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

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