batteries,” Turner said, pausing to fight off a flood of emotion and tears.
It’s also a sobering, weekly reminder of what might have been.
“I was a drunk, an alcoholic, for a long, long time,” he said. “It could be me [living] down here.”
An Army veteran who has been homeless for much of the past 12 years, Thanksgiving Day diner Anthony has had more than his share of handout meals. He likes the chuckwagon more than most, he said, and not just for its hearty meals.
It’s about the spirit of the place — the warmth and camaraderie found despite the concrete surroundings and the surety of Dudley’s presence and her no-nonsense manner.
“It might be sleeting sideways, but she’s always here,” said Anthony, who would only give his first name. “I don’t know what words to use to describe her. She’s unbelievable.”