NOTE: The following story originally appeared in the Thursday, Nov. 25, 1999, edition of the Albany Democrat-Herald.
The Novaks aren't certain when they began their annual community dinner, but they're sure of why.
"You know, I'm not sure, but I think it was 10," said Matilda Novak, counting the years back on her fingers. "Well, many longer than that. Eleven? Twelve?"
"It was the relatives first, then friends and relatives," said her husband, Joseph Novak. "I think it was 13 or 14 years."
Whenever it started, the two are clear where it went after that. Today, they and daughter Karen are preparing a feast for possibly 250 people — the biggest Thanksgiving dinner ever at Novak's Hungarian Paprikas.
As for why, Joseph Novak is very clear on one thing: It has nothing to do with a desire for recognition or wanting to be bigger and better each year.
"The Lord is so good to us, so precious," he said. "We just like to be a blessing whenever we can."
The Novaks are very aware of the blessings in their lives. Both grew up in Hungary, where Matilda was the daughter of a farmer and Joseph was the son of a coal miner. Both were familiar with hunger and strife under Communist rule in Hungary. They escaped to the West together in the wake of the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution.
They opened Novak's Hungarian Paprikas in Albany 16 years ago — both are very sure of that — and began having their family Thanksgiving dinner at the restaurant because there wasn't room for everyone in their home. After the dinner expanded to include friends, the general consensus was: Why not just invite everyone?
"If you can feed 30, why can't you feed 50?" Joseph Novak said. "If 60, why not 120?"
That's just about the way things have gone, the Novaks say. That first year, fewer than 100 people showed up — and most of them didn't know what to make of the offer of a free dinner.
"Lots of questions," Matilda said. "What do I have to do? How do I qualify?"
"And at the end," Joseph added, "'What do I owe you?'"
To this day, some people don't understand that the Novaks simply won't allow them to pay for their meal, regardless of whether they can afford it.
The dinner is a community gift, they say, meant for all who would otherwise be hungry or lonely or without another place to go on Thanksgiving Day. Homeless people, elderly people, college students — everyone is welcome to a spot at the table.
"You're not coming for a freebie," Joseph explained. "You're coming to have dinner with friends."
That philosophy doesn't stop people from contributing in other ways through the years, however. McDonald's food corporation provides yams and cranberries. Sysco donates pickles and olives for the relish trays. And this year Steve Yutzie of Steve Yutzie Floral Co. called to say he wanted to donate all the holiday centerpieces.
The Novaks are swamped each year with calls from people asking to volunteer. They have to turn away most of them because the restaurant simply isn't big enough to take on everyone.
"People we don't even know drop off whole frozen turkeys and say, 'For Thanksgiving,' or money or checks or whatever," Karen Novak said.
The only thing the Novaks ask of their guests is that they call in advance so the family knows how much food to prepare.
This year, they are cooking 140 pounds of boneless, skinless turkey, three large sheet cakes of pumpkin cheesecake, and all the dressing, rolls, relish trays, whipped potatoes and gravy they can put together.
"Now we get calls at the end of September," Matilda said.
"I took one in July last year," Karen said. "He wanted to make sure we had room for him."
For the most part, the family says, there's always room. People simply eat in shifts, with newcomers sitting down as first groups leave.
And oh, the stories they tell.
There was the young couple who had just lost their home to a fire. The family with five children with nowhere to go on a cold, windy day. The man whose wife died just a few weeks before Thanksgiving. And of course, there was the family who came by accident, just because they were traveling and looking for an open restaurant on Thanksgiving.
"They had no idea what they were coming in for," Matilda recalled. "He was absolutely shocked that all these people were in here."
Karen remembers the time she and her twin sister Matilda were shopping in Portland when they encountered a homeless man.
"I said if he could hitch a ride down for Thanksgiving, we'd feed him," she said. "And he did!"
Joseph likes to recall a tall man in a walker who confided that he wouldn't have had anything to eat without the Novak dinner. Joseph had extra food prepared for the man's freezer, then asked what he was doing for Christmas.
"He said, 'None of your business! God will provide,'" Novak remembered, laughing. "I said, 'Who do you think provided to you? That's God.' So I gave him a handful of money. He was just bawling like a little boy. It's so good for us to know we can help somebody."
The Novaks say they plan to continue the tradition for as long as they can. All three say it's the highlight of the year, and they receive far more than they give away.
"If anything, I wish we could expand it to Christmas," Matilda said.