Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

About those elephant ears September 4, 2018

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MY THREE ADULT CHILDREN MAY SEE each other only once a year. But their love for one another remains. Strong. Unaltered by time and distance. Bound by shared memories.

 

At the Minnesota State Fair. Photo by Miranda.

 

Take the photo my second daughter, Miranda, texted from the Minnesota State Fair on Saturday afternoon to her brother in Boston. The photo of concession stands is meaningless to most. But not to our family.

You see, back when Caleb was much younger and took words literally, he could not understand the serving of elephant ears at the fair. He considered those poor elephants with the missing ears and how awful the thought…until his dad and sisters explained. (I was smart enough to stay home and avoid the masses of fair-goers.) These elephant ears, they clarified, are sugar and cinnamon loaded pastries that, well, resemble elephant ears.

This fair story remains entrenched in our family’s collective memory. So I was not surprised that Miranda, back in Minnesota for the long weekend to visit and attend the State Fair with her sister, photographed the elephant ears concession stand. (I was smart enough to babysit my granddaughter and avoid the masses of fair-goers).

Caleb took his sister’s teasing in stride, now all these years later laughing with the rest of us at the elephant ears story. It is these types of family memories that bring joy. I have five siblings and, believe me, not all resurrected memories bring joy, especially when versions vary and some stories are best left untold.

This story is not one of those hurtful remembrances, but rather one that connects us and takes us back to a time when we were a family of five living under the same roof. We were not separated by nearly 1,500 miles or several hundred miles or 50 miles. I miss those days of togetherness. I know that life goes on. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss my kids. I do. Every day.

So when my second daughter drove to Minnesota this weekend to visit her sister and niece for the first time in more than a year, I was over-the-moon happy. The sisters needed this time together. And I love that they thought of their brother while at the State Fair. They thought of me, too, returning with a bag of sugar-laden mini donuts. They remembered just how much I love that fair treat, a memory pulled from their childhood of attending the Rice County Fair.

This is the stuff of family love. Elephant ears and mini donuts. Sweet memories that endure time and distance.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

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I’ve never been so happy to make mac & cheese August 3, 2018

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The mac and cheese I make from scratch. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I PREPARED HOMEMADE macaroni and cheese for supper Wednesday evening.

That’s a big deal for me as I recover from a broken left wrist with a currently unusable hand. I managed one-handed, without assistance, to boil and strain the macaroni, make a cheese sauce, combine both and then slide the glass casserole into the oven.

When Randy arrived home from work, the dish needed an additional 15 minutes of baking time. I should have started prep earlier given the slowed pace of cooking with only one hand.

Even something as simple as choosing kettles required thought. I couldn’t use the usual two-handled pot for boiling the macaroni. And when I opened the package of cheddar cheese, I cut it with a scissor. I can’t separate the sides of a ziploc bag. Thankfully I could punch the top of the evaporated milk can and pour the liquid through that hole.

Eventually I got the mac and cheese ready and in the oven.

I’ve learned much since the June 16 fall resulting in a broken left wrist followed by surgery to implant a plate held in place by 10 screws. I’ve learned the value of patience, the importance of two hands and that I really don’t dislike cooking as much as I’ve always claimed. Now I wish I could cook regularly. But my cooking has been sparse given so much done in the kitchen requires the use of two hands. I dislike constantly asking Randy to help when he already has enough on his plate (pun intended). Can you open this can? Can you open this jar? Can you open this bag? Can you, can you, can you? My frustration grows.

So far he’s been patient and helpful and does nearly all of the cooking after a long, hard day of physical labor at his job. But I haven’t asked him yet to deal with an aging head of cauliflower, hoping he will notice the vegetable on the top shelf of the fridge…

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Sweet love June 24, 2018

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HE TOLD ME TO EXPECT a package. Next week. But the priority mail box arrived from Massachusetts on Saturday. I was almost certain the techie son had shipped a one-handed keyboard, even though I told him I didn’t need one. I don’t as I can manage with one-handed typing until I recover from my broken left arm.

 

 

But I was wrong. Inside I found a surprise so sweet that I cried. I cried at the thoughtfulness of Caleb and his girlfriend, who had baked chocolate chunk cookies for me. Thick cookies with dark chocolate, my favorite chocolate. The best chocolate (chip) cookies I have ever eaten.

Turns out Caleb messaged his oldest sister earlier in the week for my cookie recipe. She didn’t have it and sent another recipe instead. I love these cookies.

Even more, I love that Caleb and Sunny thought of me and took the time to bake this gift. It was perfect. Such love and care cannot be bought, only given in an act of love.

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TO MY MANY FAITHFUL READERS (friends), thank you for your prayers, encouragement and well wishes as I deal with this injury and pending surgery. Your words are a gift. I am grateful.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Jell-O memories May 10, 2018

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A WEEK BEFORE MOTHER’S DAY, my sister-in-law showed up with a bowl of Jell-O at her granddaughter’s third birthday party. But this wasn’t just any Jell-O. This was Seven Layer Jell-O Salad, multi layers of gelatin in a fancy glass bowl.

Years have passed since I ate Jell-O. It was a staple of extended family gatherings during my growing up years in rural Minnesota. Every “little lunch” served at midnight included red banana-filled Jell-O. In addition to summer sausage sandwiches, homemade dill pickles and pans and pans of bars.

 

Peach Jell-O. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

Sometime through the years, I stopped liking Jell-O. Especially if celery, carrots or marshmallows were added to enhance the basic recipe. I came to associate Jell-O with illness. And in recent years, prep for a colonoscopy (although not red or purple Jell-O).

Still, I admit that I ate a lot of Jell-O as a kid. And I liked it. I was willing to dip my spoon into the bowl of memories and eat a serving of Seven Layer Jell-O Salad prepared by my sister-in-law. She spent a lot of time making those seven layers and I could show some appreciation for her efforts.

But another reason existed for my decision to eat the Jell-O salad, which really is more dessert than salad given its sweetness. Seven Layer Jell-O Salad was a specialty of my mother-in-law, who died in 1993 at the age of 59. I think everyone in the family would agree that Betty wasn’t a particularly good cook. But she made the best homemade caramel rolls, chicken and cottage cheese pie (if you like cottage cheese pie, and I don’t). She also had perfected Seven Layer Jell-O Salad.

 

My in-laws, Tom and Betty. From the family photo archives of 25-plus years ago.

It’s interesting how food triggers memories. I suppose because so many memories are made over food. On this Sunday in April, I remembered my dear mother-in-law who died just months before my son was born. She wanted a grandson after a long string of granddaughters. If only she’d lived to see her oldest son’s son.

I’m certain, if Betty was living, that she’d still be making Seven Layer Jell-O Salad for family gatherings. It was one of her signature dishes. As in days past, I’d admire the jewel-colored layers, not because the salad is particularly delicious. But because it is layered in family memories.

 

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

How two Faribault businesses made me smile with great customer service May 2, 2018

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. This is one of my favorite images of a small town local business. I took this photo in August 2011. Lerberg’s Foods is still in business.

 

I VALUE GREAT CUSTOMER service. It can be the deciding factor in whether I patronize a business. If I have a bad experience, I’ll think twice about returning. If I have a great experience, you bet I’ll give that business my business.

Now more than ever, customer service holds significant value along our main streets. It is one way local businesses can compete with online shopping. Not that that is a personal concern for me; I seldom shop online. But most people do. So our local shopkeepers need to go that extra mile to create a welcoming experience that meets customers’ needs.

What comprises great customer service? For me, it starts with a smile. The minute I walk in the door, I should be greeted, valued. I don’t need a clerk or store owner who hovers, but I appreciate someone who is subtly attentive. Help me if I appear overwhelmed, uncertain or can’t seem to find whatever. Listen. Offer choices. Answer questions. And then listen some more. Or leave me alone if I’m sending body language signals that I’d rather be left to browse.

I expect it’s not always easy to determine how to best serve a customer. But a shopkeeper can’t go wrong by simply being nice. And helpful.

 

 

I cite two recent examples from my community of Faribault where two grocery store employees showed exceptional customer service. Both on the same day. While at Hy-Vee, I was approached by an employee who apparently noticed me filtering for too long through clamshells of strawberries special-priced at $1.28/pound. I couldn’t find any berries that weren’t over-ripe and/or rotting. Even at a bargain, I won’t pay for bad produce and dislike when a grocer tries to sell food that should be tossed.

But this employee decided he wanted a satisfied customer. He offered to go to the back storeroom and find a pack of acceptable berries. Two if I wanted two, although I pointed out the “Limit one to a customer” sign. He would bring two, he said. I waited until he returned. With only one pack. But that was OK. He also promised to have those over-ripe berries cleared from the shelves.

At my next grocery store stop, I experienced exceptional customer service in the bakery department of Fareway Meat & Grocery. I was on a mission to find a smiley face cookie for my two-year-old granddaughter. Typically those cookies are sold at Hy-Vee. But on this Saturday they weren’t immediately available. I didn’t have time to wait an hour so headed to Fareway hoping for the coveted cookie.

 

 

I found smiley face cookies, six to a package. But I didn’t want six. I wanted one. Perhaps, I thought, I could buy a single cookie from the pick-your-own selections. Turns out the cookies aren’t sold individually. I explained my dilemma to the baker, how I had hoped to buy one cookie for Izzy for her second birthday because her mama loved smiley face cookies when she was a little girl. The baker smiled, then told me to pull a package from the shelves. I could have one, she said. At no charge.

You can bet my mouth curved as wide as the blue smile on that cookie. My joy in that simple gesture of kindness shone as bright as the yellow frosting. Granted, giving away that cookie didn’t cost Fareway much money. But it was priceless in terms of exceptional customer service.

That’s what I’m talking about as we celebrate Small Business Month in Minnesota during May and National Small Business Week from now until May 5. Hy-Vee and Fareway may not classify as small businesses. But two employees at their Faribault stores exemplified outstanding customer service to me. And that, my friends, is how Main Street can compete in today’s global online marketplace.

TELL ME: What’s your definition of great customer service? Give me an example. Do you shop local or mostly online?

 

© Copyright 2018 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

 

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