Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Food stories from Minnesota as I celebrate my birthday September 26, 2019

Filed under: Uncategorized — Audrey Kletscher Helbling @ 5:00 AM
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Assorted hot dishes, salads, desserts and more fill several tables at the annual Kletscher family reunion held each July at the city park in my hometown of Vesta, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


WHAT FOODS AND FOOD TRADITIONS do you consider unique to the place you live?


Assorted bars. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Ask any Minnesotan and it’s surely not grape salad. Rather, the typical Minnesotan might respond with hot dish, walleye, chicken wild rice soup… Or bars. And we’re not talking the local watering hole here. We’re talking a sweet treat pressed or poured into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan. My favorite are peanut butter oatmeal bars.


Chicken Wild Rice Hot Dish with salad and bread served at an eatery in Park Rapids, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


Whatever your answer, food in many ways defines us. And food is the subject of a research project underway by a young Minnesota woman working on her Master of Fine Arts nonfiction writing degree from the University of New Hampshire. Lindsey phoned last week to ask about my food history, one rooted in my rural upbringing. We talked for an hour. I don’t envy Lindsey’s eventual task of condensing months of research into a succinct paper. But I do look forward to some day reading her findings.


My mother-in-law, who passed away in October 1993, often made Seven Layer Jell-O Salad. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


I expect she will include Jell-O, once the queen of Minnesota salads. Make that red Jell-O laced with sliced bananas. It is a signature food of many an extended family gathering from my childhood. Many Baby Boomers from rural Minnesota could probably say the same.


A friend gifted me with a copy of the book my mom used to craft birthday cakes.


But there’s one story likely unique to me and my five siblings. We grew up on a crop and dairy farm in southwestern Minnesota. With little money, our parents could not afford to give us gifts on our birthdays. The thing is, we didn’t know to expect presents. We were that poor. But Mom found another way to make our birthdays special. Days before our birthday, she would pull out her Animal Cut-Up Cake booklet and allow us to thumb through the pages and choose an animal-shaped birthday cake. Simple two-page spreads showed, for example, how to create a lion from a 9-inch square cake. Mom would follow the instructions in the publication by General Foods Corporation and create the chosen animal cake.


The clown cake my mom made for me in one of the few photos I have of myself from my childhood.


I cherish those birthday memories. I’m convinced that, had I gotten childhood birthday gifts, I would have forgotten those long ago. But my mom’s homemade birthday cakes, no. Whether a turtle, terrier or teddy bear, those cakes equated love.


I can’t take credit for this cake. But my daughters crafted this PEEF cake for their brother the year he turned eight. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.


When I became a mother, I followed the tradition of creating homemade birthday cakes—like Garfield the cat, a horse, a snowman—for my three kids. But they, unlike me and my siblings, also received birthday gifts.


Me with my mom. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo December 2017.


Today I celebrate my birthday. I don’t expect a cake, because who will bake one for me? I’m the mom. Rather I’ll remember and honor my mom, who is on hospice in a care center 2 ½ hours away. I doubt she remembers today is my birthday. I’m simply thankful if she recognizes me. But maybe, if I prompted her, she would recall all those special birthday cakes she baked for me and my siblings. The tradition was a gift of love from the mom I love. And miss.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


34 Responses to “Food stories from Minnesota as I celebrate my birthday”

  1. Happiest of birthdays, Audrey. We had the same tradition with the fun cakes. Our birthdays were true celebrations and my mom made them memorable. I am so glad I have those memories and am not surprised that you and I share a similar childhood experience. Those were the best cakes, too, and like you I carried that tradition on with my own boys. I doubt it will carry on to the next generation (if and when that happens) but I would like to think that our boys have fond recollections of those cakes and celebrations as well. Enjoy your day.

    • Thank you, Beth Ann. We truly are sisters in so many ways.

      I can tell you that the tradition is not carrying on with the next generation in my family. But that’s OK. Every family needs to choose/start/maintain whatever traditions fit them best.

  2. Be V walker Says:

    Happy Birthday to a special cousin!!

  3. Gunny Says:

    Cool subject. Just watched one of those cooking shows showing what has to be a great early colonial recipe. I have watched some of the Historical Cooking. Hot Dishes almost certainly ones with that name are epi-centered in the Minnesota area. In Sergeant Joseph Plum Martin’s book, I surmised that when most soldiers (British or Rebels) raided private homes. it was not for the food, but for the sauces and gravies.

  4. ~*~ Happy ~ Birthday ~ Audrey ~*~ Wishing you so many beautiful and wonderful blessings today and ALWAYS.

  5. Ken Wedding Says:

    Happy birthday. And thanks for all the thoughts, photographs, and philosophy you share with us in your blog.

  6. Susan Ready Says:

    Great blog and Happy Happy Birthday if you were here for a visit I’d make you a cake. Your thanks to mom for her birthday traditions was sweet. I may have tried a few of those cakes way back when too. Enjoy your special day

  7. valeriebollinger Says:

    What fun memories! I love the cakes…and I’d like to see your antique cake cook book sometime.
    Happy Birthday!

  8. Happy Birthday – Enjoy Your Special Day 🙂 I made a cut up cake of a bunny for every Easter once I was allowed to be trusted with the oven. I grew up on a farm and still love and enjoy a homemade meal and dessert. I remember hours spent making and baking cookies, bars, fruit bread and regular breads, etc. I watch it a bit now in maintaining the waist line, however; that being said there are plenty of options to substitute sugar and oils/fats in baked goods. Happy Day Indeed!!!

  9. BERNADETTE Thomasy Says:

    Happy Birthday, Audrey. Your cake and food memories are treasures for sure. I used to make my daughters cakes in shapes, too, for their birthdays and it was a big production, choosing what they wanted. But my favorite cake is one my daughters, as older teens, made for me – a watermelon shaped cake in brilliant green and red with black seeds. It was a surprise; they chose watermelon because I collected watermelon items on travels, etc. A cake can say so much!

  10. Philip Holum Says:

    I’ll always remember my mom’s Easter Bunny cake every year, including the coconut grass dyed green with the food coloring that every housewife had on hand. Phil/Eagle Bend

  11. Joyce F in Kansas Says:

    Wishing you the happiest of birthdays. My son was sharing memories of his birthday on Facebook and writing about the fond memories he had of different cut up cakes I made for him and his brothers during their childhood. I never made the lion but sailboat, airplane, train engine, rocket ship, bunny (Easter)……. Then quite a coincidence to see you mention this on your blog.

    • Thank you for your wishes, Joyce. I’m hearing more and more about these cut-out cake memories. It’s clear to me that your son treasured those special cakes you made for him.

      My niece, her husband and young son stopped by unexpectedly this evening with a box of fancy cupcakes for me. They drove 20 minutes just to deliver them. I feel so loved. So blessed.

  12. Ryan Says:

    Happy Birthday, Audrey. Nice to see you still visiting and writing about great places.

  13. Brenda Says:

    Happy birthday! I was tempted to check the family book to see how old you are today but decided it doesn’t matter!! 😀I read your post this morning before work and finally got time to pull out my small album with birthday pics of me when I was little. What fun to look back at them! My mom also made special cakes for our birthdays and I did for my sons also. I also used to help my mom make cakes for her grandkids (my nieces and nephews). So fun to see my siblings and cousins when we were much younger!! Thanks for the reminder to look back at those simpler times. Hope you had a great day and I’m so glad you got to eat cupcakes!! 😀🎂🎉

  14. Wow. What a cool thing. I also know about being that poor. But, the one thing I remember is that my parents make cake and homemade ice cream for my entire elementary school class one year. My February birthday was not a month in MN to have parties nor the farm a place that invited friends would have “liked” to hang out. Understanding that they did the one thing that they could afford and also made it special. Thanks for your story and Happy Birthday from The Cedar Journal.😊❤️

    • What a gift to make that homemade cake and ice cream for your entire class. Now that’s a gift of love. I had one birthday party during my childhood with my classmates. It included homemade cake, games my mom planned and gifts from my friends. Oh, the memories.

      And thank you for your birthday wishes.

  15. Missy’s Håndarbeid (Missy’s Crafty Mess) Says:

    Happy belated Birthday 🎉 thank you for sharing these treasured memories

  16. SAndra Huemann-Kelly Says:

    My family still has THAT cake cookbook. For years, it was boxed and stored. Last fall I passed it to my oldest sister as she had been wondering where mom’s copy ended up. Memories!

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