This year, all three will be alone on Thanksgiving, like many senior citizens in a year scarred by the coronavirus pandemic. In a recent Monmouth University poll, 84 percent of people over 55 said they’ll stay home for the holiday, compared with 53 percent in an ordinary year.
To add some brightness to their day, the local restaurant Medium Rare teamed with dozens of volunteers to bring dinner to them and upward of 3,000 other D.C.-area seniors living alone. The goal was to ensure that older residents wouldn’t go without turkey and all the trimmings on this unusually lonely Thanksgiving.
“There’s one meal that’s really hard to do for one person,” said Mark Bucher, the restaurant owner. “We’re pros at this. We won’t even break a sweat.”
That was last week, when Bucher had already received requests for more than double the 500 free meals he had expected his staff to cook. He was promising a dinner delivery for anyone over 70 in the region celebrating Thanksgiving alone. By Tuesday morning, the emails numbered nearly 3,000 and were still coming in.
“We’re going day and night,” Bucher said.
He kept calling suppliers, asking for more food.
Medium Rare, a steakhouse with locations in the District, Bethesda and Arlington, has been feeding people free throughout the pandemic — lunches for children doing their virtual learning at D.C. recreation centers, free Mother’s Day brunches for homebound mothers and grandmothers, steak to go for thousands of senior citizens unable to cook for themselves or navigate a smartphone delivery app.
The restaurant has asked for donations for some of its charitable food distributions on GoFundMe, but it has covered much of the cost out of pre-pandemic operating reserves. Bucher says he has also not laid off any members of his 140-person staff.
“We’ve been luckier than most . . . our business hasn’t deteriorated as others have,” Bucher said, in part because D.C.-area residents who have heard about Medium Rare’s free meals for the hungry have shown their support by making sure they choose the steakhouse for their takeout dinners.
“It’s a dividend that we didn’t anticipate or expect from taking care of the communities when this all first started,” he added. “I think people feel closer to us.”
For the Thanksgiving effort, volunteers have also flocked to help. Hundreds of people offered to put meals in their cars and take them to recipients’ homes.
Patrick Hisle, Bucher’s neighbor, managed the spreadsheet of hundreds of addresses.
“I’m not getting a ton of sleep this week,” Hisle said Tuesday, as workers in the Arlington restaurant were assembling bags for those drivers to deliver. “I finished the routes at about 4 a.m.”
Scott — an Arlington man in his 60s with asthma, who did not want his last name published because he believes charitable work should be done anonymously — told Bucher that he wanted to volunteer but worried about exposure to the coronavirus.
So Bucher found him an isolated corner of the restaurant kitchen, and on Tuesday, Scott was alone with two masks on, stirring butter into two massive vats of carrots. “To feed the number of people they’re doing is incredible,” said Scott, a former restaurant cook. “I thought it was going to be a couple hundred a day.”
In the restaurant’s dining room, which is only open for dinner, the assembly line was humming.
The first worker scooped a heaping spoonful of stuffing from a plastic vat onto a black plastic tray, then handed the tray to her neighbor for a matching scoop of sweet potatoes. The third and fourth workers filled the trays with sliced turkey breast and a tiny plastic cup of gravy; the fifth and sixth sealed up the lids. The seventh put the tray in a brown paper bag along with containers of cranberry sauce, glazed carrots and pumpkin pie, and the eighth added a roll, butter and flatware — from empty tray to a complete, colorful dinner of autumnal foods in 90 seconds.
And then Elliot Harkavy, a volunteer driver who works as a consultant on public safety and emergency management, took them on the road. He made sure that his first stop would be the person first on his mind, when he heard about the Medium Rare meal deliveries: Brodey, his father-in-law.
Brodey used to host dozens of relatives and friends for this holiday. When his wife died 10 years ago during Thanksgiving week, hosting duties passed on to the next generation, including Harkavy and his wife. But this year, the Bethesda couple knew it wouldn’t be safe to have Brodey — or any other guests — at their Thanksgiving table.
“This is the first year we’re doing it in isolation. It’s slightly unnerving,” Brodey said. He has planned a day alone in front of the television. When he heard that a meal would be delivered for him, it brightened his mood. “We’re being watched out for, and that’s a wonderful feeling.”
When Harkavy met him outside his apartment building in Silver Spring, standing many feet away from each other in masks sewn by Harkavy’s 10-year-old daughter, Brodey’s first question was: “Is it white meat?”
It was, just like Brodey prefers.
“Is there cranberry sauce in here? The good stuff?”
Sheila Campbell, 88, was surprised and delighted when Harkavy rang her doorbell. “This is the Thanksgiving food?” she said, looking with joy at the brown bag outside her door. “Oh, thank you so much!”
She said that when she realized she couldn’t spend the holiday with her two daughters, she emailed Medium Rare to ask for a meal but wasn’t sure she would receive one. “It’s a great surprise, and a happy one. I will be alone, and I will think of you and your generosity,” she said through her mask.
When Harkavy rang the next doorbell on his list, the woman inside had just ended a phone call with her son. Thanksgiving is hard for Evelyn, who did not want her last name published. Her only grandson was killed by a drunk driver three years ago, just before she would have seen him at Thanksgiving. His funeral was the day before the holiday. Since then, the family’s traditional big turkey dinners have been far more somber.
“November’s not our favorite month anymore,” she recalled telling her son on the phone before hanging up. “That’s something you just don’t get over.”
Then the doorbell rang, and Harkavy was there with a bag full of food.
“Thank you so very, very much. Thank you. This is so wonderful of you,” Evelyn said as Harkavy stepped back, respectful of her space. “This brings tears to my eyes.”
She looked down, eyes welling up above her mask. Then she added, “I’m sure it’s going to be delicious.”