Count Your Blessings

Putting the giving in Thanksgiving: Volunteers serve up a free Thanksgiving spread to thousands at the Casper family's Cherokee Sirloin Room

Putting the giving in Thanksgiving: Volunteers serve up a free Thanksgiving spread to thousands at the Casper family's Cherokee Sirloin Room

Thanksgiving weekend. Some folks spend two peaceful days preparing elaborate meals and basking in familial bliss. Most of us are thankful that the stores open at 5:00 a.m. on Friday--not a moment too soon to escape our insidious Black Lagoon of a gene pool.

Seventeen years ago West St. Paul restaurateurs Bob and Dorothy Casper came up with the idea of serving a free, full-service, sit-down Thanksgiving dinner to their needy, ill, or lonely neighbors. The nuts and bolts of this creation story vary among the Casper children, but all agree that the tradition has blossomed beyond their wildest dreams, from about 400 meals in 1983 to an anticipated 2,500-plus today. This will be the first Thanksgiving without Bob Casper, who passed on in September, but the 5 Casper children and 23 grandchildren are all present, smiling, and working hard to keep their guests comfortable and happy.

The first seating isn't till noon, but by 11:20 the queue winds through the Cherokee Sirloin Room from front door to back. A Casper grandchild in his late teens darts out of the kitchen, arms full of grocery bags and Styrofoam boxes. Another rings a cowbell to quiet staff and guests. "Any more takeout?" shouts the one with the boxes. Dorothy Casper and a local priest man the door, handing out to each guest a numbered ticket and a warm greeting. Casper daughter Nancy takes a few minutes to chat with me, simultaneously keeping an eye on the dozen grandchildren, ranging in age from six to sixteen, who have taken on bartender duty for the day. "The people who come for the sit-down dinner really enjoy it, because they're not usually able to go to a restaurant," Nancy explains, though looking around it's hard to distinguish the guests from the volunteers.

An older woman with a cane lounges in an empty booth conversing amiably with two men in jeans and boots, while a mother in going-out makeup helps her young daughters style one another's hair. No one demographic group seems dominant among those waiting to be seated; the mix of different ages, races, and family types could have come straight from a diversity-awareness video. Owner Rick Casper is unable to describe a typical Thanksgiving guest, but he admits a fondness for the elderly women. "They're really grateful for what we do here. They'll come up and give you a big hug and a kiss," he says bashfully. Dark-haired little boys in colorful winter jackets stomp their tiny feet in anticipation of the traditional Thanksgiving meal. "Two hundred fifty turkeys, 250 pumpkin pies, 1,300 pounds of potatoes, 1,400 pounds of dressing, and 2,500 rolls," Casper proudly informs me.

The grandkids, meanwhile, bounce behind the bar, hopped up on suicides (that queasy-making concoction wherein one mixes every kind of soda together), holiday excitement, and MTV's Total Request Live, which blares from a TV set mounted overhead. The restaurant is already festooned with tinsel and evergreen boughs, heightening the holiday mood and making a small Winston Churchill-lookalike's cheeks appear even rosier than they are.


THE DAY AFTER Thanksgiving brings us the greed after the gratitude, and the chance to escape from the oppressive intimacy of quiet family gatherings and return to an impersonal, status-seeking, rib-elbowing world. It's times like this, anyway, that I'm most thankful to live within driving distance of man's greatest monument to capitalism.

On Friday afternoon the Mall of America parking ramp makes the Gaza Strip look like Amish country. A vicious old woman in a navy-blue Town Car swerves in front of me as I attempt to follow a departing family to their car. Trailing a young couple loaded down with Old Navy and Banana Republic bags earns me a nasty glare and mouthed curses as they saunter slowly down the middle of the lane.

A family of ten has claimed the only quiet spot in the mall; having spread out a picnic blanket in front of the fourth-floor corporate meeting rooms, they're now enjoying homemade sandwiches and cans of Wild Cherry Pepsi. Those with less foresight are forced to wait at least 30 deep outside Hooters, while the truly frugal fill up on free samples of garlic-herb cheese curds outside a cheese-themed retailer. The Tokyo subway ambiance seems to appeal to most of my fellow shoppers, who smile painfully under the burden of several shopping bags. Many families appear to have coordinated their shopping attire by color (red and white stripes!) or style (overalls!), allowing each member to browse a different store without becoming permanently separated.

Acne-speckled mall rats loll against railings, eyes roaming over female out-of-town visitors. A group of suburban homeboys shadows a pack of glitter-lip-glossed hotties from Contempo Casuals to the Sanrio gift shop, trying to maintain an aura of toughness. "We gotta go in there," one exclaims loudly while passing The Cutlery. "I gotta get me one of those superbadass deer knives." The most sizzling teen cruisefest takes place outside--and inside--the Abercrombie & Fitch outlet store, which is packed to legal capacity with teens and their financially supportive parents.

Overconfident in their toy-hiding skills, many are getting an early start on Santa duty. "Nothing on his list is under $40," one mom bitches to a compatriot in the crowded aisles of K-B Toy Store. The two compare prices on robotic dogs and kiddie karaoke machines, oblivious to the mad scene in the adjacent Barbie aisle. A male salesclerk lounges on the floor, leisurely pricing Dream Cars as he surveys the single-mom buffet arrayed before him. "Why you getting a hoochie-mama Barbie?" snaps one of those assembled, yanking a scantily clad doll from her mesmerized pal's hands.

It's the rare Twin Cities family that can go head-to-Thanksgiving-head with the generous and loving Caspers. But we can all be grateful we're not related to the people we see at the mall.