The Pontotoc resident had heard about the restaurant’s free Thanksgiving meal and decided this year she’d get two plates for her elderly neighbors. She wasn’t going to stay – just pick up the meals and go – but the inviting atmosphere and spontaneous camaraderie changed her mind.
Chamblee got a meal, sat alone in a booth, and ate what she called the most delicious holiday meal she can remember. Servers circled around her, asking intermittently if her meal was good, if they could get her more water, more sweet tea, anything else.
“This is wonderful,” she said, tearing up. “You don’t know what it means to me.”
This is Cravin’ Catfish’s fourth year to cook and serve its annual Thanksgiving Day meal to anyone in need, and owner Gerald Hegan estimates roughly 1,200 people will get a plate – about one-third eat at the restaurant, the rest get theirs to go.
Hegan said the idea started as a simple gesture, a way to share the blessings the Lord bestowed upon him and his family. Looking around his spacious dining room, Hegan said it touches him to see so many people gather for a meal.
Most, he said, are needy folks on fixed incomes who can’t afford a proper holiday dinner. Others are elderly or single people who don’t want to prepare an entire Thanksgiving Day feast just for themselves. Then there are those who suffered recent tragedies, like the two families who lost their homes to fires.
Town Alderman Wayne Bullock said he eats at Cravin’ Catfish every Thanksgiving.
“I think it’s a blessing,” he said.
A long line had formed outside the restaurant when the doors opened at 11:30 a.m., Hegan said, adding that this year seems busier than usual. At the same time, a steady procession of church vehicles streamed past the back door. People from all denominations grabbed dozens of to-go meals they’d deliver to shut-ins throughout the community.
It takes a lot of manpower to keep the operation running. More than 50 volunteers donned plastic aprons and helped serve food, pour beverages, clear tables and greet guests.
Among the volunteers this year was Roy Contreras, a young man who said he and his friends decided to do something for others this season.
“I realized that most people don’t get to have a meal on Thanksgiving, and I do,” Contreras said. “I decided that before I got my meal, I would make sure others got their meals first.
“It’s pretty cool. I get to see the people smile and have a great day.”
Chamblee eventually gathered her to-go meals and left the building, headed toward her neighbors’ house to share the blessing with others.