Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A first in Minnesota, a meat vending machine in Ellendale October 19, 2017

Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale is co-owned by Donnavon Eaker and her daughter, Rachael Lee. Steve, married to Donnavon, died in 2006. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

YOU CAN BUY candy, snacks, sandwiches, pop and more from a vending machine. Ditto for renting movies and getting cash. Now a small southeastern Minnesota meat market is offering its award-winning smoked and cured meat products to customers via a vending machine.

 

The Ellendale Centennial Mural along Main Street. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

I couldn’t quite believe this when I heard a radio spot promoting the newly-installed meat vending machine outside Steve’s Meat Market in Ellendale just off Interstate 35 south of Owatonna. But there it was, documented on Steve’s Facebook page and promoted as the first of its kind in Minnesota and second in the U.S. The machine comes from Germany.

 

Smokey Acres is the in-house label for Steve’s meats. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Smokey Acres…Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

An artsy window display at Steve’s promotes its fresh cut meat. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

Installed last week, the vending machine seems like a smart move on the part of the Ellendale market, a family run business for more than 40 years. The shop can’t be open all the time, frustrating consumers who today seemingly want 24/7 access to Steve’s products. Now happy customers can come anytime day or night for beef sticks, cheese curds and more, yes, even bacon. Just bring your debit or credit card; the machine doesn’t accept cash or Ebt cards.

 

In the small town of Ellendale, kids bike to Lerberg’s Foods for groceries and the occasional slushie. Here two sisters and a friend slurp their slushies while sitting on bags of water softener pellets next to the pop machine. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo August 2011.

 

This meat vending machine is creating quite the buzz in this community of nearly 700 where you’ll also find an old-fashioned grocery store—Lerberg’s Foods—worth visiting.

 

Steve’s is one of those small town meat markets that draws customers both far and wide for its quality products. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2011.

 

While Steve’s claims their refrigerated meat vending machine as the first in Minnesota, some 100 miles away to the north in Hudson, Wisconsin, RJ’s Meats installed one earlier this year.

 

TELL ME: What do you think of this idea?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Part I from Hackensack: Into the Minnesota northwoods to visit a blogger friend October 9, 2017

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Among the attractions in Hackensack is this rendering of Paul Bunyan’s sweetheart, Lucette Diana Kensack. She stands on the shores of Birch Lake.

 

NEVER HAVE I FELT more grateful for specific directions than when invited recently to my blogger friend Sue’s lake home near Hackensack in north central Minnesota. In this unfamiliar region of lakes and woods and winding roads, Randy and I could easily have become lost. We couldn’t rely on cell phone coverage. And given my general overall difficulty reading maps and sensing direction, I would be of no help.

 

 

 

But with Sue’s detailed instructions to first turn at Swanson Bait Shop then drive east and more, we eventually found our way onto a road that twisted deep into the woods. Initially, the gravel road ran wide enough for two vehicles. But then Randy swung the van onto a narrower road that left me feeling a tad unnerved by downed and broken trees from a 2016 storm and closed in by woods. Yet, I trusted Sue’s directions as we passed the row of mailboxes she noted and then the handmade signs directing us toward her home. After one missed sign and resulting turn-around, we arrived 10 minutes early. Success.

 

 

Sue and her husband, Charley, whom I’d never met, welcomed us with warmth to their home overlooking a lake in a series named Woman, Man, Child and Baby lakes. Their lovely home sits atop a hill, snugged in by signature northwoods pine and by deciduous trees, some flaming color during our mid-September visit.

 

 

Lakeside, I delighted in the tranquil setting—the curve of the lake around an island, the masses of trees hugging the shoreline, the overall seclusion of this place. It is a land that seems foreign to a prairie-raised girl most at home in wide open spaces among corn and soybean fields.

I appreciate, though, this part of Minnesota and this opportunity to visit for a few hours with Sue and Charley. Cold and windy weather foiled plans to dine on the deck or spend much time outdoors. But it didn’t matter. Engaging conversation doesn’t require perfect weather.

 

Sue, right, and I pose for a photo taken by Randy.

 

I met Sue a few years back via blogging and in person in 2013 when she and her sister made a road trip from the metro to explore Faribault and have lunch at my house. Sue and I share a love of writing, of poetry and of books. This retired educator has, for the past few years, organized the book part of the Northwoods Art & Book Festival in Hackensack. With 37 Minnesota authors participating in this year’s fest, I can only imagine the time my friend invested in this event. She also chairs the Northwoods Art Council. Through her freelance writing, blogging, attendance at writers’ workshops and more, Sue has established an incredible network with Minnesota writers.

 

Sue’s started our Sunday brunch with a delicious salad featuring her homemade dressing. Photo from Sue’s Ever Ready blog.

 

But there’s more. Sue loves to cook. Food focuses her Ever Ready blog along with poetry and book reviews. Whenever I’m looking for a new recipe, I go to Sue’s blog or shoot her an email for ideas. I appreciate that her featured recipes include common ingredients, are often a twist on a familiar dish and are easy to prepare. On the day we lunched with her and Charley, Sue served Apple, Grape & Pecan Salad with Mustard Maple Vinaigrette; assorted breads; Wild Rice, Sausage and Potato Casserole; and Angel Food Cake with Warm Chocolate Kahlua Sauce. I expected nothing less than delicious and that’s exactly what Sue presented.

This couple also served up plenty of hospitality in conversation. Through the years, Sue and I have communicated often via email, offering each other support and encouragement, simply being there for each other as friends are. Randy and Charley, with a shared interest in cars, also had plenty to discuss.

 

 

And then there was Bella, the yellow lab. She welcomed us, too, and especially liked being petted, pawing for me to stroke her more after I stopped. What a dog.

 

 

Hours after our arrival, after I photographed the affectionate Bella and after Sue and I posed for photos, Randy and I set off into the woods with instructions to stay to the right. As we emerged onto the county road, I felt as if we’d just exited a retreat. I am grateful to Sue and Charley for sharing their place of northwoods solitude with us. For a few hours I felt blissfully sheltered from the world.

 

FYI: To check out Sue’s Ever Ready blog, click here. She also has a blog written from Bella’s perspective. To read The World According to Bella, click here.

To read the blog post Sue wrote about our visit, which includes links to recipes for the food she prepared, click here.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Wheeling Township, Part III: More images & words from Germanfest October 4, 2017

A farm site along Minnesota State Highway 60 near St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault.

 

IN A RURAL SETTING not far from Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, the members, families and friends of St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, serve not only an incredible German dinner each September, but also incredible hospitality.

 

 

Shirley checks and refills food on the serving line.

 

Even the pickles are homemade.

 

Through my many years of attending dinners, luncheons and other events at this country church, I’ve gotten to know these friendly folks—Lynn, Kim, Doug, Craig, Shirley… I can’t come and go without stopping to greet and hug sweet Elsie, who now into her nineties still works in the kitchen stirring gravy or potato salad or cutting and plating pies (during the church ice cream socials). Truly, these dinners are labors of love.

 

Here two volunteers, in ethnic costumes, take a break at the root beer stand.

 

Petting zoo animals come from a nearby farm.

 

There’s always a well put together historical display.

 

I can only imagine the tremendous time, effort and energy involved in pulling off Germanfest, an event which features more than just the showcased ethnic meal which this year fed some 650. I appreciate the country store and market that offer home-baked and garden grown goods and more. I appreciate, too, the quilts stitched by talented hands and the music and petting zoo and historical displays and more.

 

On the church altar, a beautiful harvest display.

 

There’s something divinely wonderful about a Minnesota church festival that reconnects me to the land, that brings a sense of peace in a world brimming with too much discontent and chaos.

 

BONUS PHOTOS:

This gentleman arrived from four miles away in his Model T Ford.

 

Congregants make and sell crab apple jelly from trees growing on church property.

 

Dressed in lederhosen, a volunteer pauses to enjoy the music and check out the market under the tent.

 

Lucy, seven months, and her grandpa listen to the old-time music.

 

The Ray Sands Band plays tunes like “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie…”

 

I observed these guys kicked back and relaxing to the music of the Ray Sands Band.

 

A display of German items honors the congregation’s heritage.

 

I enjoyed this over-sized woodcarving of a fisherman.

 

Church festivals are made for visiting.

 

Ice cream cones of feed for animals in the petting zoo were popular with the kids.

 

These piglets were among animals in the petting zoo.

 

Even the church windowsills are adorned with harvest themed decor.

 

One final look at St. John’s UCC as we drive away.

 

NOTE: To all my readers who wish I would have told you about this church dinner in advance, I’m sorry. Please mark your 2018 calendars for next September. Germanfest is always held around the same time annually.

But I can tell you about another outstanding area church dinner set for 11 a.m. – 1 p.m. this Sunday, October 8, at Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown. With a homemade meal of turkey, ham and all the fixings, it’s one of the best (in my opinion) church dinners around. The event also includes a craft and bake sale in the church basement. Click here to read previous posts about Trinity’s fall dinner.

Please check back for one last post in my four-part series from Germanfest. You won’t want to miss this final, especially endearing, photo essay. Click here to read my first post and click here to read my second post, both published last week.

© 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Wheeling Township, Part I: The season of Minnesota church dinners September 26, 2017

Long-time Germanfest kitchen staff, Lynn, left, and Elsie.

 

AUTUMN MARKS THE SEASON of church dinners and festivals in Minnesota. In fellowship halls and church basements, you will find some of the best homecooked food. Food of the land. Potatoes peeled and mashed. Squash scooped of seeds and baked. Bone-in-ham savory and heavenly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An abundance of food fills plates, satisfying the belly and the soul. Menus vary from congregation to congregation with ethnicity, location and tradition determining food offerings. At St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, parishioners serve an authentic German meal at the annual late September Germanfest. Several years had passed since I attended this dinner, one of my favorites among Faribault area churches.

 

Diners park their vehicles around the cemetery next to the church.

 

 

 

 

Baby Lucy and her grandpa listen to the Ray Sands Combo.

 

Here in this rural setting, with old-time bands pumping out polkas and waltzes just outside the dining hall, hundreds gather for food and fellowship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And bingo,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

a quilt show,

 

 

 

 

 

 

petting zoo,

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

market, polka service and more.

 

 

 

Randy and I whiled away the last September Sunday afternoon here, crammed first into the fellowship hall eating sauerbraten and brats, German potato salad (and yes, mashed potatoes and gravy for those who prefer that potato choice) and an assortment of German sides with Black Forest cake, apple kuchen and bread pudding for dessert—as if we needed three desserts. But it’s impossible to pass on such sugary goodness.

 

 

 

 

This event, as are all church dinners and festivals, is about more than food. It’s about family and friends and good conversation and laughter and delighting in the bounty of the earth. It’s about hard work—laboring in the kitchen, selling tickets, grilling brats, tending quilts and animals, and an entire long list of volunteer duties. It’s about a sense of community, a coming together, a communion of sorts with the land, with this place, with these people. In the season of autumn.

 

TELL ME: Do you attend church dinners and festivals? If so, feel free to recommend one here.

 

Check back for several more posts from St. John’s Germanfest including some endearing photos of a budding musician and of a family photo shoot.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From the Minnesota northwoods: The charm & quirks of Park Rapids September 25, 2017

An array of shops pack downtown Park Rapids. A July 24 fire damaged the iconic marquee at Park Theatre, right.

 

“IT’S NISSWA ON STEROIDS,” I told my friend Sharon in describing Park Rapids, a resort town just to the north of her Minnesota home. She laughed. Both communities pack shops and tourists. But Park Rapids in Hubbard County is home to around 4,000 permanent residents. Sixty miles away in Crow Wing County, Nisswa’s population is half that. Add in the seasonal populations, though, and those numbers grow significantly.

 

At Smoky Hills Art Gallery, I discovered this lovely mural.

 

I toured both towns on a recent trek north with my husband for a book release party and my first-ever stay at a northwoods Minnesota lake cabin. Each community holds characteristics that make it unique and memorable.

 

Rain fell all afternoon during our Park Rapids visit.

 

For Park Rapids, it’s “the small town with the extra wide Main Street.” And the local tourism folks aren’t exaggerating with that tag. When we turned into downtown, I observed a parking lot of vehicles jammed into the business district. Vehicles parked diagonally curbside along both sides. But in the middle of this extra wide Main Avenue, two rows of vehicles also parked parallel. The unusual parking made quite the impression. I would later learn from a shopkeeper that the original town founders built the street wide to accommodate oxen drawn wagons.

 

I noticed, and appreciate, the beautiful potted plants that line the sidewalks in downtown.

 

 

 

On this rainy Friday afternoon, minimal extra space existed as seemingly everyone was in Park Rapids for the day rather than on nearby lakes. And being in town meant shopping and dining at businesses lining several blocks.

 

I love capturing the nuances of small towns, like this barbershop image.

 

Typically I don’t like shopping. But I managed to spend an entire afternoon ducking in and out of shops to peruse merchandise ranging from tourist kitsch to books to antiques to crafts to original art and much more. Because of the rain, I left my good camera (my Canon DSLR) in the van. That marked my major disappointment as Park Rapids offers so much to photograph. The smartphone camera would have to do on this visit.

 

Recommended as a place to dine, the logging camp was closed for the season.

 

There are dining options aplenty from bars to fancier restaurants and in between.

 

My heaping bowl of Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish with salad and bread on the side.

 

But before the merchandise browsing began, we needed to eat. We’d gotten several recommendations, but landed in a booth at The Good Life Cafe after a brief wait. Oh, my gosh, I cannot rave enough about the creamy and savory Wild Rice Hotdish described as vegetables parched with wild rice, cooked slow in vegetable stock and finished with mushrooms in a parmesan cream sauce topped with toasted almonds. This dish, with chicken added for a few dollars more, is divine, absolutely one of the best restaurant foods I’ve ever eaten. Randy ordered the Beer Cheese Pretzel Burger and was also impressed.

 

 

Fueled by fantastic food, we began our exploration of downtown Park Rapids with Ben Franklin as one of our first stops. I grew up with this five-and-dime, now a Main Street rarity. It still offers an eclectic collection of goods. But prices are, as you would expect, no longer nickel and dime low. I appreciated the opportunity to walk through this store and remember Ben Franklin as I once knew it.

 

 

I chose to skip the local pawn shop after noticing a sign outside the door that advised customers to PLEASE UNLOAD GUN AND REMOVE SKI MASK BEFORE ENTERING. Randy entered. I moved onto the next-door gift shop.

 

 

Upon the recommendation of friends, we both popped into Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks which specializes in an assortment of flavored popcorns made on-site. Samples entice customers to buy, which we did—their top-selling caramel popcorn. I also favored the puppy chow (peanut butter/chocolate/powdered sugar) flavor.

 

 

As the afternoon wound down and our energy waned, we had one more stop, at the Minnesoda Fountain, an old-fashioned 1950s ice cream parlor.

 

 

Still full from lunch, we didn’t need the blueberry shake we shared. But when you’re on vacation, such indulgences require no excuses.

 

Please check back for additional vacation posts, including one on Nisswa.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Put your money in the can August 2, 2017

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THIS TIME OF YEAR in Minnesota, roadside stands pop up with a bounty of fresh garden produce. Some are staffed. Some are not.

 

 

On Sunday evening, Randy and I stopped at an unmanned stand along U.S. Highway 14 as we passed through Courtland (between New Ulm and Mankato) after a weekend in southwestern Minnesota. We needed potatoes and always appreciate newly-dug spuds.

 

 

Pickings were slim at that time of day. But we found a bag of potatoes for $2 that fit our needs. Randy pulled two bills from his wallet and deposited the money in a mammoth coffee can labeled PUT MONEY HERE.

I love this trustworthiness that exists in rural Minnesota.

 

 

But apparently the gardener doesn’t trust Mother Nature. Inside the coffee can, an over-sized stone weighted the container against the wind.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Holy Smoke, what talented musicians & what great food July 18, 2017

 

TWO TURKEY VULTURES rode the wind high above the church on the hill. Dipping, circling, gliding.

 

Sweet Potato Jackson performs.

 

Far below in the grassy side yard of Christ Lutheran Church, Sweet Potato Jackson and the Todd Thompson Band entertained with foot-tapping bluegrass, pop, country, gospel and other tunes. Adults settled into lawn chairs and listened. Kids ran—to the playground and back. A wee girl swayed to the rhythm of the banjo, the guitar, the mandolin and other string instruments.

 

The Todd Thompson Band gets up close to the audience.

 

I sang the lion sleeps tonight, only 10 feet from the quartet performing the catchy tune I remember from decades ago. My husband and I were front row with the Todd Thompson Band, four guys standing on the lawn and performing music with an unbridled passion. I could see their love for song in the rapid movement of their fingers across strings, hear it in their enthusiastic voices.

 

 

They exuded joy during this event billed as Holy Smokes! by the host Lutheran congregation. One Wednesday evening a month during the summer, this church on Faribault’s east side offers a free concert as a community outreach. The music is served up along with savory homemade pizza and smoked pork and brisket sandwiches and sides available for purchase. Proceeds from the meal benefit people in need in the community.

 

The hilltop location offers a wide view of Faribault and beyond.

 

The descriptive words holy smoke fit both the food and the featured musicians. And the setting. This is a tranquil location overlooking this southeastern Minnesota city and beyond. Wind blowing a cool breeze through trees after a hot and humid day. Shifting white clouds in a blue sky. Lovely. Kids and music and the occasional adult conversation blending in a soothing harmony.

 

 

I delighted in the carefree feel of this event, of watching children run and play like kids should on a summer evening as perfect as they get in Minnesota. I was reminded of bygone years when my extended family gathered to visit and we cousins played without adult direction, without any planned activity.

For a few hours I forgot about the problems of the world, about the challenges in life. I simply was—enveloped in Holy Smokes!

 

FYI: The next Holy Smokes! concert is set for 6 – 9 p.m. Wednesday, August 9, at Christ Lutheran, 1200 NE First Street (along Minnesota State Highway 60), Faribault. Bring lawn chairs or blankets and an appetite for great food and equally great music by Sweet Potato Jackson and Sarah Crissinger.

Note: I’ll rephotograph Holy Smokes! (including the food) once I’m healed from my shoulder fracture and able to shoot with my Canon DSLR camera.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling