A long run

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Jean and Dick Lord of Swanzey have prepared the Thanksgiving eve dinner at The Community Kitchen in Keene every year for decades.

A 20-year Thanksgiving eve dinner tradition at The Community Kitchen in Keene ends tonight with the final ladling of Dick Lord’s scrumptious gravy. The spicy brown goodness, infused by drippings culled from the roasting pan, is certain to burrow into the pores of the mashed potatoes and stuffing while gently oozing across the turkey. Leaving the cranberry sauce undisturbed, of course.

Bon appetit. And au revoir.

Gravy is not an afterthought when The Community Kitchen becomes the house of the Lords on the night before Thanksgiving. And that’s been the case for more than 20 years, ever since Dick and Jean Lord of Swanzey became annual volunteer chefs overseeing the community meal.

The Lords, assisted by their adult children and extended family, are hanging up their aprons this year, but not before Dick Lord stirs up one more batch of gravy.

“I love making the gravy,” Dick Lord says with a smile and an explanation of the importance of topping off the feast with properly prepared gravy, not something poured from a jar. His wife is more succinct: “Dick makes awesome gravy.”

If recent years are any indication, about 125 Thanksgiving meals, free and open to the public, will be served this evening when the kitchen opens at 5. It is not open Thanksgiving day.

Community Kitchen Executive Director Phoebe Bray says the Lords will be sorely missed, and hints they will be recognized for their “amazing contributions.” Dick Lord’s mother, Agnes, was part of the original group that cooked Thanksgiving dinners for the public at the kitchen.

“My mother approached us and said they’re looking for somebody to help out the day before Thanksgiving and I said, ‘Sure,’ ” Dick Lord says.

Although the turkeys are roasted ahead of time, the Lords handle the rest, potatoes and veggies to the gravy.

The Lords remember more than 200 people partaking in the Thanksgiving meals when they first started cooking out of St. James Church in Keene, before The Community Kitchen moved into its permanent home on Mechanic Street in 1998. Back then, the kitchen didn’t provide food boxes to eligible families as it does now.

“People would really rather eat at home if they could,” Dick Lord, 74, says.

He is no amateur chef, having graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New Haven, Conn., and worked in the food industry most of his life. But you could say he was an accidental chef, for he first became interested in cooking at Marlborough High School in the late 1950s. Until then, boys took shop and girls took cooking, but Lord convinced principal Irv Gordon to allow boys to take cooking classes, too.

His underlying reason? To meet girls. “On a lark, I got some other guys to go along and I asked, ‘Can I take a cooking course?’ Principal Gordon allowed it. And I guess I had a little aptitude for it,” Lord says.

Now retired, he was food service director for Monadnock Vending for more than 20 years. Before that, Dick and Jean owned a restaurant, the Marlborough Meeting House, in the building that today houses Lee & Mt. Fuji restaurant on Route 101.

“Old fashioned excellence,” is how Dick Lord describes their restaurant’s theme. “It was the kind of place you’d take your family to dinner.”

Dick and Jean opened the Marlborough Meeting House in 1986, though they had other careers as well. Dick Lord was co-owner of Troy Auto Parts and Service Center, while Jean Lord was a registered nurse at the Keene Clinic South in Fitzwilliam. Jean Lord later worked in administration at Cheshire Medical Center and retired four years ago.

Jean Lord says bread pudding is her specialty, though it’s not on the Thanksgiving menu. Rather, she says she’ll be baking the pies.

Her father worked as a district manager for Metropolitan Insurance, so Jean Lord moved many times before settling in Keene when she was 12. The couple has been married for 39 years; Dick Lord has two daughters from a previous marriage (Hilary and Marnie) and Jean Lord has one daughter (Alicia) from a previous marriage.

They and their families have been a part of the Community Kitchen Thanksgiving tradition and will be there today, except for Marnie who lives out of state.

The Lords say a number of factors contributed to their decision to turn in their ladles this year, including arthritis in Dick’s wrist that affects his ability to pick up large pans and canisters. And, he says wryly, “I’m not good at delegating.”

The Lords also cook in the kitchen’s “guest chef program” about six times a year in which individuals volunteer to cook meals alongside staff members.

Meanwhile, the Lords say they are getting pushback from family members and friends who don’t want this to be their last year.

“I hope I’m not going to be like Brett Favre,” Dick Lord jokes of the Green Bay Packers quarterback who waffled over retiring for years. “Am I really going to retire?”

They wouldn’t be surprised if some family members continue the tradition, perhaps a passing of the apron, if you will. And pass the gravy, please.

Steve Gilbert is a columnist for The Sentinel.