Groton — At this point, it's down to a science.
By 9:30 a.m. Thanksgiving morning, more than 50 turkeys — about 470 meals — have been delivered to police and fire personnel stretching from Stonington to Old Lyme. The other 80 turkeys are getting their turn in one of nine hot oil baths. The men frying the turkeys use a whiteboard to mark when the bird goes in, and after three minutes per pound in the boiling oil, they take them out.
For these submarine veterans, making enough food to feed nearly 1,000 is old hat. Begun in 2001 and inspired by the attacks of Sept. 11 that year, the annual feast feeds police, firefighters and military personnel who continue to man their posts — even as millions of other Americans sit down with family.
Those who have the day off from work but have nowhere to go are invited for a 1 p.m. lunch at the Sub Vets clubhouse, at 40 School St.
"We're two hours ahead of schedule this year," said John Carcioppolo, the clubhouse commander and one of 150 active volunteers in the Thanksgiving feast. "I don't think we'll run out of food, that's for sure."
Meal runs to the Naval Submarine Base, where sailors remain on the USS Pittsburgh, Hartford and North Dakota, are complete. So, too, is the run to the New London Police Department, where 15 meals are dropped off, and to a family in Gales Ferry that can't leave the house.
"We had 250 meals in 2001 and we said, 'Man, that's a lot,'" Carcioppolo said, shaking his head and chuckling at the event's 300 percent increase in 11 years.
By 10:30 a.m. at the clubhouse, the Coors Light is flowing. Others sit with Bloody Mary cocktails, taking a deserved break from a process that began Tuesday and reached the home stretch at 6 a.m. Thursday, when the first turkey hit the oil. The table settings are in place, with alternating red, yellow and brown placemats underneath plates and silverware. By 1 p.m., the clubhouse hall will be packed with another 500 people who meet old friends and new over a meal of turkey, cranberry sauce, potatoes, squash, dessert and rolls.
"We try to make them feel at home when they're far away from home," said Stanley Mathis, the committee chair of the Thanksgiving event. "And we hope they come back and pay in kind."
Uncooked, leftover turkeys will go to St. David's Episcopal Church in Gales Ferry, Carcioppolo said, and the New London Community Meal Center. Cash donations go to the Sub Base's "Caring and Sharing" program, which gives money to needy families for Christmas.
"It never goes to waste," Carcioppolo says of the day's bounty.
In the upstairs hall, where a projector screen shows the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and will later show football, the tables are covered in notes from schoolchildren, who have sent colorful pictures and drawings to the veterans and active-duty servicemen.
"Dear Veterns, thank you for all you have done for are country," reads one from CJ and Jordan at West Side Middle School in Groton.
At the City of Groton Police Department, Officer Pete Miller bit into a roll as he worked the dispatch center. Sure, he knew becoming a police officer might entail working holidays, but that was never a deterrent in taking the job.
"We're tied up here, not home with our families, so they hook us up," an appreciative Miller said. "It helps us get through the day. We can't order out, we're here; they basically save us."