We are going to cook and cut and dice, whatever we need to do to get a nice traditional turkey meal. We don't want to see anyone going hungry. —University of Utah executive chef Peter Hodgson

SALT LAKE CITY — Bright and early Thursday morning, West High School sophomore Bailey Pratt will be busy preparing a Thanksgiving feast.

But the turkey, potatoes and stuffing won't be for Pratt and her family. Instead, she'll be among a group of high school students and University of Utah Dining Services employees volunteering to prepare nearly 800 Thanksgiving meals for families along the Wasatch Front.

"This makes a huge difference," Pratt said. "I know a couple of families who will be getting one of these meals, and they’ve never really had Thanksgiving."

The meal drive is a partnership of the University of Utah, Utah Restaurant Association, Salvation Army and ProStart, a high school education program for students interested in culinary careers.

More than 30 students from various high schools will work alongside University of Utah chefs from 6 to 10 a.m. Thursday morning to prepare the meals, which will then be delivered to needy families and Meals on Wheels recipients by Salvation Army volunteers.

Pratt, who hopes to one day run her own pastry shop, said it's not easy waking up early on a holiday. But she said she doesn't mind giving some of her time to help others.

"I would rather help out then go be with my family," Pratt said. "I'm always with my family, so it would be nice to do something different for a change."

Markus Wunderlich, a fellow ProStart student at West High School, said he hopes the meals help families come together and enjoy their holiday.

"I think it really does make a difference to serve people," he said.

To prepare the meals in time, University of Utah executive chef Peter Hodgson said volunteers will meet for about eight hours of preparation time Tuesday and Wednesday. Hodgson estimated they will ultimately cook between 40 and 50 Sweetheart boneless turkeys, taking efforts to maximize as many servings of meat as possible.

The meals will also include mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, rolls, green beans, cranberry sauce, pie and a cornbread stuffing based on a recipe by University of Utah Dining Services Director Reggie Conerly.

Preparing that much food simultaneously is a logistical challenge, Hodgson said, but his university oven practically "walks and talks and cleans itself."

"We are going to cook and cut and dice, whatever we need to do to get a nice traditional turkey meal," he said. "We don't want to see anyone going hungry."

Food materials were secured by the Salvation Army and the Utah Restaurant Association, which also sponsors local ProStart programs.

Melva Sine, president of the Utah Restaurant Association, said the organization has done Thanksgiving meal drives in the past, but this is the first year it has partnered with the Salvation Army, increasing the number of families it can reach.

Sine said the meal drive is a great experience for students, who get firsthand knowledge about the food service industry while also giving back to the community. She said ProStart programs are in most Utah's high schools, and she'd like to see the Thanksgiving meal drive eventually extend beyond the Wasatch Front.

"This is a great opportunity for students and the community to come together and service a need," Sine said. "Hopefully we can, in the future, expand that to meet the needs that are throughout the state."

Turkeys for the food drive were donated by AAA, with other food items being secured through a mix of corporate and community donations, said Michael Black, kitchen manager for the Salvation Army of Utah.

Black said the kitchens at the Salvation Army are not equipped to handle the preparation of nearly 800 meals. The partnership of University of Utah Dining Services, including its kitchens, supplies and staff, is critical to the success of this year's event, he said.

"Quite honestly, without the University of Utah, we’d have a very hard time doing this this year," Black said. "I know that for me it is a blessing to be able to help out in the community."

Hodgson said it "makes you feel great" to help other people enjoy Thanksgiving. He said he hopes the University can do a similar drive during Christmastime.

"I haven't had to ask very hard to get volunteers either. There's been plenty that want to come and do it," Hodgson said. "To have the opportunity to do something like this is just really nice. It's nice that you're giving someone a little bit of joy."

Reggie's Cornbread Stuffing

Ingredients:

– 1/2 cup yellow onion

– 1/3 cup celery

– 1 teaspoon dried sage

– 2 teaspoons vegetable oil

– 10 slices of stale white bread (leave slices whole)

– 18 ounces corn bread (cut into 2- or 3-inch cubes)

Stock:

– 4 bouillon cubes dissolved into 1 1/2 cups of water

– White pepper to taste

Directions:

1. Chop onions and celery into half-inch pieces. Add onions, celery and dried sage to vegetable oil and sauté until transparent.

2. Place corn bread on top of white bread in a large pot.

3. Pour stock over bread. Hold in refrigerator for two hours or until bread is completely saturated. Press mixture down two or three times during soaking period.

4. Remove soaked bread from refrigerator and place in large mixing bowl. Add vegetable mixture to soaked bread. With hands, gently mix soaked bread and vegetable mixture, trying not to break up the pieces of bread.

5. Place mixture into a greased pan and bake in 350-degree oven for 45 minutes or until done.

Yields: 8-10 servings

Source: Reggie Conerly, University of Utah Dining Services resident district manager

Email: benwood@deseretnews.com

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