Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Looking for the “best of” places to dine in small towns & two recommendations April 10, 2018

Sapporo Ramen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

MY FIRST AND ONLY ATTEMPT ever to eat with chopsticks happened nearly two years ago at Sapporo Ramen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I tried to position my fingers like my son demonstrated, to clamp the slippery ramen noodles between thin sticks and then maneuver the food to my mouth. I failed.

 

A ramen dish at Sapporo Ramen, Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

I was hungry. A spoon would work just fine, thank you.

I’ll admit, I haven’t had all that much exposure to ethnic foods. Choices are limited here in Greater Minnesota, the name tagged to any place outside the Twin Cities metro. Typical restaurant fare around here is standard American. Any ethnic restaurants are primarily Mexican.

 

One of my favorite burgers, the Strawberry Hill Burger, served at Fielder’s Choice in Northfield, Minnesota. The burger features peanut butter, strawberry jam, pepperjack cheese and bacon. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I often wish we had more creative choices in dining. But the reality is that folks seem to like the usual burgers and fries, chicken sandwiches, deep-fried fish, the occasional steak—familiar foods to Minnesotans.

 

The Amboy Cottage Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Because of cost, I don’t dine out all that often. So when I do, I want something different, something I can’t prepare at home, something tasty and fresh and definitely something made from scratch. When I think about really good food that I’ve eaten at Minnesota restaurants, two places pop to mind—The Amboy Cottage Cafe and The Good Life Cafe.

 

My incredible raspberry chicken salad. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Spaghetti with homemade meatballs and sauce. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Homemade blackberry pie. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2013.

 

Five years ago Randy and I ate at the Cottage Cafe in Amboy south of Mankato. We specifically stopped in this small town to dine in the 1928 cottage style former gas station. I’d read about the great homemade food. There I enjoyed the best salad ever—raspberry chicken—while Randy had spaghetti with homemade meatballs and sauce. Both were superb as was our shared slice of blackberry pie. I need to revisit this restaurant.

 

My Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish with salad and bread on the side from The Good Life Cafe. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2017.

 

Some 4.5 hours to the north in the tourist community of Park Rapids I found another hometown restaurant that served up one memorable dish. That would be The Good Life Cafe and the Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish. I loved the creamy, savory flavor of the hotdish (casserole to those of you not from Minnesota), so comforting and delicious on a cool and rainy September day.

How about you? What do you look for when dining out? Tell me about a favorite restaurant and/or meal. I’m especially interested in hearing about restaurants in small (Minnesota) towns.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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Comfort in grief March 26, 2018

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Not the soup I made, but used here for illustration purposes only. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I CHOPPED AND COOKED my way through grief. Onions and celery. Potatoes and carrots. I gripped the knife, chunking vegetables onto a cutting board. Then I dumped the mix into a pot of boiling chicken broth. I grabbed a second kettle, poured milk into a measuring cup, stirred a white sauce thick and bubbly, added cheddar cheese and chicken before combining contents of the two pots. Comfort in a kettle of simmering soup.

Next, I pulled molasses from the cupboard. Shortening, too, and flour and brown sugar and baking soda and salt and an array of spices. I combined and mixed and baked my way through grief. Comfort on a cookie sheet lined with old-fashioned gingersnaps scented of cinnamon and a grandmother’s kitchen.

And then, when the soup had cooled some, the cookies, too, I packaged both for delivery. Comfort for friends. But for me, too. There is something about the act of preparing and bringing food to a grieving family that offers solace in the midst of unfathomable pain. For the giver and the recipient.

On my way with Randy to deliver this tangible comfort, I felt angst rising. I prayed for the right words to say to our friends. “I’m sorry.” Two simple words—three if you consider the contraction—sufficed. And hugs.

And as we talked in the farmhouse living room, I noticed the landscape through the wide windows—how the grey sky met the grey earth, mimicking the grey of grief.

But I noticed, too, the cross hanging on an adjacent wall, the word JESUS bold and beautiful. Comfort. For me. For those parents who, like me, find peace in our faith.

We laughed over photos. And remembered. And grief vanished for a moment or three before we hugged again, the bagged gingersnaps lying on the dining room table next to an ice cream bucket brimming with the comfort of soup.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From Mazeppa: When fire destroys a community gathering place March 12, 2018

 

PERUSE THE FACEBOOK PAGE for WD’s Bar & Grill in Mazeppa and you get a strong sense of what this business means to the folks of this small southeastern Minnesota community north of Rochester.

 

 

Here locals gather to celebrate special occasions like Valentine’s Day with prime rib and jumbo shrimp dinners. Or birthdays with burgers and a beer. And during this season of Lent, a Friday Night Fish Fry draws crowds. This seems the place to be—to meet your family, your friends, your neighbors, to commune over good food and conversation.

 

 

But no more. Early Sunday morning this 1900 brick corner building in the heart of this town burned. I can only imagine how locals are reeling from the loss of a community gathering spot. When a town of around 800 loses a business, it loses part of its identity. I should note, though, that Mazeppa still has other bars/restaurants/gathering places.

 

 

I visited Mazeppa in October 2016 and found it an especially interesting community to photograph given the historic buildings and also the incredible building signage created by resident sign painter Mike Meyer. If only I’d stepped inside WD’s Bar & Grill during that brief visit. There’s a lesson to be learned in that. Although I documented this town with my camera, I didn’t really experience it. I didn’t walk into that long-time bar and grill and observe the locals, feel the heartbeat of this community. I regret that now.

Even if WD’s chooses to rebuild, something will have been lost. Not in the people. But in the setting of history, of a rooted sense of place.

 

The Crow Bar & Grill, Courtland, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2014.

 

FYI: Click here to read a post from November 2015 about another small town bar and grill destroyed by fire. Last time I passed by nearly two weeks ago, a new building stood on the site in Courtland, presumably the rebuilt The Crow Bar & Grill.

Please check back soon for more photos from my October 2016 stop in Mazeppa, including the signage of Mike Meyer. It’s time I post those forgotten filed images.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The sweet treat that marks the unofficial arrival of spring in my Minnesota community March 6, 2018

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Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

TWICE A YEAR, Randy and I treat ourselves to Peanut Buster Parfaits at the local Dairy Queen. In the fall when the smaller of the two DQs in Faribault closes for the winter and then again when it reopens for the season.

 

 

 

 

On the last Sunday of February, we headed to the ice cream chain for our $1.99 parfaits. The bargain price of more than half off the $4.59 list price was irresistible. I simply ignore the 710 calories.

 

 

As we pulled into the DQ parking lot, I suggested we sit outside at the concrete picnic tables, just to say we’d eaten our parfaits outside in Minnesota in February. Randy wasn’t falling for my suggestion. “There’s snow on the tables,” he said. Not everywhere, I observed to myself. But he was right. Consuming something cold while sitting on cold concrete, even if to prove a point, wasn’t the brightest idea.

 

 

The DQ sign showed a temperature of 30 degrees as we carried our treats outside and to the van.

 

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I suggested we head to a park. Not to sit outdoors. But to pretend we could if only the temp was 20 degrees warmer. At a park near our home, we sat in the van and scooped sweet ice cream, salty peanuts and decadent chocolate into our mouths, savoring this first taste of spring in Faribault.

 

NOTE: To those of you in Minnesota, the Dakotas and Iowa, I know today seems nothing like spring.  I wrote this post and put it in draft prior to Monday’s major winter storm. Just pretend it’s spring. Or head to the DQ.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Not even a Minnesota winter stops this grillmaster March 2, 2018

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Everything’s in place. The meat is on the Weber grill and sticks have been cleared from the portable fire pit for extra coals.

 

IN THE DEEP OF WINTER—from double digit below zero temps to snowstorms—you’ll find Randy grilling. Only warm season lightning and downpours stop him from heaping charcoal into the Weber grill, striking a flame and cooking once the coals have greyed.

 

Beer and grilling go hand-in-hand. The beer of choice sits on the back steps.

 

I admire his tenacity and devotion to authentic grilling. He’s never considered converting to a gas grill. And he’s always ready to grill on weekends, no matter the season.

 

Preparing to add more coals as snow falls.

 

A foil sheet protects the extra coals from the snow.

 

 

On a recent Saturday, with a major winter storm predicted, Randy decided to grill pork ribs, a task which takes hours of close attention and dashing outdoors to add more coals and chunks of wood and whatever else he does to create flavorful smokey meats. He even mixes his own seasoning.

 

Randy adds hot coals to the grill.

 

I grabbed my camera and photographed him at work, just to show that he doesn’t let a Minnesota winter stop him from grilling. Many years ago he grilled a turkey for a family Christmas gathering when the temp was something like minus 20 degrees.

 

Heat rises from the plated ribs, obscuring my camera lens.

 

That’s dedicated. And maybe even a little over-the-top devoted. But, hey, who am I to suggest he take a break from grilling during the winter?

 

TELL ME: Do you grill? If yes, with charcoal or gas? And do (would) you grill year-round if you live (d) in Minnesota?

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Love in a box of candy February 17, 2018

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SHORTLY BEFORE VALENTINE’S DAY, I roamed the aisles of a Faribault antique shop and paused to admire a collection of artfully grouped heart-shaped candy boxes.

 

 

Years have passed since I received a box of chocolates for Valentine’s Day. I’ve gotten bags of chocolate like M & Ms. But not fancy candies in a heart. There’s just something romantic and special about candy presented that way. And, yes, I realize it’s a marketing ploy that tugs on emotions.

 

 

When Randy presented me with a heart-shaped box of chocolates this Valentine’s Day, my mouth actually dropped open. It’s not all that often he can surprise me.

 

 

His was a sweet gift for that element of the unexpected. But mostly, it was a sweet gift for the thoughtfulness and love therein. After nearly 36 years of marriage, I still appreciate the sweetness of his love.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Skipping the snacks & then along came the Super Bowl February 6, 2018

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In 2014, I photographed these vintage potato chip bags at a “Food: Who We Are & What We Eat” exhibit at the History Museum at the Castle in Appleton, Wisconsin. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2014.

 

FOR THE MOST PART, I’ve avoided eating chips for the past year. This snack avoidance began with a weight loss challenge at my husband’s workplace. I, unofficially, joined him in the challenge. I lost 20 pounds and have managed to keep off the weight for almost a year now. Randy lost about the same.

 

I started out lifting 1.5 pounds, then advanced to 3 pounds followed by five. Today I am lifting eight pounds with a single arm. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Our weight loss happened primarily via eating smaller portions, reducing sugar intake and eliminating unhealthy snacks. I’m also lifting weights, an exercise initiated in physical therapy last summer for a broken shoulder. I noticed not only a strengthening of my arm muscles, but the side benefits of a stronger, and flatter, core. Win, win. Now, months after therapy ended, I continue to pump those individual weights.

But back to those chips. Randy ate them nearly daily with the lunch he packed for work. Me, only occasionally. I convinced him to stop eating chips and to pack almonds in his lunch instead. He’s mostly stuck to that chips ban, although once in awhile I must pull chips from the shopping cart and place them back on grocery store shelves.

 

Retailers really push the chips and other snack foods prior to the Super Bowl. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo January 2018.

 

Last weekend we made an exception to our “no chips in the house” rule. I blame the Super Bowl and a weak moment of caving to the munchies hype that accompanies it. I wanted guacamole, which requires tortilla chips. I picked up a bag of multi-grain. Randy wanted Doritos. Who am I to deny him chips when I had just purchased some for myself?

 

 

 

And then I read an article about Minnesota’s snack industry, which includes BOOMCHICKAPOP. The ready-to-eat popcorn is made at Angie’s Artisan Treats in North Mankato. That’s an hour drive to the west of Faribault. I’ve seen the product with the signature hot pink package lettering in area grocery stores but never purchased the popcorn. Until Sunday. Just in time for Super Bowl snacking. I chose the sweet & salty kettle corn. That’s how the business started with husband and wife (Dan and Angie) making kettle corn in their Mankato garage and selling it locally. I appreciate that the ingredients are simple and few: popcorn, sunflower oil, cane sugar and sea salt.

In October, Chicago-based ConAgra Brands paid $250 million (according to Twin Cities Business magazine) for the business. BOOMCHICKAPOP is a Minnesota success story. So, you know, I just had to try that kettle corn…

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling