FORT LEE, Va. – Providing a Thanksgiving feast for thousands of initial entry troops can be a daunting task, but it’s one Richard L. Bennett, chief of the Food Service and Management Division here, wouldn’t trade for the world.
“I’ve been doing it for 39 years, and I’ve only missed one Thanksgiving,” Bennett boasted. “It’s the one time of year we can go all out to express how we truly feel about what we’re doing and how we feel about those individuals we take care of.”
The Food Service Division is an element of Logistics Readiness Center – Lee, the agency that also operates the Central Issue Facility, Property Book Office and the Transportation Motor Pool, among other services. Bennett oversees the five dining facilities across post and the roughly 500 contractors who keep them operational
Typically, the DFAC staff is required to follow the Initial Military Plan 35 menu that regulates what service members attending advanced individual training receive for each of their three daily meals. The menu is part of Training and Doctrine Command’s Holistic Health and Fitness program, which describes nutritional readiness as “the ability to recognize, select and consume the requisite food and drink to meet the physical and nonphysical demands of any duty or combat position, accomplish the mission and come home healthy.”
Thanksgiving is the exception … an opportunity to lay out a feast with a greater abundance of culinary boundaries.
“We’re able to provide our military’s youngest troops with a traditional meal that the staff develops based off service members’ preferences identified in years past,” Bennett said.
The menu planning starts months before the holiday and takes anywhere from 40-60 work hours to formalize.
“We send in our order to the supplier with about a month to go,” he further explained. “You’re competing with every other organization because everyone is going to ask the vendor for turkey and mashed potatoes, for example.”
The early submission of the order this year allowed Bennett to secure 2,200 pounds of turkey, 2,275 pounds of beef and 1,900 pounds of fish that will serve as the primary entrée options for the meal. He noted they did not get absolutely everything they ordered, but they are prepared to fill in with substitutions as required.
“We start getting items once we submit the order right up until the day before Thanksgiving,” he continued. “Even at that point, it’s not uncommon for the supplier to call us and say something isn’t available, so that would also require us to alter the menu a bit, but it’s never resulted in anything less than a top-quality meal.”
The day before Thanksgiving is when the real labor-intensive portion of the process begins, Bennett said. Some of the proteins require hours of cooking time. The preparation of sides to dress up the meal include 1,250 pounds of potatoes, 120 large cans of cranberry sauce, 6,000 pounds of fruit, 800 pies, 288 cakes and more. The staff also takes pride in adding decorative touches that amplify the festive atmosphere.
“This takes all of us,” Bennett proudly expressed. “It’s not just the people cooking or serving the meal. Everyone is putting in the full eight hours, from unloading the trucks to cleaning the dishes. Every step is considered a very important part of the process to get this right.”
Bennett estimates the staff altogether will work more than 8,000 hours to ensure the meal is a success, which includes starting on time and meeting the expectations of their hungry customers.
The dining facilities will feed approximately 5,500 service members this year. As is the usual tradition, senior unit and installation leaders – to include Maj. Gen. Mark T. Simerly, CASCOM and Fort Lee commanding general, and Command Sgt. Maj. Jorge C. Escobedo, CASCOM CSM – will circulate through dining rooms, engaging in friendly conversation with the troops.
To give everyone a better idea of what meal items the troops will be choosing from this year, Bennett provided the menu that follows.
Roasted turkey with turkey gravy, glazed ham, glazed Cornish hen, roast beef with au jus gravy, herbed baked fish, mashed potatoes, baked macaroni and cheese, cornbread stuffing, glazed sweet potatoes and candid yams, roasted butternut and acorn squash, herbed green beans, buttered corn on the cob, seasoned collard greens, shrimp cocktail, crackers and assorted cubed cheeses, assorted whole grain roles with spreads, soup, assorted breads and rolls, a salad bar, and fresh fruit.
Desserts will include assorted puddings, pecan pie, pumpkin pie, sweet potato pie, apple pie, lemon meringue pie, red velvet cake, chocolate cake, German chocolate cake, lemon cake, chocolate brownies, cheesecake and assorted ice creams.