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More than a week after it happened, people are still talking about the 18th annual Christmas dinner and the record crowd that began showing up an hour-and-a-half before the doors were to officially open.

It was clearly obvious that people were chomping at the bit to get inside Farmington's CiCi's Pizza for the free traditional meal of turkey and ham, plus all the trimmings, along with a wide selection of desserts.

“We’re supposed to start at 3 and at 1 o’clock we had a line already, so we ended up opening our doors at 1:26 today,” said Debbie Peterson, who with her husband, Chip, owns the popular pizza restaurant.

Responding to the early lineup, Chip said with a laugh, “We were full and I said the good news is that we’ve got an hour and 44 minutes until we open!”

Looking out over the large crowd of people, Debbie added, “It’s been this way since 1:30. We probably served 300 before we were supposed to open.”

Last year, the Petersons, with the help of community volunteers, served more than 700 meals and by 3:30 p.m. it already looked like they might break that record.

“We’ve already run out of tables and we’ve had to have people start sharing, which is really a good thing because it gives people someone to visit with,” Debbie said. “As usual we’ve had a great bunch of volunteers come out to help us. We always have [radio personality] Mark Toti on the turkey because he’s such a turkey! I’ve got all my kids here too.”

Putting in his two cents about the crowd, Chip said, “I figured with the weather being good we’d have a lot of people show up. We already had people here, so we started early and tried to get to as many as we could."

Asked why the couple began the Christmas Day dinner 18 years ago, Debbie said, “Our kids were entering the early teen years and we wanted them to know there was more to Christmas than gifts. God blessed us with this facility, and we just thought that this was something we wanted to do.”

Chip added, “It was the year of 9/11, I think, and the country was kind of blah and we thought this would be something positive we could do. We were always closed Christmas and we thought, ‘You know, we could use this facility. It’s a shame not to really do something good with it. It would be sitting here empty.’

“There was a learning curve figuring out how to put the food through those little teeny ovens, but it’s evolved. Of course, there’s so many people who come out now and help that it’s just got a life of its own. The most interesting part was cooking the turkeys because we had to precook them, but the Farmington Elks helped us out this year using 27 smokers. They do a lot of great things to help out.

After 18 years, Debbie said the preparation involved with putting the annual meal on has become easier over time.

“If you look around, a lot of these workers have been coming for 18 years,” she said. “So, they kind of walk in, take their position. Like these ladies in prep. They’ve been coming for years and they know exactly the recipes and can do all this without us. Our kids have been doing it for 18 years. You’ll see them running through here and now our grandkids are here helping.”

Chip said, “It’s a whole community thing. We came in last night and got the gravy ready — some of the things that are hard to do when there’s a lot going on and have that ready and then we came in this morning around 9:30 or 10 o’clock and started putting stuff up and then people began showing up and everybody just goes to their places.”

And as far as the Petersons, they plan to keep putting on the free Christmas dinner for as long as they can.

“As long as God gives us the facility, we’ll do it,” Debbie Peterson said. “This is just a blessing to us. It’s not us doing this, it’s the whole community. People say ‘thank you’ to us. It’s not us. As you can see, it’s the community.

“We came back to visit our family and we were standing downtown watching the Christmas parade — we lived in Springfield, Missouri then — and it was just magical. We both said, ‘This is where we want to raise our kids.’”

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Kevin R. Jenkins is the managing editor of the Farmington Press and can be reached at 573-756-8927 or kjenkins@farmingtonpressonline.com

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