Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Crafting baked beans September 15, 2021

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Baked beans prepared for Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

THUMBING THROUGH THE PAGES of the July/August issue of Country Living magazine recently, I found a recipe, “Slow Cooker Baked Beans,” which inspired me to try making baked beans from scratch.

I read through the list of ingredients noting that all were common and in-stock in my kitchen, except for the pound of dried navy beans. Too often I find magazine recipes calling for ingredients I don’t have or can’t find locally. But this recipe was a go. So I bought a bag of beans and determined I could do this.

But…just to assure I would do everything correctly, I texted my sister-in-law Annette, who makes incredible baked beans, to ask a few questions. Do I soak the beans overnight on the counter or in the fridge? Covered or uncovered?

Perhaps she chuckled at my basic bean questions. Maybe not. Whatever, I appreciated her advice to soak the beans in a covered container. In case a fly or ? gets in the house, she wrote. It was the question mark which concerned me given I live in an old house with many access points for mice. Once upon a time (true story) I found a dead mouse floating in a water-filled crockpot. I’d left the uncovered pot soaking overnight in the kitchen sink. I took her warning seriously and covered the beans before I left them to soak overnight in a kettle on the counter.

Aside from that advice, Annette shared one more important tip which, had I not followed, likely would have resulted in a baked bean failure: Beans will NOT soften any further once anything sweet is put in such as brown sugar, catsup or molasses. What? The recipe did not include that important detail. But I believed my sister-in-law, an expert in crafting baked beans. I cooked the beans for 45 minutes to their desired softness before dumping them into the crockpot along with the three afore-mentioned sweet ingredients, bacon, spices, onion and water.

Volunteers guide a kettle of baked beans lifted from a pit at Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

I should have remembered also that the good folks of Pequot Lakes, who have since 1938 prepared massive kettles of baked beans for the community’s annual Bean Hole Days, partially pre-cook the soaked navy beans with propane. The oversized pots of beans are then lowered into a pit to cook overnight over wood coals. And I gotta tell you, the deliciousness of those bacon-laced beans in a secret, special sauce ranks right up there with those my sister-in-law makes.

How did mine turn out? Well. They were tasty and flavorful. And not at all soupy. I worried initially that I might be eating bean soup given the ratio of beans to liquid in the crockpot. But, during the slow, all-day cooking, that problem remedied itself.

Will I make these beans again? Absolutely. I’ve noted Annette’s tips in the margin of the printed recipe because, even though I think I will remember, I likely won’t. And who wants a baked bean bomb? Not me.

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TELL ME: Have you ever made baked beans from scratch? If yes, I’d like to hear about your bean-baking experiences/tips/recipes.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Pequot Lakes: In the heart of Paul Bunyan land July 28, 2021

Babe the Blue Ox, public art and photo op in Pequot Lakes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

ONLY RECENTLY HAVE I begun to explore the central Minnesota lakes region and small towns therein. Thanks to the generosity of a sister-in-law and brother-in-law, who are sharing their guest lake cabin with extended family, going Up North to the cabin is now a reality rather than a life-long dream. I feel incredibly blessed and grateful to experience what, for many Minnesotans, is a multi-generational part of their summers.

Kettles of baked beans, lifted from an underground pit, await serving during Pequot Lakes’ recent Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

On our last trip North, Randy and I attended Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes. We’ve previously explored that small town by popping into shops, including the unique Thurlow Hardware. Pequot landmarks itself with a bobber-shaped water tower. That would be the bobber from Paul Bunyan’s fishing pole.

A friendly Paul Bunyan mingles with the crowd during Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

This is Paul Bunyan land. The place of lumberjack lore. So different from my home in southeastern Minnesota. Paul and his side kick, Babe the Blue Ox, are universally appealing, creating a strong tourism branding identity for this region.

In Trailside Park, bobber sculpture and the Chamber of Commerce and Tourism office draw visitors. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The Paul Bunyan Trail from Brainerd to Bemidji runs through the heart of Pequot Lakes in Trailside Park.

Paul Bunyan art promoting the scenic byway, spotted at Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And the Paul Bunyan Scenic Byway, a 54-mile route along county roads in scenic northern Crow Wing County and a portion of Cass County, also passes through Pequot Lakes.

The bobber sculpture proved popular with visitors during Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

To visit this region is to appreciate and embrace the stories and character of Northwoods strong Paul Bunyan. And his sweetheart Lucette Diana Kensack (seen in Hackensack, a bit farther to the north).

Kettles of beans bake in a covered pit. Each is named. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I appreciate how hard the good folks of this area work to brand this region and to create events that entertain and also provide visitors with unique experiences. Bean Hole Days, for example, rates as unlike anything I’ve ever attended. I loved everything about it from the people to the phenomenal homemade beans baked underground in Paul Bunyan-sized kettles.

The bobber brands Pequot Lakes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

In about 10 more days, on Saturday, August 7, Pequot Lakes hosts another celebration—a Chokecherry Festival. Chokecherries are a tiny stone fruit often used in making jellies and jams. Pequot Lakes calls itself the Chokecherry Capital of Minnesota. I’m quite familiar with these berries, having picked more pails full than I care to remember while growing up on a southwestern Minnesota farm.

I expect vending of tees at the Chokecherry Festival, just like at Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

That aside, it doesn’t appear the Pequot Lakes celebration includes any chokecherry harvesting. But it does feature a Pit Spitting Contest and a Chokecherry Culinary Contest with four categories. Jams/jellies/preserves, pastries, wine and originality.

Festival food offered by the Pequot Lakes/Breezy Point Lions Club. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And just like at Bean Hole Days, the 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. event in Trailside Park includes an Arts-Crafts Fair, food vendors, kids’ activities and more.

Dogs are welcome. I photographed this one in the arms of a Arts/Crafts Fair vendor at Bean Hole Days. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I encourage you to take in small town celebrations like those offered in Pequot Lakes and neighboring communities in Paul Bunyan land. To do so is to experience the Northwoods culture, at least the side that draws tourists to town.

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This marks the third, and final, in a series of posts on Pequot Lakes.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The art of Bean Hole Days July 27, 2021

Pottery from When Pigs Fly Studio, Nisswa, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

FROM POTTERY TO DYED CLOTHING and much more, creative works filled tents and spaces lining a paved path through Trailside Park during Pequot Lake’s recent Bean Hole Days.

Lots and lots of arts and crafts, some with outdoor themes for cabin country. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

While beans, baked in massive kettles in an underground pit, highlight this festival, the Arts & Crafts Fair adds another appealing dimension. I always enjoy meandering among vendor booths, occasionally chatting it up with these creatives.

Featuring flags crafted from wood. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

A time existed when I, too, created with my hands. As a teen, I sewed nearly all my clothes. I also stitched dresses for my paternal grandmother. I loved sewing. But college, life as a working professional and then motherhood ended that. Perhaps some day I’ll return to sewing and embroidery, two favorite hands-on crafts. For now I keep my hands primarily on my keyboard and DSLR camera.

A Flying Pig by Alice Harris. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Artists’ statement. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
A mug by Dale Goodhue. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I admire the creative work of others, including those vending in Pequot Lakes. Like the pottery of Alice Harris and Dale Goodhue, Minnesota residents in the summer, Georgia residents in the winter. They create out of their When Pigs Fly Studio in Nisswa. Alice crafts the pigs while Dale creates more practical pottery pieces like mugs and plates. What a difference in approaches to pottery.

A Puzzle Box crafted by Ken Spurlin. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Perhaps the most unusual art I discovered are the Puzzle Boxes crafted by Ken Spurlin of Nevis. He takes a chunk of wood and then saws it into a puzzle with a hidden space inside. It’s magical.

Crocheted art from Spun A Yarn. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

When I spotted crocheted panels in the Spun A Yarn booth, I engaged in conversation with the artist, who, as it turns out, is also a freelance fiction editor and writer. Miranda Darrow (her pen name) creates “crochet with character.” Her crocheted loon panel caught my eye given the northwoods location of the Arts & Craft Fair. Loons are common on area lakes.

Vending dyed goods and other art. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Used for natural dyes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
A sampling of the dyed clothing. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

A creative backdrop and vendors dressed in dyed clothing caused me to stop and peruse the art of Shea J Maze and Diaspora Textiles. Memories of tie dying in the 70s flashed back. But unlike the chemicals I used to dye tees, these items are dyed naturally. A jar of dried flowers sitting on the table proved that. Beautiful, soft hues define this natural dying method.

Kids play at the Wondertrek booth. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Farther along the trail, the bold colors of mega blocks drew kids (and me) to the booth of Wondertrek Baxter Children’s Museum. The museum is an in-process undertaking.

Bean Hole Days included a small carnival. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Across the park, inflatables splashed color into the landscape in temporary, interactive public art.

Loved this little guy’s colorful sweater. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I can see art most anywhere, including in the striped sweater worn by a preschooler wandering the fest grounds. Handcrafted or not, I don’t know. But I found it visually appealing, albeit seemingly too warm for the hot and humid July day.

Oh, the sweetness of this little girl, providing entertainment as people waited in line for free baked beans. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

While I’ve only shown you a sampling of the arts and crafts featured in Pequot Lakes, I hope this entices you to attend Bean Hole Days next summer. Not only for the delicious baked beans but also for the art.

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Please check back for one final post (of three) on Pequot Lakes Bean Hole Days.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A flavor of the Minnesota northwoods at Bean Hole Days July 26, 2021

The Bean Hole crew guides a kettle of beans from an underground cooking pit at Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

LONG LINES FORMED an hour before the event in makeshift narrow aisles crafted from stakes and ribbon. Folks waited not for Paul Bunyan, although he was there, working the crowd. And not for Elvis, although he performed. Rather, they waited for a serving of baked beans.

Thousands line up for a bowl of baked beans. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
My bowl of baked beans. The beans are fee with donations accepted. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Lifting the kettles from the pit requires machinery and manpower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

This scene unfolded on Wednesday, July 14, during Bean Hole Days in Pequot Lakes, a small town in the central Minnesota lakes region. Randy and I, staying at a family member’s guest lake cabin south of nearby Crosslake, attended for the first time. And it was quite the experience. I mean that in a truly positive way. While I don’t like waiting, waiting for a generous serving of bacon-laced navy beans baked in a wood-fired pit proved well worth my time. I’ve never tasted better homemade baked beans.

The bean crew waits near the pit where the beans bake. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

The process of crafting these beans is impressive. I missed the prep and lowering of massive cast iron kettles into the ground Tuesday. But in chatting with a bean crew member on Wednesday, I learned that the 350 pounds of navy beans were soaked and partially cooked with propane before lowering the cauldrons into the pit of wood coals for overnight baking. And yes, it takes a knowledgeable team and machinery for this operation.

Almost ready to serve beans. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

My bean crew source wasn’t sharing details about ingredients, with the exception of 126 pounds of bacon mixed into the beans. The special “sauce,” which definitely tastes of molasses, is a guarded secret. And that’s all right. It adds to the mystery, the intrigue.

Lining up for beans under the direction of a volunteer. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

From my observations, volunteers have this bean-baking down to a science. And they should. Bean Hole Days began in 1938 as a way for local businessmen to thank farmers for their business. Today, the focus seems more on drawing vacationers into town—to the local shops and restaurants. While waiting in line for 45 minutes, I chatted with couples from Baxter and the Twin Cities.

We arrived early with plenty of time to check out the arts and crafts. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Bean Hole Days royalty. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
An old-fashioned barrel train weaves through the festival grounds. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

This event at Trailside Park is about much more than beans. It also features an arts and craft fair, a small kiddie carnival, food vendors and crowning of Bean Hole royalty. And this year free COVID-19 vaccinations.

These friendly vendors sold art (Shea J. Maze) and naturally-dyed goods (Diaspora Textiles). Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

I enjoyed chatting with vendors, mingling, watching. And photographing.

Paul Bunyan greets Bean Hole Days attendees. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Bean Hole Days, because of its location in Pequot Lakes among lakes and pines in cabin country, reflects the Minnesota northwoods and all that entails. Fishing. The town water tower is shaped like a bobber. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Paul shook hands, posed for photos and generally welcomed guests. Babe and bobber sculptures provided photo ops.

The kettles of beans are given Scandinavian names. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

Even the kettles of beans, sponsored by area businesses, feature names connecting to the region’s heritage. Lena. Sven. Ole. And more.

Elvis entertains the waiting crowd. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
This mug allows you to go in the fast/first serving line. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.
Buy a mug and enter the fast lane. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

As I waited in line for beans, I danced to the music of Elvis performing live. That garnered a compliment from a volunteer guiding guests to the right serving kettles. Those who purchased a 2021 Bean Hole Days mug advanced through the FAST PASS FOR GAS line. I appreciated the humor. While Randy and I didn’t buy mugs, we left a donation.

Volunteers ladle generous portions of baked beans. Some people brought their mugs from past years. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo.

And we left full of beans and appreciative of all the people who put together this unique small town Minnesota northwoods experience.

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Please check back for more photos from Bean Hole Days as I couldn’t possibly fit everything into a single post.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling