There are any number of reasons to be away from home on Thanksgiving: the price of a plane ticket, the chances of actually getting to fly out of Aspen with said ticket, work, Opening Day, traffic, icy roads…and yet, being away from family and familiar traditions on Thanksgiving is decidedly unfamiliar for most. New to town or here for the season, stranded at the airport or looking to connect with old friends, not much of a cook or wondering what’s cooking on Thanksgiving Day; whatever the reason, those looking for a sense of tradition and community on Thanksgiving Day always find it at the Hickory House Annual Thanksgiving Dinner in Aspen.
“It’s a full Turkey Dinner with all the fixings, and everyone’s invited!” says Billy Garaffa, long-time Hickory House manager and bartender. “It’s free and open to everyone, and all donations benefit the Buddy Program (a local youth mentoring organization). The people of Aspen love it. It gives them a place to go and gather, meet new people and see old friends, and people from other countries get to experience a true American custom. It’s kind of like a giant mixer and it’s a great thing that Paul does. It’s definitely an Aspen tradition.”
Known every other day for their unparalleled barbeque fare and casual, friendly ambiance, the Hickory House serves up the best of Thanksgiving cuisine and tradition on Thanksgiving Day. Originally started by Billy Stone, former Hickory House owner, current owner Paul Dioguardi carries on the long-standing Hickory House Annual Thanksgiving Dinner tradition with help from his staff, who volunteer each and every year, and community volunteers, eager to help out each and every time.
“Not everyone can afford to eat out, and not everyone has a place to go. The dinner provides a real sense of community,” he explains. “Being in a ski town and living in a tourist destination, a lot of locals are here for the holidays. Even if you’re just visiting or have plans, but want to support a good cause and have a great meal, you’re more than welcome. Every year people comment on what a great “feel” this event has.”
Doors open at 11:30 a.m. and stay open till the food runs out, usually around 6 p.m. Main Street Bakery, Paradise Bakery, US Food Service and Aspen Party Rentals help out and any number of locals and Hickory House staff are on hand throughout the day to refill a drink, bus a plate and restock the overflowing platters of goodness.
“’Is this an open bar, too? Cause I’m thirsty,’” recalls Dioguardi, with a laugh, sharing some behind the scenes highlights from years past. “I spend most of the day in the kitchen and one year, I almost lost a finger one year, chopping potatoes. I stayed up all night playing cards while the turkeys were in the smoker and got through the day on zero sleep. Then there was the year we broke the smoker and thought we’d have to cancel the entire event…”
Garaffa elaborates on the smoker-breaking incident. “We stayed up late to smoke all the turkeys in the smoker and we overfilled it and it crashed. We’d stuffed about 60 turkeys in the smoker and it just couldn’t handle it. After a bottle of vodka and some elbow grease we got that thing running again, just in time to get all the turkeys cooked. We put on Hawaiian shirts and had a great time on the big day.”
Tong Lu, the Hickory House’s landlord, donates all the turkeys, anywhere from 75-90 birds each year while an ample supply of volunteers serve them up, with a full heart and a big smile.
“Hanging out with the people every year is just a great experience,” says Dioguardi. “People can’t thank me enough. They’re just so grateful to see a community host such an awesome event. It’s definitely one of the best days of the year for me.”
Volunteers welcome in advance or the day of; for more info, hickoryhouseribs.com, 925-2313.