ST. GEORGE — Thousands gathered at the former Red Rock Canyon School for a Thanksgiving meal Thursday, continuing a 45-year tradition.
Preparing feasts and setting aside time to give thanks and celebrate a harvest are time-honored traditions that started with the first Thanksgiving in 1621.
That same spirit of celebration and gratitude filtered through the dining hall at the former Red Rock Canyon School shortly after the doors opened at 11 a.m. Thousands of area residents gathered to enjoy a myriad of holiday trimmings lining the serving tables that spanned nearly the length of the dining hall.
Guests enjoyed turkey with stuffing, ham, potatoes, vegetables and other side dishes, along with dinner rolls and desserts, including an assortment of pies, jellos and other holiday confections.
Feeding more than 3,000 people is a herculean task that takes an army of volunteers to cook hundreds of turkeys and all the trimmings, and leading that culinary army is Master Chef Ron Nia. The crews were busy Thursday as hundreds of turkeys were cooked and sliced, while thousands of potatoes were being prepared to serve guests that were lined up before the doors opened.
Nia came to the United States after he graduated from the University of Rome, and has donated his time and talents to the cause for years, said the event’s founder, Frank Habibian.
The event would not be possible without “the generosity of the community,” Habibian said, adding that nearly 200 sponsors, businesses and contributors play a vital role in making the annual event what it is today. That evolution has taken place through the support and generosity that has come from every part of the community since that first feast that took place in 1973.
It also takes an enormous amount of support from the city of St. George, something the annual dinner’s founder has had since the beginning.
Between 2,500 to 3,000 eat dinner in the dining hall each year, and around 1,000 more meals are boxed up for those who stop to visit but for health or other reasons are unable to stay.
Moreover, the dinner is scheduled to run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., but typically runs longer. Last year, the doors did not close until well after 5 p.m., he said.
“We’re not letting anyone go hungry on Thanksgiving — so we stay open until everyone eats,” he said.
The dinner event is a Habibian family tradition, as evidenced by the patriarch’s adult children who are heavily involved from the planning stage to the dinner itself.
For Habibian, the annual dinner has become something of an icon, and he said he couldn’t imagine celebrating the holiday any other way.
“I just love this, and I love feeding people and making sure they have a place to go for such an important holiday,” he said.
Even with the recent closure of the Red Rock Canyon School, the annual dinner will be held at the same location going forward, he said, which was part of the agreement he made with the facility’s parent company, Sequel Youth and Family Services.
“The facilities here are perfect, with multiple ovens and a kitchen with a lot of space and equipment which we need to feed so many people,” Habibian said. “We are cooking 20 turkeys in several ovens right now.”
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