MARIA STEIN — It’s not unusual for area hosts and hostesses to meet the challenge of preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for lots of people.
Adult sons and daughters take their children “home” for the holiday, and grandma can find herself cooking for two dozen family members.
But Mary Dahlinghaus, of rural Maria Stein, has them all beat. She makes a holiday meal for 500 people, and she’s been doing it every year since 2006.
Dahlinghaus is the cook behind the Minster Knights of Columbus’s annual Thanksgiving Fellowship, a free meal in the Knights’ hall, served on Thanksgiving Day to anyone and everyone who wants to attend. This year’s fellowship will be from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.
A private caterer since 1981, Dahlinghaus, for the last 29 years, has also prepared the period dishes served by the Fort Loramie Historical Association at its Williamsburg Christmas Dinners.
She doesn’t bat an eye at the thought of cooking for 500 people. She has the method down to a science, and she gets lots of help.
Days before Thanksgiving, Dahlinghaus starts cutting slices of bread into 1-inch chunks for the dressing, which calls for 24 pounds of bread. She spreads the chunks on trays and lines them up on tables in her basement. The bread dries overnight and then she toasts it.
That’s the only part of the meal she fixes at home.
“We go (to the hall) at quarter to seven in the morning (on Thanksgiving),” Dahlinghaus said of how the Minster dinner comes together. She, her son, Dale, of Minster, and other volunteers open the hall and take delivery of 17 turkey roasts from Wagner’s grocery store. The roasts comprise light and dark meat and are baked in advance by the grocer. Each one weighs 8 to 10 pounds. Before the holiday is over, some 150 pounds of turkey will be served to hungry guests.
“Three people cut the turkey,” Dahlinghaus said. “While they’re slicing turkey, I’m making gravy.” That would be five gallons of gravy, made from scratch.
“It takes a lot of chicken broth,” she said. And that broth is soup that she’s made and saved as she cooks chickens for other events. None of it comes from a can. She prepares the gravy using conventional ingredients: broth, pan drippings, cornstarch — “and a special seasoning,” she said with a wink.
The gravy comes together fast because, “by 8, I have to have the dressing in the oven,” she noted.
The night before Thanksgiving, vounteers chop celery and onions so the vegetables are ready to be incorporated into the dressing by the time Dahlinghaus arrives on the holiday morning. Chickens are boiled in water and cut up for the dressing and their broth is added to the toasted bread. Ten dozen raw eggs hold it all together.
Once the dressing is baking, it’s on to the mashed potatoes.
“We can’t do (fresh) potatoes. There’s not enough time,” the cook said. So instant potatoes are used. But milk and butter have to be heated before the potatoes can be mixed in. While the milk heats, Dahlinghaus opens 10 gallons of canned corn and seasons it with more of her secret blend.
“By that time, my milk is hot for the potatoes,” she said.
In the meantime, volunteers cut pies, cakes and dessert breads, which have been made by area residents and donated to the meal.
“One year, there were 20 pumpkin pies. The next year, everyone said, ‘I’m not making pumpkin,’ so we didn’t have any. So Shawn (Sharp, an event organizer) ran out and bought some so we’d have some,” Dale laughed.
Dahlinghaus raised nine children. Her oldest recently retired from Nidec Minster. Some of those children and their spouses assist her in the K of C kitchen.
“John and his family come from North Carolina. They help. Bob comes from Boston. Dale is my big helper,” she said.
They have watched the event grow during the last dozen years.
“The first year, they said to make enough for 125, and we fed 150. I always make a little extra,” Mary admitted.
“Mary’s contingency plan,” laughed Dale. “She’s never run out of food yet.” This year, she’ll cook for 500 — and a few more.
Has anything ever overcooked?
“No! I’m the best cook around,” Mary teased.
She’s been making magic in the kitchen since she was 9.
“My mother got deathly sick and went to the hospital,” Mary recounted. Her grandmother traveled from Sidney to help care for the family.
“I said, “Grandma, Mom always makes bread.’ And she said, ‘And today, you’re going to make it.’ She coached me, and I’ve been cooking ever since,” Mary said. “We lived on a farm. We had our own eggs and milk. When I got married, I churned my own butter.”
She still lives on the edge of that farm, just across the street from the family farm of her husband’s ancestors. She and her husband, who is now deceased, were married 65 years ago in the same hall that welcomes her for the Thanksgiving Fellowship.
“I always liked to cook. I was always proud to help Mom can. We didn’t have freezers, so we had to can,” she said. Mary continues to preserve vegetables from her garden. She makes jam from fruits shared with her by a neighbor.
“I haven’t bought any jelly for years,” she said.
For the Fort Loramie dinners, she and her granddaughter, Linda Krouskop, of Minster, bake 22, 20-pound turkeys in electric roasters plugged into outlets all around the museum. They begin on the Tuesday before dinners are served on Thursday and through the weekend. This year’s Williamsburg dinners are Nov. 29 through Dec. 2.
Extremely popular as a wedding reception caterer, Mary calls on her daughter and granddaughter to manage crews on those Saturdays when there are three weddings at the same time.
“She’s doing a lot of second generation weddings,” Dale said. “She catered the parents’ wedding and now their kids are getting married.”
Mary does the cooking in the halls where events take place. She doesn’t cater out of her house. But she handles all the paperwork there: the ordering, bill-paying and scheduling. And she does it all on paper. She doesn’t own a computer.
Her services are already booked through 2020. There’s no retirement in sight.
“I enjoy (catering). I can work 12 hours. Why shouldn’t I? I’ll retire only when the good Lord lets me know,” she said.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4824.