As Richard Tschiderer lay in an Army hospital bed in Texas in November 1973, semi-paralyzed and nearly blind from a motorcycle crash, nothing had ever tasted as good as the Thanksgiving turkey dinner the nurses served up.
"Society has put up with a lot from me," said the self-described "former wild smart-ass," so the time has come for a little payback.
For Mr. Tschiderer, 38, executive chef and food production supervisor at Baltimore County General Hospital in Randallstown, this year's installment is the feast he will cook on Thanksgiving for about 220 mentally and physically handicapped people at the Pikesville Armory.
Deciding to prepare a dinner for the holiday was easy for the Mount Washington chef, but deciding whom to serve took more consideration.
His first thought was cooking for the poor and homeless.
"But ever since my accident I have been empathetic with people who hurt," he said.
"I've had a good life -- self-destructive, but that was my choice. They have nothing but headaches they didn't choose.
"It meant a lot to me when I was cooked a Thanksgiving dinner at the hospital in El Paso, so I chose to do it for the handicapped and the disabled," he said.
Mr. Tschiderer vividly recalls the motorcycle accident that left him in the hospital for months with brain-stem injuries.
"My head hit the curb, and without the helmet I'd have died right there," he said. "I almost did anyway." Although he has recoveredfrom most of his injuries, his vision remains impaired and he must wear glasses.
Mr. Tschiderer, a graduate of Johnson and Wales University culinary school in Providence, R.I., has cooked his way around the country for years, including stints at restaurants in Baltimore and Annapolis.
He admitted to abusing drugs and alcohol before realizing that he was bent on self- destruction. In 1987, he said, he started to turn his life around.
When he broached the Thanksgiving dinner idea last year, his bosses at the hospital pitched in $400.
The dinner was such a hit with the 110 diners at Govans Presbyterian Church that this year the hospital and its Personnel Advisory Commission doubled the donation so that twice as many people could be invited.
"We try to do whatever we can to help. We get a lot of requests," said Jo Scherr, hospital vice president for support services and a volunteer helper for the dinner.
Mrs. Scherr said that a grim vision of the nation's economic problems hit her hard recently when she saw a young couple standing beside Reisterstown Road at the Beltway holding a sign that read, "We'll work for food."
"It makes you so grateful for what you have that you want to give something back," Mrs. Scherr said.
During a stop in Oregon on his culinary meanderings, Mr. Tschiderer helped to cook a holiday dinner for 1,000 poor people. "I had a real good time," he said. "It was so rewarding that I decided I wanted to do something to pay back for all society has put up with from me."
Several years ago when he was a chef at a private club in Baton Rouge, La., Mr. Tschiderer used a rare holiday off to cook Thanksgiving dinner for residents of a shelter for poor and battered women.
Last year, he had Thanksgiving off from the hospital for the first time in a few years, so he prepared what he calls his "first annual Thanksgiving feast" -- a meal he hopes will become a tradition.
This year's dinner will include the works, from turkey breast with sausage-and-apple dressing to pumpkin pie and holiday cookies.
On Thanksgiving eve the chef will cook 200 pounds of turkey breasts, 20 pounds of sausage with a case of Granny Smith applesfor the dressing and bake 28 pumpkin pies in the hospital kitchen.
Then on Thanksgiving Day, he will cook 40 pounds of green beans and mix up three cases of instant mashed potatoes at the armory.
Mr. Tschiderer said he will have one assistant cook and about 15 helpers to serve the meal. The dinner guests will come from several city and county agencies that work with the developmentally disabled: Chimes Inc., the Baltimore Association for Retarded Citizens, Life Inc., Progressive Horizons and Emerge.
"Everybody I asked to help agreed right away. They all asked, 'What can I do for you?,' " Mr. Tschiderer said. "I think how fortunate I am."