You can never groan about hosting Thanksgiving dinner again after learning about the feat Janet Easley and her family have been pulling off in their Near Northside neighborhood for the past 38 years.
Where did the idea come from to cook Thanksgiving dinner for 10,000 people?
You see people in the area walking up and down the street, wanting something to eat. One day, we were sitting around, and my uncle, the Rev. Herbert Easley, said “I want to start feeding these people.” It started as something small at my church—we fed maybe 75 or 80 people that first year. We go entirely off donations—we’ve been doing it for 38 years, and people don’t know how we do it, but we do.
How many people do you expect to feed this year?
Last year we did 10,000, so I’m looking at more this year, the way the economy is.
How long does it take to pull all this together?
I start in October. I have a team of more than 200 volunteers, and people come from everywhere—I can’t believe it.
“We may not be able to do it every day, but that one day, I want people to be able to eat and enjoy themselves.”
What do you tackle first?
I start making the sweet potato pies at the end of October—I made 600 last year, and I’ve got almost 370 already prepared in the church freezer for this year.
Wait, you made 600 pies all by yourself?
Yes, ma’am! I can see them in my head—for a month, I don’t see nothing but pies. And now I’m going to have a total knee replacement after Thanksgiving this year—I’m on a walker, but I’m still going hard.
Why sweet potato pie?
I’ve got the funniest thing to tell you: A couple picked up dinners one year, but then the husband came back to the table where I was sitting and said, “Uh, miss?” I said, “Yes, baby?” He said, “In this bag is cookies, but I don’t want a cookie. I came down to get a piece of sweet potato pie.”
I said, “Lord, have mercy, what have I started?” Because I can’t stop it now. It’s a tradition; they look forward to the sweet potato pie.
Did you grow up in a house full of cooks?
My uncle and my mother did a lot of the cooking, and I loved to watch. And now my husband of 35 years is always asking me, “Don’t you ever get tired of cooking?” And I don’t. There’s something about it that brings people together. My granddaughter died of cancer—she’s been gone now for four years—and she was always in the kitchen with me. She’d always tell me, “Granny, granny, I know how to make a pie now!” and she was at Watkins every year trying to help us with Thanksgiving.
She was going through chemo and radiation, and that little girl stood up there even when we tried to make her sit down. It was just mind-blowing.
Any tips or tricks you’ve learned in 38 years of doing this?
Every day we make a mistake, but God carries us through. I may get low on some things and say, “Oh, boy, we’re not gonna have enough turkeys,” and then I end up with so many turkeys that we’re able to give out turkeys and canned food for Christmas. People are kind.
Take me through game day — what time are you getting up, and when’s your head finally hitting the pillow?
Me and my co-organizer Bobbie Jones pick up the turkeys from the Indiana Women’s Prison—the women cook them for us—on Wednesday night. Then we start at 6 a.m., and serve from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. We do all the corn and green beans that day, and we’re putting out turkeys starting around 8 a.m.
We shut down at 4 p.m., but we still have people coming through the door, even when you tell them there’s nothing left, and it makes you feel so bad. But everything’s gone. I try to give them whatever we have left though, because that area—the Martin Luther King neighborhood—is really needy.
Then we get out of there around 5:30 or 6 p.m., after we get the tables all packed up—and I head home to my recliner and fall asleep.
What keeps you doing this year after year?
People need to eat. I already have people calling, asking to put down for dinners. Some people will call and say, “Can I just have two dinners?” and I asked one lady, “How many children do you have?” She said, “I got five.” I said, “Two dinners for five kids?! Baby, you can have as many dinners as you want.” I guess that’s why people come like they do—we try to give them some food for the next couple of days, not just that one day.
What’s the best compliment you’ve ever received?
I got a letter from an 89-year-old woman that touched my heart. She put $10 in the envelope and said, “I don’t have much—me and my husband are on a fixed income—but you and Bobbie Jones are angels from heaven that God sent down here to help all these people, and I just love you so much.” That had me tore up.
Anything else people should know?
I just want everybody to eat good that day. We may not be able to do it every day, but that one day, I want people to be able to eat and enjoy themselves.
Easley and her team plan to serve on Thanksgiving Day at Watkins Park Family Center, 2360 Martin Luther King Jr. St., from 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Harper’s Bar & Grill, 4202 W. 56th St., from noon-3 p.m.; and Sunrise Missionary Baptist Church, 1831 Bellefontaine St., from 1-3 p.m. Meals can be picked up at Sunrise Missionary Baptist Church from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Easley encourages those who can’t make it in person to call Watkins Park Family Center at 317-327-7175 to arrange for a meal delivery.
Those who’d like to volunteer to serve or deliver meals on Thanksgiving Day can call Easley at 317-709-0984 or her co-organizer Bobbie Jones at 317-361-5149. (“I’d love to have you for however long you can give me,” Easley says.)
Donations can be dropped at Watkins Park Family Center from 2-9 p.m. Monday through Friday. Easley’s biggest need is turkeys, followed by canned green beans and corn. The last day for donations is Tuesday, Nov. 26 ,to give the volunteers time to prep everything by Thanksgiving Day (but the sooner, the better).
Sarah Bahr is a regular contributor to Indy Maven. In the Thanksgiving meat wars, she was #TeamHam for the longest time, but #TeamTurkey might finally be winning her heart.