NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Scott Belnavis had just finished his Thanksgiving Day meal at Elijah's Promise and he couldn't stop raving about the macaroni and cheese.
"It was baked perfectly and it tasted perfect," Belnavis said. "That was fantastic."
Belnavis is like many others who come to this community kitchen at 19 Neilson St. every day for a meal or sometimes two meals. They know they will find a friendly face, a warm smile, good food and a welcoming place to sit down and eat.
On Thanksgiving Day, when dozens of people sat inside its dining room and feasted on turkey and all the trimmings, it was a time for them to be thankful for the nourishment for their hearts, souls and bellies receive at Elijah's Promise.
"I'm really grateful for Elijah's Promise," Belnavis said. "If it wasn't for Elijah's Promise, I would be messed up. I'm homeless and I don't have anyone to make me meals. If it wasn't for this place, if I wasn't coming here twice a day to eat, I would really be messed up."
Belnavis started say that he was taking food home with him, but then caught himself.
"Well," he said, "I'm taking it with me wherever I go."
Eljiah's Promise lives up to its motto, "Food Changes Lives," every day.
It started with three staff members and a dream to feed New Brunswick's hungry since opening its doors 30 years ago. It has become part of the foundation of the city where 25 or so paid staff members and 3,000 volunteers serve up more than 100,000 meals each year.
Chef Curtis McNair started preparing the Thanksgiving Day menu a few weeks ago.
On Thursday, diners enjoyed turkey, ham, mashed potatoes with parmesan cheese, stuffing, collared greens, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, macaroni salad, garden salad and yams.
For dessert, there was sweet potato pie, pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie and a variety of muffins.
The started lining up at about 11:30 - the earliest Elijah's Promise has ever opened on Thanksgiving Day.
To be ready for the rush, Chef Curtis as he is called by everyone here, arrived at about 6 o'clock this morning. He was soon joined by other staff members and volunteers.
"I do often hear from the people how much they enjoy the food, especially on Thanksgiving," McNair said. "About five people came back and told me, 'Thank you, that was a wonderful meal. I enjoyed it.'"
Elijah's Promise has grown over the years to provide job training curriculum, a community garden programming, social service assistance to individuals and families, community-focused nutrition classes, social enterprise food business and community food systems advocacy.
One of the more unique - and tasty - initiatives started a few months ago. In conjunction with the kitchen's "Taste Good, Do Good" program, Elijah's Promise chocolate chip cookies have been sold at the concession stands at the $172 million New Brunswick Performing Arts Center that opened in September.
It's initiatives like this, plus the Needy Cases Fund, that keeps Elijah's Promise going.
Michelle Wilson, the executive director at Elijah's Promise, said they were prepared to serve more than 200 meals on Thursday. She is already turning her sights toward Christmas.
She said it's also a time for Elijah's Promise to be thankful for all the donations that made the Thanksgiving Day feast possible. She also said that a donor recently a large shipment of high-quality hats, gloves and long underwear delivered via Amazon to Elijah's Promise.
During the holidays, she said people love the literal and figurative warmth inside the room, but Chef McNair's culinary skills keep the people of New Brunswick and beyond - those who can't cover their expenses, those who are on the street, those who just need a hand up and others - coming back.
"Chef Curtis puts love into the food," Belnavis said. "He's just not cooking and going through the motions. He's seasoning it. He can take the boxed mashed potatoes and make it taste like real mashed potatoes. He did an excellent job."