WATERLOO — AMVETS Post 19 has been dishing up meals for the community for nearly 70 years at the Noodle Nook. But this year the stoves will go cold for good.
“I’m gonna miss it,” said John Mrzlak, a volunteer for more than 40 years. “But you know everything comes to an end at a certain time.”
Since the late 1940s, Post 19 has served the chicken-and-noodles meal on the National Cattle Congress grounds during the week of fair. This year’s fair in September will be the first without the Noodle Nook.
Now in his 70s, Mrzlak said the work is too extensive to keep it running, and the lack of younger veterans joining Post 19 means there’s no one to fill the shoes. Mrzlak said as veterans come home, they’re heading straight to the workforce to support families and don’t have the time to volunteer.
Accepting this is bittersweet.
“I’m very proud of them,” Mrzlak said.
But they don’t have the ability to keep it running.
“We’re gonna miss the Noodle Nook,” said Jim Koch, NCC Fair facilities manager. “They’re kind of an icon here at the fairgrounds.”
Koch said the Nook was considered “another attraction” to the fair and will welcome the AMVETS back if they ever have the means to restart the burners. Koch said the iconic Noodle Nook building may be used for another food vendor this year.
Mrzlak served as an Army cook during the ‘60s. Having always enjoyed preparing meals, being a military cook equipped him with the skills to serve large crowds.
“We never cooked any more ahead than what we needed to,” Mrzlak said.
On the Thursday before the fair, volunteers headed to the building to prepare.
The process was extensive and thorough. Pressure cookers and 10 burner stoves cooked the chicken before being transported to the dining room where volunteers picked through the meat to remove the bones.
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The chicken was added to broth and “right before it was ready to serve we dumped in six pounds of noodles,” Mrzlak said.
Around 40 volunteers showed up to debone, cook, and prepare the meal.
“It was just like a family, working all together to do it,” Mrzlak said.
Mrzlak doesn’t foresee the Nook opening again.
“It’s hard to say you’re done,” Mrzlak said. “... It’s hard to be the ones to have to close it.”
The $7 all-you-can-eat meal brought customers back for second helpings, sometimes serving a crowd of over 1,000 people.
Mrzlak never knew how many to anticipate beforehand; but the key was watching the crowd.
“If we had a line out there, we’d add more noodles,” Mrzlak said.
The meals consisted of the staple chicken and noodles, as well as potatoes, coleslaw, dinner rolls, and drinks, adding up to thousands of pounds of food.
Post 19 donated the collected money back into various organizations, like the Cedar Valley Honor Flights and the Iowa Veterans Home in Marshalltown.
“You don’t sit there and hoard it; you give it away,” Mrzlak said. “That’s part of our community service.”
It’s hard for Mrzlak and the other volunteers to close the doors; but with dwindling help, the work has exceeded the ability of the volunteers.
“I’m getting too old and the time has come. ... It’s a sad moment for a lot of us,” Mrzlak said.