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One oven, 22 turkeys: How a woman cooks 700 Christmas dinners for those in need

WASHINGTON -- Carolyn Marshall needs more turkey. Actually, four more turkeys. Make that three, because she does have that one already in the freezer. A quick run to Walmart, 68 cents per pound, defrost, prepare, bake, cool, cut, and then Marshall should be ready for Christmas.

She will be feeding 700 people.

Every year Marshall, 66, a teaching assistant, cooks literal truckloads of food for Washington residents in need of a meal at Christmas. She does it at Thanksgiving, too.

She deploys a small army of volunteers to come to her home, package the food and deliver it citywide. But every ounce of the turkey (22 turkeys, 460 pounds in all), stuffing, yams, green beans and gravy is made by Marshall herself.

"I don't trust anyone else to do it right," she says.

She starts preparing in September, when she sends out letters to people who have previously donated to the charity founded in 1957 by Marshall's mother, a famous D.C. preacher and community organizer. The Rev. Annie Woodridge was known throughout the city as "Mother Dear," a nickname given by her 11 children and cemented by her acts of kindness.

Mother Dear ran after-school and summer camps for children, made résumés for the jobless, counseled recently incarcerated felons and served lunch for the homeless, who would line up around the block waiting for her buttery homemade rolls.

"She had the whole neighborhood smelling like Wonder Bread," Marshall said. "Everybody respected her. The drunks on the street. The drug addicts. They would be out there cutting up and using foul language, and as soon as they saw her, it was "Oops, we're sorry, Mother Dear, we didn't mean it. Can we help you with anything?"

The operation she started in the basement of an apartment building grew into a three-story community, which Mother Dear's daughters took over running when she died in 1987. (That first Thanksgiving without their mom, they accidentally set the oven on fire.)

In 2010, the rapid gentrification of the city arrived at their doorstep: The landlord wanted to turn their building into apartments. After months of battles and prayers, they were evicted. Marshall and her sister Iris looked for another location, but never found a place they could afford.

They went a year without providing meals for holidays. The people still called. It just felt wrong. And so Marshall decided her own house would have to do. Twenty two turkeys. One oven. How hard could it be?

Once local social services agencies send her lists of people who need meals, Marshall can start shopping. The shopping is a science.

She hits Costco, then Sam's Club. She gets one regular cart, which she pushes, and one flatbed dolly, which she pulls. She needs 36 big cans of string beans; 12 cans of yams (good for older folks' teeth, or lack thereof); 24 cans of cranberry sauce; 24 cans of milk; 20 pounds of cheese; 5 pounds of butter; and 128 boxes of Stove Top stuffing. It takes at least three hours and costs about $1,000 per holiday.

If there is money left over, she will buy dessert. This year, there is no dessert.

Last week she still didn't have the 40 volunteers she needs to pack and drive food, either. She would have to call her family members and friends, and friends of friends, and do a little arm twisting.

Volunteers coming to her house for the first time might be surprised to find it decorated with not a Christmas tree but a menorah. In the 1990s, Marshall's sister Iris joined a Jewish congregation and invited her to come along. For a while they attended Jewish services on Saturdays and Baptist services on Sundays. She stopped eating pork. (Hence, turkey for Christmas.)

In 2014, Marshall took an Ancestry.com DNA test that told her she was 9 percent Jewish. That, and "when Christmas trees started costing $60 for a tree, I said, 'Forget it.'"

Now she is Messianic, which means she is Jewish but also believes in Jesus. Most of all, she believes in following her mother's example. So at 4 p.m. on Christmas Eve, she will flip on her oven and her radio, which is set to the Christian station 91.9.

The order of cooking: stuffing, then yams, then macaroni, done just so. There is nothing worse, she says, than mushy macaroni. Defrosting on the counter will be the trays of turkey, which she painstakingly cooked one at a time on evenings after wrangling 32 pre-K students all day.

Every tray of food will get a place on the kitchen counter assembly line, ready to be divvied up into hundreds of Styrofoam containers. Marshall will set out disposable gloves, aprons and hairnets she makes every volunteer wear.

"Most of the time, I don't go to bed at all," Marshall said. "The first shift is 4 [a.m.] to 6, but no one is here except me and my family. Then I have 6 to 8 and 8 to 10 so that by 10, most of the meals should be packaged for the drivers, who start coming at 10. At least five drivers every 15 minutes."

Drivers will be given boxes affixed with labels that tell them which addresses to go to and in what order. A box for Miss Seagler on 14th Street, who loves mac and cheese. A box for the 90-year-old blind woman on Rhode Island Avenue, who always invites them inside. Extra boxes inside all the vehicles, so that if a driver passes someone on the street, they can pull over and ask, "Want a meal?"

If there is not a snowstorm, if nobody gets lost and nobody gets sick, if the stove handle does not fall off (which happened last year), and if there is food left over, Marshall and her sister will have a Christmas dinner of her own. They will warm it up in the microwave and sit down to eat. If not, they will fix sandwiches from the fridge.

Then it is time to clean up.

Carolyn Marshall in her kitchen in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 19, 2018. Marshall prepares Christmas dinner for hundreds of people - continuing a tradition of giving that started decades ago by her late mother, the Rev. Annie Woodridge. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Bonnie Jo Mount