Going on over a decade and a half, the Lincoln County community has been able to seek out friendship, cheer and hot food on Dec. 25 through the annual Free Christmas Day Dinner. This year the meal is dedicated to the memory of longtime Lincoln County Journal Managing Editor Bob Simmons. Organizer Ralph Coose said the first Christmas Day Dinner was put on in memory of his own mom and dad, and the meal was intended for anyone who needed it.
“And then each year after that, it's been in memory of someone in the community that – actually that Bob knew,” Coose said. “A lot of times I’d call Bob and I’d say, ‘who do you think we ought to make it in memory of,’ and he’d give me the name. He knew everything about who’s doing what around the county, so a lot of times we took whoever he told us and that’s who we made it in memory of.”
Coose said that he tried twice to do the dinner in Simmons’ honor, “and he would not let us do it at all.”
“For everything he did for the community, we really wanted to honor him, but he would never do it,” Coose said.
From the first time sixteen years ago, the number of people fed through the Christmas Day Dinner has grown exponentially. That opening year, Coose said there were about 200 people served; around 100 showed up in person, and there were 100 more that got deliveries.
“Now it’s grown to where last year, we had about 400 show up for the restaurant, and we delivered about 600 meals,” Coose said. “It’s a lot of deliveries. It’s for anyone, senior citizens, people who don’t have anything to do Christmas Day, we’ll bring them out a meal.”
There are around 30 volunteer drivers that ferry the food out to people, many of whom are regular, dependable volunteers for the event – some even have been with the dinner since it began.
“The only way I lose one is they either pass away or they move away,” Coose said. “And I have people that call me and want to volunteer for driving, and I have to turn them down.”
In recent years, the dinner has been hosted at Zadock’s restaurant, but the tradition stretches through several venues, and has had numerous restaurants and local groups help make it happen. Monty’s Catering started the program off, helping to get the Christmas Day Dinner going for the first couple years. The Troy VFW and American Legion also carried the event along for a while. For the last 10 years, though, Zadock's has been the meal provider, with the last six times being in-house at the restaurant.
Zadock's covers the cost of every meal served in the restaurant Christmas Day. Coose said he tries to pay Zadock's owner Jim Arifi at-cost for the delivery meals, at $10 a plate. “He [Jim] wanted to donate everything, and I said, ‘no, you can’t, that would be too much,’” Coose said. Different local groups, like the Troy Rotary, Peoples Bank & Trust and Kiwanis Club have been big supporters of the event, and every year Coose gets a grant from Cuivre River Electric to help cover costs of the delivery meals.
“And then I have people that, even though its free, they give me money,” Coose said. “I have some people here in the community…they’ll send me a $100 check every Christmas to help pay for the program, which is wonderful of them, that they dig into their own pockets.” Not specifically related to the dinner, there’s also a gentleman that sends Coose $500 every Christmas, asking him to use the money to help someone out who needs it. Coose has lived in the county his whole life, and said Troy and Lincoln County have always been like that around the holidays.
“It’s always been a giving community, anything you ever want around here, it’s just unbelievable,” Coose said.
Hosting the dinner is fun, said Zadock's co-owner JJ Arifi, with most of the headaches going to Ralph in the morning with organizing the deliveries.
“After we start serving here, it’s more celebrating and relaxing and laughing and joking,” JJ said. “Lots of our customers volunteer to come and help and run food, bus tables.” The day at the restaurant starts early, with prep needing to start quick and stay on-beat to make the rush later in the day. It’s not something that’s over and done with in a day, either. Preparations start weeks ahead of time, not the least of which is getting over 60 turkeys ready for the day.
“You have to be quick, and get it going, you know?” JJ said.
The day is busy until around 2 p.m., then things start to relax a bit, though JJ said the whole day is enjoyable.
Hosting Christmas Dinner is a way to give some comfort or companionship or food to anyone who needs it Christmas Day, a way of saying “thanks” to the community, JJ said, and is a way to give back – something that should be important to everyone.
“Nobody got poor by giving,” JJ said. The Meal is Christmas Day, from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. at Zadock's Restaurant. To order a meal delivery, call Ralph Coose at 314-280-5883.