Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Wood-fired pizza from “where the hills sing & the trees clap” August 13, 2022

On a perfect summer evening, a crowd gathers for music, pizza and conversation at Christ Lutheran Church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

AS OLD COUNTRY BROTHERS belted out popular songs from The Eagles, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton and many others, volunteers across the backyard of Christ Lutheran Church created, baked and delivered homemade wood-fired pizzas to an appreciative crowd. Randy and I were among those attending the last of the summer Holy Smoke concert series and pizza nights Wednesday at the church on the hill on Faribault’s east side.

The roadside sign posted along Minnesota State Highway 60 by the driveway into Christ Lutheran. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Old Country Brothers Gregg and Jeff Sartor perform on August 10. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Smoked brisket pizza. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In its sixth year, Holy Smoke is about more than excellent thin crust pizza and music. This is also about a coming together of community on a perfect August evening in southeastern Minnesota. This is also about giving back. Proceeds from the three summer gatherings benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters, Habitat for Humanity and HOPE Center.

A themed t-shirt sported by a volunteer who paused to visit with attendees. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo May 2022)

A message printed on some volunteers’ t-shirts and on a bench dedicated to Pastor Craig and Carol Breimhorst (the pastor died of COVID-19; the first death in our county) references Isaiah 55:12, fitting Scripture for this hilltop church edged by trees and a sweeping lawn descending to Minnesota State Highway 60.

The menu posted just inside the front door, ticket table to the right. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

There’s joy in that biblical reference just as there’s joy among those who make Holy Smoke happen. A ticket taker, whom I thanked, tapped her hand to her heart, showing me from whence her joy rises.

The pizza bakers at the wood-fired oven just outside the church. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Plenty of heat here. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

An overview of the wood-fired oven system. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

I found the same enthusiasm among the crew tending the wood-fired pizza oven. The heat flaming inside to 700-plus degrees made the work station at times uncomfortably hot. But they forged on, baking pizzas.

Volunteers assemble pizzas. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Chicken bacon ranch pizza ready for the wood-fired oven. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Inside the fellowship hall, other volunteers layered sliced tomatoes, meat toppings, cheese and more onto rounds of dough.

The busy kitchen crew. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In the kitchen, three women worked, two doing dishes, the third snipping chives.

When we arrived at around 5:45 pm to find the parking lot overflowing, I thought the wait would be long. It wasn’t. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Still others rolled pizza cutters across pizzas hot from the oven, pizzas ready for more volunteers to carry to hungry customers. The wait time is short, especially if you order a quarter of a pie.

Attendees spread out across the backyard to listen to Old Country Brothers and to enjoy pizza. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

From my observations, the entire pizza-making and delivery process runs smoothly. Everywhere I saw smiles. Smiles on the faces of volunteers, beginning with the greeter who met us at the door. And smiles among those eating pizza and enjoying the music of Gregg and Jeff Sartor. I felt the joy.

Kids blew and caught bubbles, ran free… (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Families and friends gather at Holy Smoke. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Kids roll down the steep hillside. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Holy Smoke is an event for all ages, from kids blowing bubbles, rolling down the hillside, running across the lawn and climbing on rocks ringing a tree to older folks relaxing in lawn chairs.

There is some on-site seating. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

This is a mostly bring-your-own chairs, own napkins (I’d also advise paper plates, wet wipes and a portable side table) event, although limited picnic table space is available.

Connecting in conversation. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

Mostly, Holy Smoke seems about community. About connecting. About conversations. About supportive businesses. About joy.

Printed on a t-shirt worn by a pizza baker. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2022)

In the loveliness of the summer evening, I heard the hills sing. I heard the trees clap. And I tasted some “holy smoke, this is good” smoked brisket pizza.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling