Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

El Caldito in Las Cruces reopens the dining room for Thanksgiving meals

LAS CRUCES – Customers who received Thanksgiving Day meals at El Caldito Soup Kitchen in Las Cruces were able to resume dining with others in the facility’s dining room Thursday after the practice was temporarily suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ana Maria Salazar, Crew Chief on Thanksgiving Day in El Caldito, had the task of delegating tasks to volunteers who helped the soup kitchen prepare and serve the meals.

Salazar, who said she’d been volunteering at El Caldito for a year and a half, said several customers had personally thanked for returning to indoor dining this year. Salazar said the experience feels more like home for customers.

Ana Maria Salazar, the Thanksgiving Day Crew Chief at El Caldito Soup Kitchen, prepares the sides to be served to customers on November 25, 2021.

“It’s like a family reunion,” said Salazar. “It’s like a blessing because you can actually see their faces.

Last Thanksgiving, to protect customers and volunteers during some of New Mexico’s worst pandemics, customers had to have take away meals and could not sit inside to eat with others. The volunteers didn’t have much interaction with guests.

At 11:30 am, customers started shuffling through the line and soon cranberry sauce, potatoes, stuffing, jalapeños, turkey and gravy, and more were served. With smiles hidden behind face masks – a lingering reminder of the ongoing pandemic – volunteers stood behind trays to fill customers’ plates.

Gabe Anaya, president of El Caldito’s board of directors, said the food center had enough food for many customers on Thursday to bring home food for dinner.

Over the course of Thursday, Anaya said, 57 volunteers worked in various roles scooping and stuffing potatoes, visiting guests at tables, filling cakes with whipped cream or preparing packaged meals. Last year, the pandemic restrictions only allowed about 20 volunteers.

Among those 57 were members of the New Mexico State University basketball team. The aggies appeared in shifts to help prepare the food and serve the guests.

“My favorite part is definitely helping with the food and (and) seeing how (the customers) are happy when they see food,” said Mike Peake, a sophomore striker on the team. “Because I know what it’s like when I see food.”

Mike Peake, a striker on the New Mexico State University Aggies basketball team, serves filling to customers at the El Caldito Soup Kitchen in Las Cruces on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2021.

“It gave me a different perspective on the work side of Thanksgiving,” said Johnny McCants, a senior red shirts striker. McCants said it was his first volunteering at El Caldito.

“I’ve lived here all my life and I feel like I have to do it more because it makes me feel better,” said McCants.

Customers took their meal trays and sat at short lunch tables, each with about eight chairs, where they could talk while sharing a Thanksgiving meal at El Caldito for the first time in two years.

Dorothy Wicke, a Las Cruces resident, crowns a pumpkin pie with whipped cream for a customer in the El Caldito Soup Kitchen in Las Cruces on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 2021.

At the dessert station, Dorothy Wicke from Las Cruces and her family started a new tradition. Three of her sons, her daughter and their families – all from outside – decided to volunteer with Wicke and her husband on Thursday.

“We have 11 children. When our children came for Thanksgiving, we all decided to do something,” said Wicke. “We’ll have our Thanksgiving tomorrow (Friday).”

While Wicke said it was her first time volunteering in El Caldito on Thanksgiving, she said she did a lot of volunteering in the soup kitchen.

Herman Hartwick, 70, eats a meal from El Caldito Soup Kitchen in Las Cruces on Thanksgiving Day November 25, 2021.  Hartwick is a resident of Camp Hope.

That Thanksgiving, the soup kitchen was preparing the appearance of 150 customers. When the meal service ended on Thursday afternoon, Anaya said customers were served over 200 meals – including seconds and take-away.

Linda Freeman, who said she lived in a motel in town, enjoyed a meal with other customers before saying she planned to cook at home for her neighbors later that day. Freeman said she was grateful to be living in Las Cruces.

“I have the opportunity to sit down and talk to other people I know and that’s really nice,” said Freeman. “That’s a good community for that.”

Michael McDevitt is the city and county government reporter for Sun News. He can be reached at 575-202-3205, [email protected] or @MikeMcDTweets on Twitter.

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