Virginia A. Stoner reads a recipe in "Food for Fifty" and multiplies by six. When serving Thanksgiving dinner to 300, a hostess has to calculate big.
For the third consecutive year, the 74-year-old great-grandmother is coordinating the Thanksgiving Day Community Dinner for Shepherd's Staff. Traditionally, hundreds of people appear at the doors of St. John School cafeteria, and Mrs. Stoner lets nobody leave hungry.
Retired from managing the kitchen at Mount Wilson Hospital, Mrs. Stoner has experience cooking for crowds. "I have learned to organize," she said.
Without her, the dinner might never take place, said Lois Giles, an assistant at Shepherd's Staff, a ministry for those in need.
"We could never have started these dinners without Virginia," Ms. Giles said. "She stepped forward and has worked tirelessly every year."
Mrs. Stoner said, "When the dinner is all done, I feel like I have done something for the community. I have had quite a few helping hands in my life. Now is my turn to help somebody else."
Area churches, businesses and individuals have donated turkey and all the trimmings. Preparations and decorating begin Wednesday night.
"We are so grateful to St. John's for letting us have the kitchen at no charge," Mrs. Stoner said.
The Rev. Arthur F. Valenzano, pastor of the church with the kitchen Mrs. Stoner has deemed the area's largest, said the dinner is an opportunity to demonstrate appreciation "for all the blessings we have received" and to share those blessings with others.
"We are so fortunate to live in a part of the country that has so many resources," he said. "This is a wonderful way to start the Advent and Christmas season."
Volunteers will rise early Thursday to roast about 25 turkeys -- more than 300 pounds of white and dark meat, which three men will carve. Chefs will follow the Stoner family recipe for gravy from the broth and for dressing from 48 pounds of bread cubes.
All of the burners on the two stoves in the cafeteria will be in use as preparations continue all morning. Space limitations make boiling and mashing potatoes impossible, so Mrs. Stoner substitutes instant, which she mixes a gallon and a half at a time. She said she "has never heard a complaint."
Green beens, sliced carrots and sauerkraut all come from gallon cans, each of which serves about 25 diners. Volunteers will have at least 400 ladles of cranberry sauce.
"We have extras of everything," Mrs. Stoner said. "I don't want to say level the scoop off to anybody."
Nearly 100 volunteers will take shifts for serving and cleaning -- not too difficult given the disposable dinnerware.
"We have so many volunteers we have to turn them away," Mrs. Stoner said. "People work a shift and want to stay for the next one."
Bakers will make pumpkin and apple pies, and a restaurant is donating baklava, a Greek pastry.
"We think the pies are all homemade, but there may be a few of Mrs. Smith's," Mrs. Stoner said.
Coffee, tea and a punch made from iced tea and fruit juices will round out the meal.
Leftovers? Mrs. Stoner expects some, but they won't be crowding her refrigerator. The soup kitchens, the Westminster Rescue Mission and Resurrection Farm will benefit from any surplus.
"We are preparing and guaranteeing 350 servings, and we have backups for 400," Mrs. Stoner said.
No one will leave empty-handed. Mrs. Stoner and her staff are preparing bags with raisins, fruit and nuts. Carryout dinners will go home to shut-ins.
The dinner is not only for the needy, but for all who "wish to share the blessings of feasting and fellowship," said Kathy Brown, Shepherd's Staff director.
A grandmother who will be alone for the holiday and a resident of the Westminster Nursing Home say they are coming.
"Several people have offered to pay for the meal, but we tell them it's free," Mrs. Stoner said. "Any money donations will go to Shepherd's Staff."
As long as she is able, Mrs. Stoner will coordinate community dinners. She often volunteers at her own church, Meadow Branch Church of the Brethren.
After 3 p.m. Thursday, Mrs. Stoner and her husband, Raymond, will return to their home in Aspen Run. She will relax and avoid the stove briefly.
"I'll get us something together for dinner," she said. "But our Thanksgiving dinner will be on Sunday with our son and his family."
That's a piece of cake, she said. Only 12 people.
The free dinner will be served from noon to 3 p.m. at St. John School, Monroe Street, Westminster. Information: 857-5944.