Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Could you please move that snow? February 27, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 10:00 AM

By my house, earlier this month.

IT’S ABOUT TIME, I think, as I watch city crews remove snow at the intersection by my house Friday morning.

For months, high banks of snow have blocked drivers’ views of oncoming traffic. It’s been like a cat-and-mouse game with motorists creeping out, cautiously easing vehicles into the edge of the traffic lane, hoping to avoid an accident.

All over Faribault, except in the downtown area, visibility at intersections has been bad.

All winter.

And, perhaps because I live along one of the city’s busiest streets, the problem has been more noticeable to me, more worrisome.

So I welcome the beep-beep-beep of the loader backing up. I welcome the shudder of the house as the mammoth machine scrapes the pavement and lifts boulder-size snow chunks. I welcome the thunk of snow plummeting into the dump truck.

Yes, I’m happy that city streets will now be safer.

But later, I discover that my thankfulness was a bit premature. As my husband and I head out for the evening on Friday, attempting to pull from our side street onto the main road past our house, we note that the snow to the left is now higher, visibility more diminished.

We’re having an even tougher time seeing oncoming vehicles in the lane closest to us than before today’s snow removal.

How could this happen?

“They just moved the snow from the corner and piled it higher there,” my husband says.

He’s right.

“There” is directly in the sight-line to spot oncoming traffic.

For all the time city workers pushed and moved snow, I did not expect this. But I suppose, when you’re sitting high in a loader or a dump truck, your line of vision is skewed. A snowbank that appears low is really high, at least for the average motorist.

Now, I suppose, we’ll simply need to wait for sunshine and warm temps to reduce the hazardous snow piles. Unless, of course, city crews would like to return to my neighborhood and play in the snow again.




© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Listen up, college recruiters: Here’s how you’ll impress the mother of a college-bound teen February 26, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 8:56 AM

Some of the letters college recruiters have sent to my 16-year-old son.

LAST WEEK THE LETTERS begin arriving. Not just one or two, but as many as eight a day. Initially, we laugh, say this is crazy, even insane, and toss the literature into the recycling bin. But, by the third day, I am curious.

How many letters will accumulate in, say, a week?

A lot.

The stash of letters from colleges and universities now addressed to my sophomore son totals 26, excluding the dozen or so that we trashed.

New York University, Cornell College, Hamline University, DePauw University, the University of Minnesota and of Miami, even Duke and Drake, are apparently anxious to welcome my son.

(He has yet to receive letters from Gustavus Adolphus, St. Olaf and Carleton, all prestigious institutions of higher learning in our backyard. )

I expect by now the mail carrier is cursing my sophomore and wishing he would graduate in 2010 instead of two years from now.

What exactly, you’re likely wondering, set off this deluge of academic mailings? The answer: the ACT practice test and the quick check of a box by my test-taking son.

I’ll try not to sound boastful, but this boy of mine is smart, really, really smart. Suffice to say that based on his preliminary ACT test results, he falls into the rank of those students admitted to “highly selective” colleges and universities.

So, I am curious what he thinks of all that correspondence, of the letters that proclaim:

  • “We’re interested in you!”
  • “I think you’d be a great fit…”
  • “You’ll be prepared for life after college.”
  • “Your ACT PLAN results show you have the ability to be successful in the …selective academic environment.”
  • “…we make…affordable through need-based financial aid.”

Here’s what he tells me impresses him about a college or university mailing: “If they change the letter format and it’s (the envelope) easy to open.” He’s half-serious.

He selects the visually and graphically-appealing colorful tri-fold mailing from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, as his favorite. Did I tell you my son is into computers and Web page design? His choice comes as no surprise.  Knox boldly shouts: “Make a Difference. Make a Statement.”

Then he adds, “If one of them sent a free letter opener, I would be very impressed.”

He also seems impressed by this statement in a letter from Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College:  “As a Marquis Scholar, you will receive $80,000 in merit awards over four years of study.” It’s clearly no accident the college has bold-faced those words.

He likes, too, the offer of a free t-shirt if he shows interest in the College of Saint Benedict or Saint John’s University.

But it will take more than a free letter opener, t-shirt or promise to impress me, the mom. I’ll need a full-ride college scholarship for my boy. Yeah, that ought to do it.

Show me the money!

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Rats in a Minnesota mailbox and another scary animal story February 25, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:03 AM

RATS POOPING in a rural Fergus Falls mailbox, an unidentified animal pooping on a rug in a Vesta garage…

What’s with these Minnesota animals? Have they, like most Minnesotans, been pushed to near insanity by this eternally long winter? That would be my explanation.

But you decide as you consider these two stories:

The first comes from rural Fergus Falls where, on Monday afternoon, a woman discovers two domesticated rats inside her mailbox. They have chewed on, pooped on and peed on her mail.

And, no, she claims, she did not order the rats.

The second story comes from my hometown of Vesta, where an unidentified animal deposits a pile of poop on a door mat inside a garage. This would be my mom’s garage.

As Mom tells the story, she discovers the poop pile of unknown origin, cleans up the mess and later finds another pile of s**t on the same exact spot. This leaves her mystified and a bit frightened of the possibly dangerous creature lurking in the dark corners of her single car garage.

Fearing others may think her crazy, my mom leaves the second poop pile untouched. She wants/needs/desires confirmation of its existence, and my ex-sister-in-law, who stops by to pick up a cake pan, walks right into the mess. Well, not literally.

As the two ponder whether an opossum might be holed up inside, their anxiety level rises. But they manage to clean up the scat and lay down newspaper. Or maybe my mom places newspaper down after the first accident. I don’t recall the exact sequence of the garage-tidying.

Whatever, the pair decides to leave any animal hunt until daybreak since they really don’t want to face a petulant possum in the darkness of night.

The next day, my mom calls in the reinforcements, meaning she phones her brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who live a block away. Milan arrives armed with a baseball bat. Jeanette just walks right into the garage and starts poking around. I’m not certain where my mom is stationed at this point. But I will assume away from dark corners.

In short order, brave, brave Jeanette scares an animal out of a corner. A small cat streaks across the garage and through the open overhead garage door, quick as a flash of lightning. Both Jeanette and my mom note that the cat has a short tail and is, clearly, not an opossum.

Now, I’m wondering, has anyone seen a small short-tailed cat zipping northwest towards Fergus Falls?

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Making a Paris Hilton type fashion statement in Florida February 24, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:30 AM

WHO NEEDS PARIS Hilton with her fashionable purse-size, crook-of-the-arm accessorizing dogs when you have the people of Florida?

I mean, look at this fashionable couple pushing their fashionable, and I assume spoiled, dogs in strollers at an outlet center between Naples and Fort Myers.

They caught the attention of passersby and the paparazzi, aka my oldest daughter and her friend, Laura, who snapped this image. The vacationing Minnesotans, who would have preferred warm weather (they got 60 degrees) and the beach to people and dog-watching at the mall, found the quartet rather amusing.

Maybe I should tell them to stake out The Fashion Bug in Dundas, next to Kmart. Several years ago I was perusing the racks of women’s clothing there when a woman walked in with a purse-size dog snuggled in her arms.

And, no, she looked nothing like Paris Hilton.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Photo courtesy of Laura, from Minnesota


The irresistible temptation of chocolate Crazy Cake February 23, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:47 AM


WHAT IRRESPONSIBLE MOTHER allows her son to eat chocolate cake for breakfast?

Me, apparently.

Monday morning, after my 16-year-old leaves for school, I discover cake crumbs on a plate.

Since my husband does not eat breakfast and since I had not yet plated a piece of cake, I determine the obvious offender to be my teen. “Some breakfast,” I think, lifting the cake pan lid to reveal only four remaining pieces. And I just baked this cake Saturday afternoon.

I am tempted, like my boy, to eat a piece for breakfast. But I quickly slam down the lid, grab a bowl and a bag and consume a serving of sugar-laden cereal.

Later, I wonder, “What’s the difference?” A piece of chocolate Crazy Cake would have tasted so much better than that colorful, crunchy cereal. And I figure the amount of sugar consumed would have been a toss-up.

Cake. Cereal. Cake. Cereal. Cake. Cereal. Cake!


Yes, next time I’ll choose the chocolate cake for breakfast.

I feel obligated to explain how a chocolate cake that I baked on Saturday could have all but disappeared by Monday morning. Well, I baked the cake for Sunday lunch at my oldest daughter’s place in Minneapolis. Nice mom that I am, I left about half the cake with Amber.

Whether she ate a slice of cake for breakfast, like her brother, is none of my concern. But I would hope, truly hope, that I was a more responsible mom while raising her.


Here’s the recipe for my all-time favorite, decadent chocolate cake:

Crazy Cake

3 cups flour

2 cups sugar

½ cup cocoa

1 tsp. salt

2 tsp. soda

¾ cup vegetable oil

2 cups cold water

2 Tbsp. vinegar

1 tsp. vanilla

Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Then dump in vegetable oil, water, vinegar and vanilla and mix. Pour the batter into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan and bake 30 – 40 minutes at 350 degrees.

Source: The Cook’s Special 1973, St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Vesta, Minnesota

When cool, frost the cake with this equally decadent chocolate frosting:

Buttercream Chocolate Frosting

6 Tbsp. butter

½ cup cocoa

2 2/3 cups powdered sugar

1/3 cup milk

1 tsp. vanilla

Cream butter in a small mixing bowl. Add cocoa and powdered sugar alternately with milk, beating to a creamy consistency. Add another tablespoon of milk if necessary. Blend in vanilla. Frost the cake.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Joanne Fluke releases her newest culinary mystery, Apple Turnover Murder February 22, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:36 AM

Fluke's latest book releases Feb. 23.

FANS OF MINNESOTA NATIVE Joanne Fluke’s culinary cozy mysteries, listen up. Apple Turnover Murder, the 13th book in the Hannah Swensen murder mystery series, releases February 23.

This time Hannah, the 30-something owner of The Cookie Jar, a coffee shop and bakery in fictional Lake Eden, Minnesota, discovers a body at a charity fund-raising event. So as not to spoil the plot, I’m not revealing the victim. But if you read Fluke’s last book, Plum Pudding Murder, that’s a clue.

As in her previous books, the title ties to the crime with a half-eaten apple turnover found near the victim. Food is an important ingredient in Fluke’s mysteries as her characters are always eating (mostly cookies) and drinking coffee. In Apple Turnover, you’ll find 21 recipes, including numerous cookie recipes, sprinkled between chapters.

Fluke’s recipes possess a distinctly Midwestern flavor that appeals to me. She grew up near Swanville in central Minnesota and now lives in California. These foods are uncomplicated, comforting and sometimes, oh, so familiar. Take “Too Easy Hotdish,” which, in our northern lingo, translates to “Tator Tot Hotdish.”

I am especially delighted with Fluke’s inclusion of “Wacky Cake,” my favorite homemade chocolate cake and the cake which my mom baked every year for my childhood birthdays.

As a Minnesotan, I appreciate this New York Times bestselling author’s intimate knowledge of her home state. You’ll read about the Kensington Runestone, donkey baseball, mosquitoes and “Minnesota Nice” in Apple Turnover Murder.

But most of all, Fluke understands the conservative nature of most rural Minnesotans and the importance of family and community. That’s reflected in her characters’ relationships. And although her stories include romance—Hannah is torn between two men—you won’t find any steamy love scenes.

Ditto goes for the murder cases. Fluke reveals murders, with few gory details, and then focuses on crime-solving, led by the always forge-ahead, sleuthing Hannah.

In Apple Turnover, Fluke presents two additional mini-mysteries, one involving an out-of-state job opportunity for Hannah’s deputy sheriff brother-in-law and the other involving Norman, one of Hannah’s love interests. The dangling ending of Fluke’s newest mystery leaves readers like me awaiting the next Hannah Swensen book, Devil’s Food Cake Murder, due out in March 2011.

Fluke is also writing the title novella in a Christmas collection that includes stories by Laura Levine and Leslie Meier. Gingerbread Cookie Murder releases in October 2010.

Joanne Fluke loves to bake as much as she loves to write.

MINNESOTANS, YOU HAVE an opportunity to meet Jo Fluke in her home state. She has scheduled discussions and book signings for 7 p.m. Monday, March 8, at Barnes & Noble, 3940 Division Street, St. Cloud, and for 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 9, at Barnes & Noble, 3225 W. 69th Street, Edina.

For those snowbirds who’ve flown to warmer climates, you can see Fluke during signings in California, Arizona, Texas and Florida. Go to her website at http://murdershebaked.com for more information.

A t-shirt advertises Brownlow's Red Owl in tiny LeRoy.

I’D LIKE TO SUGGEST one other locale for a Fluke book signing: tiny LeRoy near the Minnesota-Iowa border. This town of 900 is home to Brownlow’s Red Owl Grocery Store, a family-owned business since 1933 and the only Red Owl store still remaining in Minnesota. Red Owl groceries were once the norm in our state. Fluke’s fictional businesses include Lake Eden’s Red Owl Grocery Store. I expect Fluke would get a warm welcome from the folks at the Red Owl in LeRoy. You betcha.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Book cover and Fluke images courtesy of Kensington Books


Gran Torino, not the “guy” movie I expect February 20, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:46 AM

WHENEVER MY HUSBAND picks up a movie at the local library, he usually chooses an old war or car-chasing film that doesn’t interest me. In other words, he selects a “guy” movie.

So, when I see Clint Eastwood, and a car, on the cover of his latest selection, Gran Torino, I figure I won’t be interested.

An aging Clint Eastwood stars in Gran Torino.


Friday evening I’m snuggled into the reclining couch reading Whiskey Heart by Minnesotan Rachel L. Coyne when Randy starts watching Gran Torino. I inform him that at 8 p.m., I want to watch Kitchen Nightmares.

This, of course, reminds me that I need to whip whipping cream to serve later atop hot fudge pudding cake. So I head to the kitchen, pour the cream into a narrow bowl and switch on the hand-mixer. This, of course, means my husband cannot hear Clint. So he waits until I am done whipping the cream to restart Gran Torino.

I fully expect to delve back into my book as I settle onto the sofa. But then I am drawn to Clint. “How old is this movie?” I ask, noticing that Clint looks, well, old.

“A few years old,” Randy replies.

OK, then, this might be worth watching, I think, asking my husband what I’ve missed.

From then on in, Gran Tornino has my full attention. The film, written by Fridley, Minnesota, native Nick Schenk, tells the story of Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski whose dying wife’s final wish is for him to go to confession. Walt, played by Clint, is a man unable to face the demons of war, a man estranged from his family and a man determined to live out the rest of his life bitter, alone and drinking beer.

But Walt’s life changes when Thao Lor, the Hmong teen next door (played by Minnesotan Bee Vang), attempts to steal his neighbor’s 1972 Gran Torino. Thus begins the unlikeliest of friendships.

The depth of this movie surprises me as topics of gang violence, prejudice, cultural differences, family relationships, faith and the life-time affects of war interweave into a compelling drama.

Several times through-out the film, I find myself thinking of my dad, who fought on the front lines during the Korean War. He, like Walt in the movie, was emotionally-scarred by war. He, like Walt, had no choice but to kill, or be killed.

In one particular scene, when Walt pins a war medal onto the chest of young Thao, I am nearly in tears for thinking of my dad and the Purple Heart medal he received more than 50 years after serving in Korea.

Gran Torino is not at all what I expect. If you have not seen this 2008 film, which garnered a best original screenplay award for Schenk and a best actor award for the aging Eastwood, then check it out.

Listen beyond the excessive profanity (necessary to the character roles). Listen carefully, because Clint, in his trademark gravelly voice, imparts much wisdom through the character of Walt Kowalski.

Text © Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

(P.S. Next time I promise not to judge a movie by its cover. And, yes, my husband allowed me to watch Kitchen Nightmares, after which we finished viewing Gran Torino. And, yes, we missed most of the 10 o’clock news.)


What do “the parents” know anyway? February 19, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 9:34 AM

MY TEENAGE SON, while generally uncommunicative with “the parents,” can be incredibly funny if he chooses to engage in conversation.

Take the other night. Not liking the chili I prepared for supper, my 16-year-old opts to make a bratwurst. I should clarify that, in this house, if you don’t like what mom or dad cooks, then you MYO (make your own).

So there my son stands, before the microwave, pondering exactly how long to zap a brat just pulled from the freezer.

“Oh, brat guru,” Caleb says, turning toward his dad. “Impart on me the wisdom of the ages.”

And so the guru, A.K.A. my brat-loving husband, guides his son through the process of microwaving a brat while I chortle over my bowl of chili.

It is a rare moment when our teen respects such wisdom. Mostly, he considers us completely lacking in knowledge.

But we persevere.

That leads to my second story. Last week I asked and then cajoled/ordered/pleaded/ begged/demanded that my son write “thank you” notes for monetary birthday gifts he recently received.

He’s not ungrateful, but getting my boy to write anything presents a nearly insurmountable challenge. He claims to detest writing and English, mostly because I love writing and English.

“I’ll do it later,” he whines. “Not now. Why do I have to? Can’t I just send an e-mail?”

“Now,” I say, pulling out the thank you cards, address book and stamps.

He tries one more time. “It’s (letter writing) a dying art, like Latin.”

Well, he’s right there, I think, trying hard not to laugh.

But his tactic fails. I refuse to accept his argument, instead imparting the wisdom of the ages that, even in this day of instant communication, people still appreciate a handwritten expression of gratitude.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


How’s the health of your county? Which county is Minnesota’s healthiest? February 18, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:51 AM

WHICH MINNESOTA COUNTIES are the healthiest?

Intrigued by a radio report I heard Wednesday morning about a nation-wide study that ranks counties on health issues, I decided to check out my county, Rice County, Minnesota.

So I logged on to countyhealthrankings.org for results of this study from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

Of the 85 out of 87 Minnesota counties that were ranked (Cook and Traverse counties were omitted because of low populations), Rice County is the 23rd healthiest. In true Minnesota fashion, I will respond, “Not too bad.”

Jackson County, which lies in extreme southwestern Minnesota along the Iowa border, rates as our state’s healthiest county. Now, if you’re from Iowa and are already inferring that Jackson County’s location next to Iowa impacted the high ranking, you likely would be wrong. Four of the nine Minnesota counties bordering the Hawkeye state are in the lower tier healthwise. So there goes that possible theory.

According to the study, Lake County, on the exact opposite corner of the state in northeastern Minnesota, is the unhealthiest.

Now, rather than attempt to explain the reasons behind the rankings, I suggest you go straight to the source and check out the information for yourself. Draw your own conclusions. And remember, as you consider results, no research is perfect and is open to interpretation.

This Minnesota map zeroes in on Rice County, my county of residence, and neighboring counties south of the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

HERE, HOWEVER, ARE a few interesting summaries I pulled from this study regarding Rice County:

  • Less access to healthy foods than the average Minnesotan. Rice County rated at 22 percent access compared to 40 percent state-wide. To reach this conclusion, researchers determined the number of zip codes within a county with a healthy food outlet (grocery stores and produce stands/farmers’ markets).
  • A higher motor vehicle crash death rate—20 per 100,000 population in Rice County compared to 13 per 100,000 state-wide. This comes as no surprise to me given Rice County ranks among Minnesota’s deadliest counties for impaired driving. According to recent information from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Rice ranked as the 8th deadliest county.
  • A lower teen birth rate, at 20 births per 1,000 female population, ages 15 – 19, in Rice County compared to the state value of 28.

How did your county fare? Read for yourself. This study is packed with some interesting information.

And, by the way, I have nothing against Iowa. I grew up three counties away from the borders of Iowa and South Dakota.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


An Annie Mary Twente valentine mystery February 17, 2010

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 11:09 AM

VALENTINE’S DAY came and went this year without a single valentine for me. Well, I suppose I should count the small bag of peanut M & Ms my husband handed me on Sunday and the caramel rolls and apple-walnut cinnamon bread he bought for me at The Brick Oven in Northfield on Saturday. Thank you, Randy. All are delicious.

But, I never got a valentine card, from anyone. That is, until yesterday.

Two cards arrived in the mail, one postmarked “St. Cloud, MN.” and the other postmarked “Vesta, MN.” However, they bore similar return addresses, if you could call these addresses: “AM, Morgan.” and “A.M. 56292.” It appears to me as though A.M. is attempting to conceal her true identity and whereabouts.

I, of course, suspect immediately that this mail has come from the ghost of Annie Mary Twente, a 6-year-old who fell into a coma and was buried alive near Hanska in 1886. She has taunted me for decades by sending an annual Halloween card. However, just recently, her haunting has become more frequent. At Christmas, I received a gift from Annie. And now the two valentines with handwriting and postmarks that clearly indicate two senders.

Let me explain. In one valentine, A.M. writes this message, “I still miss you!” with her signature in capital letters, “ANNIE MARY.”

In the other, she simply signs, “Love, Annie Mary.” But, she also drew a quick sketch of an old-fashioned wooden swing hung from a tree. That freaks me a bit because of a tale I heard once of Annie’s ghost swaying in just such a swing.

Valentine greetings from the ghost of Annie Mary Twente. Which is authentic?

And then, to taunt me even more, the valentine features a mouse on the cover. Little Annie sent me a plastic mouse at Christmas. I presume that somehow she uncovered information about my extreme dislike of rodents.

She also includes stickers that plead: “Be Mine!” As if I’m going to be the valentine of a little ghost girl.

Obviously, I have a Nancy Drew style mystery on my hands. Annie doesn’t know this, but I love mysteries, always have. I’m comparing the handwriting and messages in past cards to these valentines. I think I have solved the mystery.

One of these “Annie Marys” is certainly an impostor. And I think I know which one. But I’ll hold my accusations for now and hope for a confession.

In the meantime, I need to warn my Aunt Marilyn, who lives in Vesta, that Annie Mary has been in my hometown. Likewise, I’ll warn my cousin Dawn, who lives in Morgan, that Annie Mary has also been in her community.

I’ll get to the bottom of this mystery. And if I need to call in a handwriting expert to prove my case, I will.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

(Be sure to read my previous posts about Annie Mary Twente, published on November 4, 2009, and December 23, 2009.)