Pulling off a turkey dinner that serves approximately 1,500 people, about two-thirds of whom are homebound and have their meal delivered, does not happen without a lot of manpower.
So The Salvation Army of Kansas and Western Missouri, which puts on such a meal each Thanksgiving in Kansas City, relies on an army of helpers to pull it off.
The biggest unsung heroes of the event might just be the roughly two dozen knife-wielding volunteers who descend upon The Salvation Army Linwood Center, 101 W. Linwood Ave., a couple of days before the event to debone the turkeys.
That operation is scheduled to take place over several hours on Tuesday, in advance of The Salvation Army’s Thanksgiving dinner, which runs from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Thursday. The event is free and open to the public.
Before they are finished, the volunteer corp will have carved 140 turkeys, which will augment about 20 pans of mashed potatoes, 15 gallons of gravy, along with other victuals.
The Salvation Army and its volunteers then repeat the process a month later on Christmas.
One of the deans of the carving crew is 83-year-old Donald Bjuland of Independence, Missouri. He grew up on a 200-acre farm in rural Minnesota, and he came to our area decades ago through a job transfer with AT&T.
He uses knives that go all the way back to his time on the farm, when his dad used them to butcher pigs and cattle. Bjuland has a larger knife he uses on the turkey breast; he uses a smaller one for the drumsticks.
Flatland caught up with Bjuland last week to ask him about his service to The Salvation Army and about the art of carving a turkey.
How did you first get involved with deboning? How many years have you been volunteering for The Salvation Army?
Back in the ’80s, I started helping with their soup kitchen on weekends, helping drive the truck and delivering meals to different places they had outlined, and I guess I heard about deboning turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas. At that time, they roasted all the turkeys in the old kitchen, and so I would debone over 100 of them [alone] every Thanksgiving and Christmas. It would take about a week to get them done. They would do so many a day, and I’d come in. [Note: The Salvation Army now trucks the frozen turkeys to the Sheraton Kansas City Hotel at Crown Center, which cooks them free of charge.] I can’t tell you how many years exactly. All I know is that I started back in the mid-90s, and it was two, three years I didn’t do it, and I have been doing it every year since.
I’ve got to tell you a little story about the turkeys: They had smoked some turkeys one year, and we would take the meat off and then throw the carcasses away. There was still a lot left on them, and my wife’s mother lived out in Greeley, Kansas. I was going to take some carcasses out to her dogs, and we stopped at Louisburg Cider Mill, and I was telling a lady there about the carcasses, and she said, “Oh, they make wonderful soups.” She came out and got a couple carcasses. I stopped a little later, and she was telling me how she boiled them twice, and how the kids liked the soup, and then I realized, that was their Thanksgiving dinner. What you normally threw in the trash was somebody’s Thanksgiving dinner. I guess I will never forget that one.
What is it that keeps you coming back year after year?
I don’t really know. I guess it’s tradition, and I think of that lady and the Thanksgiving turkey with the bones. I think it gives you a warm glow, or something like that, going down and doing it.
One time, they had Turkey Day. People would drive by and drop off turkeys. They had police there, and I walked in — I was going to debone turkeys — and I walked by this policeman with a bunch of knives in a paper sack, and a long pointed knife fell out of the bag and landed right in front of the policeman’s boot, point first in the ground. I just said, “Whoops,” picked it up, put it back in the bag and walked in. He was standing there looking at me.
What is the secret to working through the deboning process?
Sharp knives, and don’t talk too much.
What is the worst injury you have ever had?
I haven’t had any injuries deboning turkeys. You’ve just got to watch what you’re doing. When I first started, the rules weren’t quite as strict, so we didn’t have to wear plastic gloves like you do now. The plastic gloves make it a little harder because they are a little hard to keep from getting under the knife edge, if you get too close to them.
How does your work at The Salvation Army affect your enthusiasm for your own Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations? Does it get to the point where you pretty much don’t want to see a turkey for another year?
You’re just cutting them up, and you don’t really eat them or anything like that. It’s cutting them up in slices or pieces, and putting them in trays, and that is the last you see of them. I go to some other dinners around here. My wife and her sister put on a Thanksgiving dinner for their relatives and friends at a church here in Independence, and they had about 63 of them. That was here last week, so I had to debone two turkeys for that and about 25 pounds of ham — I had to slice that up, too.
—Mike Sherry is online news editor. Contact him via Twitter, MikeSherryKCPT, e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone, 816-398-4205.