This could be the final year for the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church chicken and noodles dinner, a 68-year tradition.
It probably won’t be. But it could be.
It’s possible. Even likely. But maybe not.
For certain, the $10-a-head dinner is on for this year, and on Saturday, it will fill all the common areas at the 110-year-old church at 1356 N. Broadway with people feasting family-style on homemade chicken and noodles, mashed potatoes, coleslaw and pie. The dinner, which usually attracts around 2,000 people, is scheduled for 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday.
What’s less certain is how much longer after this year the dinner will continue, said longtime head organizer Cliff Simmons. He’s about to turn 82, and his top assistants aren’t far behind. Over the years, younger church members who might have inherited the reins of the popular event have moved away from Midtown for the suburbs, Simmons said. The congregation is down from a high of 600 or so to about 200, most of them retirement age.
The remaining younger people who could take over lead busy lives, have families and work full-time jobs, Simmons said. Buying and moving hundreds of pounds of poultry doesn’t fit into their schedules.
Ever year, including this one, Simmons says he’s chicken-noodled out. Every year, including this one, he puts the dinner together anyway.
“It’s one heck of a lot of work,” he said with a smile. “We’re getting kind of worn out.”
The very first St. Paul’s chicken and noodle dinners in the 1940s weren’t fundraisers.
The story goes, Simmons said, that a prominent church member – a lawyer named Lester Wilkinson – was dissatisfied with the prices he was being offered for the chickens he raised. Instead of selling them, he announced, he’d put on a big chicken and noodle dinner for the church. His wife provided garden vegetables for the dinner and served homemade pies.
The dinner was such a hit, it became an annual tradition. In the 1960s, church members realized that including the public could be profitable for the church.
Now the dinners bring in more than $17,000 a year, which is used by the men’s club and the women’s guild to supplement the church budget and finance missions.
But organizing it is a major undertaking.
Simmons, who’s been running the dinner for longer than he can remember, starts the process in October. He negotiates prices with food providers, searches stores for discounted, after-Christmas poultry, then travels all over the region collecting 558 pounds of turkey, 180 pounds of whole chicken, 260 pounds of chicken leg quarters, 800 pounds of flour, 195 dozen eggs, 13 cases of cabbage, 13 gallons of Miracle Whip and 70 cans of evaporated milk.
Two weekends ago, he worked with the 50 or so volunteers who spent two days making oodles of egg noodles from scratch. And on Thursday, he arrived at the church at 2 a.m. to cook the birds and leave enough time for them to cool before the de-boning crew arrived at 8 a.m. Then he joined the de-boning crew.
Simmons also organizes volunteers, sells tickets and buys plates, cups and napkins. And while he’s watching games on television, he assembles 1,800 utensil packets, sliding plastic forks, knives and spoons into hot dog packages.
Simmons, who is assisted by many longtime volunteers, including his friend and kitchen expert Karl Urban, said he keeps going partially out of obligation and partially out of his love for the dinner.
He laughs when he talks about how his church has become known as “The Chicken Noodle Church” and about how the dinner serves as an informal yearly reunion for people who’ve attended St. Paul’s over the years.
And he’s proud of the food, which he said is the best around.
“It’s all homemade. There are no corners cut,” he said. “Once we get people here, and once we can get them to remember it’s always on the fourth Saturday in January, we always get them back.”
Congregation member and longtime dinner volunteer Brenda Moore said she hears every year that this dinner could be the last. She, like all members of the church, is amazed at Simmons’ energy, and they hope that if he ever made good on his plan to step away, someone new might step up.
But who knows?
“We don’t want it to be the last year,” she said. “People don’t want it to be the last year. We want it to keep going and going.”