NORTH ADAMS — A thick slice of ham, with a warm side of fellowship.
Though turnout for American Legion Post 125's Christmas meal isn't what it used to be, a practiced crew got up early Wednesday to plate a North Adams tradition.
Actually, make that two Christmas Day meals. Diners left with brown paper bags containing sandwiches and fruit.
"It's been slowing down the past few years. Hopefully it's because people have a place to go to," Thomas Lussier, the post's commander, said after overseeing a successful home delivery of nearly 100 meals. Another 100 people came to join the meal at the Legion, to be served by volunteers in Christmas costumes.
"You don't have to be down and out. Everyone's welcome," Lussier said.
Since the 1950s, members of the Legion, joined by scores of volunteers, have pulled away from Christmas mornings at home to make sure people in the community who lack food and social ties can break bread together.
They join in a scene of festive hubbub, from the clatter of utensils in the commercial kitchen out through serving windows to a dozen tables lined with white cloths.
Back when these meals drew as many as 600 people, the hall would ring with music.
It's quieter now — and feelings are mixed about whether that's a good or bad thing.
"The good part is a lot of them have places to go," Dale Waterman, who recruits volunteers for the meal, said of participants. "It would be nice if we didn't have to serve anyone."
Gail Nelson of the Legion auxiliary, whose father Arthur was a former post commander, presided Wednesday over a station with a red tablecloth just outside the kitchen, ladling out soup. While the Legion switched from turkeys to ham a few years back, in part to save money, turkey soup remains a menu mainstay.
"I've been doing this forever, it seems. But it's wonderful," Nelson said. Though she's been on soup duty for a decade, she's participated in the event for most of its roughly 60 years. "Through the years this has dwindled down. Hopefully we'll continue it."
One of the event's newest volunteers, Nick Howe, came to help because he wanted to make the day more meaningful. He plans to help beef up publicity next year, in part by getting word out on social media — a strategy Waterman is already embracing.
Howe says he felt a tug of togetherness this holiday season.
"I want to see the town come together a little more," said Howe, a 2018 culinary arts graduate of McCann Technical School. "It's Christmas. I figured this is where I could be most helpful."
While people like Howe are new to the effort, others count their years of helping back to the beginning.
That includes state Rep. John Barrett III, who recalls being 12 in the 1950s when his father helped get the annual meal started.
"I wanted to stay home on Christmas morning, but I had to come down with him," Barrett said. Early on, the Legion didn't have a commercial kitchen, so some of the cooking took place at his father's eatery, Lyn's Restaurant. (Footnote for North Adams historians: The place was named for Barrett's sister Lynn, but the sign only had room for one "N.")
"I don't think I've missed any of these since then," the lawmaker said just outside the kitchen, as the meal service wound down. "This is a very caring area. They were ahead of the curve when they started it. People always come together in times of adversity."
"They just started feeding people, and it just grew," said Dennis St. Pierre, the post's adjutant.
The event also grew outside of North Adams. The Readsboro, Vt., Legion post came late Wednesday morning to pick up 25 meals to deliver up north, leaving a donation in return. Meals prepared in the post's 91 American Legion Drive kitchen found their way to Williamstown and other area towns.
A little before noon, St. Pierre carried four grocery bags with hot meals and a cardboard box of bagged lunches out to his Jeep Wrangler, then motored south to the Adams Police Station.
Danielle Cartier, a reserve officer, helped St. Pierre stack the meals on a cluster of tables. Officers in Adams planned to share the offering with fellow staffers on duty and to make meals available to town residents.
St. Pierre, who co-owns the State Street Tavern and is a 48-year member of the Legion, recalls Christmas days when upwards of 600 people would take part in the meal.
He says the post needs to make sure newcomers are aware of the free holiday meal. "I just think it's people not knowing," St. Pierre said, as he drove along Hodges Cross Road, the smell of bundled food thick in the Jeep.
New people are coming, just not enough to replace the numbers who once filled the post.
"You need to recruit people," said Waterman. "People move away or pass away."
At 1:45 p.m., Joseph Poplaski, commander of the Sons of the American Legion, used an ice cream scoop to scrape the last of the mashed potatoes from a stainless steel container into a plastic to-go box for Phil Dubreuil, the day's last meal-seeker.
Beside Poplaski, fellow volunteer Megan Smithers watched the final plate go precisely as the supply was exhausted.
"This is what perfection looks like," she said.
Poplaski then passed the box to Tori Wilhelm, who ladled a sweet sauce onto the meal's thick cut of ham.
"They call it gravy," she said, showing a dubious look under her knit cap. "I wouldn't call it gravy."
Others were calling it a ham glaze — and plenty remained warming in the pan, complete with chunks of pineapple.
Dubreuil carried his meal to a table. Before heading out, he sat and stirred sweetener into a fresh cup of coffee. A family with young children ate quietly at a nearby table.
One couple who had just moved to town said Wednesday they appreciated the meal because their pots and pans were still packed up.
For Dubreuil, the buzz inside the Legion hall was to be his Christmas soundtrack.
"I've got family around, but they're busy with their own," he said.
With Dubreuil's meal served, Dennis LeBonte, who had donned a white chef's uniform for his 38th year heading the kitchen staff, could relax.
Sons of the American Legion members would soon arrive to sweep and mop. Fans in the stove hood were still roaring, though, the sound mixing with the clatter of metal spoons at the serving line.
Four hams went back into the freezer, but another 12 — all donated — had gone out the door in boxes, bags or bellies.
"The people that were here today were very appreciative," LeBonte said. He was happy, after all the Christmas days he's spent away from family, to have his adult daughter Nicole join the volunteer team.
Maybe it was just having spent too many hours on his feet, but LeBonte, like Nelson, wondered about the future.
"I don't know how long we're going to be able to do it," LeBonte said. "I'm 68 going on 100."
And on this Christmas Day, he wasn't quite done on the meals front — but almost.
"All I've got to do is go home and feed the cat."
Larry Parnass can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.