Laurie Horton’s Kansas City kitchen looked like so many others on Thursday.
Roasters full of meat — turkey in one, ham in another — and a platoon of slow cookers loaded with mashed potatoes, green bean casserole and assorted side dishes covered nearly every inch of the kitchen island.
Big ol’ pies and a platter of cookies loaded down a nearby sideboard. A bountiful feast for sure.
But her guests didn’t linger long, nor watch any of the football games playing on the TV in the living room.
One stopped by for turkey and fixin’s before heading out to patrol the annual Country Club Plaza lighting ceremony. A police helicopter pilot stopped by, too, without the helicopter.
Officer Robert Erpelding, who started his day at 7 a.m., came by for a meal at the end of his shift with his wife and son before heading to his off-duty job.
Horton has served Thanksgiving and Christmas meals to KCPD officers working on those holidays for 25 years.
Right before the expected evening rush, she joked, “pretty soon it’s going to look like a crime scene up in here, there’ll be so many cars up and down the street.”
She generally feeds between 80 and 100 officers on any given Thanksgiving, depending “upon how busy it is,” Horton said.
“And sometimes, like the to-go dish, we fill them up and send them back out because they just don’t have the time to stay, which is heartbreaking.”
Hardly anyone left without hugging her good-bye.
By Thursday afternoon, when she hustled around the kitchen in a black “Police” sweatshirt, Horton had been cooking for days. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
She works for the police department too, and these are her people — men and women she says would put themselves between her and danger without thinking twice and who do the same for the public every day.
Once, in a work meeting, an instructor went around the room and asked everyone about their families. When he asked Horton how many kids she has, a detective in the back of the room shouted: “1,200!”
Around KCPD, she’s known as “Mama.”
No more hot dogs
There’s a doorbell by the back door that leads into the kitchen, but no one rang it. People just walked in.
What stranger would dare wander into a room full of cops?
This holiday tradition began a couple of years before Horton took a job with the department.
Twenty-five years ago she and her husband, Kevin Horton, lived in Northeast Kansas City at a time when what she referred to as houses of “ill repute” drew so much traffic to the area “it was like a parade,” she said.
Neighbors got to know the officers of East Patrol Division as they worked on making the area safer, she said.
The first Thanksgiving when it was safe to sit outside, “and not worry about anything, this squad car kept driving by and they were rubber-necking … and my husband went up and said, ‘Just pull it over and come on in and eat,’” Horton said.
Pretty soon two more officers showed up that day, and from those first three guests, “It has just grown exponentially since then. We found out they were going to a convenience store and were eating hot dogs and that’s all they had on Thanksgiving and Christmas,” she said.
“So we decided no, no, no.”
‘Nice to come for a home-cooked meal’
Erpelding, a Kansas City transplant, has been with the department for 18 years. Both his parents are deceased, “so it’s nice to be able to come somewhere where you feel loved and appreciated and you feel like you’re part of a family,” he said.
“Especially when you have to work. You’re tired and you’re just trying to get through the day.”
He estimated he’s worked more than half the Thanksgivings that have come and gone during his tenure with the department.
“It’s very nice to come for a home-cooked meal and turkey and all the things you remember as a kid, the stuffing, the mashed potatoes, the turkey, the ham, the green bean casserole. That’s a big one,” Erpelding said.
“And then pie afterwards and you’ve completed your Thanksgiving meal instead of going to a QuikTrip and hoping that their kitchen’s open. You can have something other than just a rotisserie hot dog.”
Erpelding works out of the Shoal Creek Patrol Division north of the river. Horton invites every officer on duty on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The kitchen is open from 2 to 11 p.m.
Officer David Owens, who has been with KCPD four years, works out of East Patrol. He had the holiday off this year, but he and his wife brought food and helped Horton with the meal.
“For me, first off, the food is amazing,” Owens said. “What I appreciate about what Laurie is doing here is really not about the food, but about the family, community.”
Owens hails from Colorado and with family strewn about, he and his wife feel at home in this house, where the woman serving the meals is outspoken about how proud she is of her colleagues who patrol Kansas City’s streets, who she says have answered “an honest-to-God calling” and who she wants the public to get to know as fellow human beings.
“Not to be, I won’t be cheesy here, but not only is this a family, but these are family members I want to be around,” Owens said.
“I came from the United States Marine Corps. I came from doing defense contract work, and I will tell you that the four years I’ve been on the streets have not been an easy time. This has not been an easy time in this profession.
“What the men and women who come to this job and stay on this job do, it just blows my mind.”
Horton is an administrative assistant in the Criminal Records Section, a job that has her talking to officers on the street quite often.
Owens laughed when he said that for the longest time he thought her first name was “Mama.”
And at Mama’s house, everyone eats off the good china on Thanksgiving Day.