Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by 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


In Minnesota: Neither rain nor snow or… March 12, 2017

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…shall stop my husband from grilling in our Faribault backyard.

Grilling conditions: 19 degrees Fahrenheit and heavy snow falling around 6 p.m. Sunday

On the menu: Chicken breasts, baby red potatoes and asparagus.

Bonus for the husband’s work lunches: brats

TELL ME: Would you grill in these conditions or worse? Let’s hear.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Grilling on a balmy, brown Christmas in Minnesota December 27, 2011

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FOR CHRISTMAS DAY dinner, I planned to prepare homemade lasagna complemented by salad and garlic bread.

But at the last minute, due to weather conditions, I changed my mind. The lack of snow and predicted 40-degree temperatures here in southern Minnesota called for firing up the Weber on Christmas Day. My husband enjoys grilling no matter the temperature or ground cover, and he’s darn good at it. (Click here to see images of him grilling atop a snowbank.)

My husband grilling in our snowless and warm backyard on Christmas Day in Faribault, MN.

On Sunday he grilled pork chops, seasoned potatoes and carrot slices, a simple and savory meal.

I proposed setting up a card table on our south-facing, sun-drenched patio, just to say we’d dined outdoors on Christmas Day. But even I found the low 40s still too nippy for comfortable and leisurely noon-time dining.

Instead, I settled for photographing the holiday grilling in shirt-sleeve warm weather without a trace of snow lingering in the backyard.

Weather-wise this marked a mighty fine Christmas weekend here in southern Minnesota with a high of 42 degrees in Minneapolis/St. Paul, the fifth warmest Christmas Day on record since 1905.

On Monday, the temp soared to 52 degrees in the metro, shattering the previous December 26 record high of 51 degrees set in 1936.

I don’t know if Santa appreciated the warmth and absence of snow. But I sure did.

Juicy pork chops on the grill.

Christmas Day dinner ready for dishing up. If you look in the upper left corner through the window, you'll see a smidgen of snow outside on the north side of our house.

Christmas dinner plated on my garage sale china.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Fancy pheasant at the BBQ contest June 2, 2011

Members of The Q Crew from Waldorf set up their tent and competed recently at the Minnesota in May BBQ Contest at the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault. It is the first time the event has been held here.

HERE’S HOW MUCH LITTLE I know about fancy food. Once while dining out with my 23-year-old daughter, I mistook balsamic vinegar for chocolate. I wondered why chocolate had been drizzled across a plate and served to us with bread.

So when I saw bacon-wrapped pheasant fancily-plated at the Minnesota in May BBQ Contest in Faribault recently, I was beyond impressed. This could have been on any upscale restaurant menu. But this appetizer had been prepared on the grill by an Appleton, Wisconsin, team and sent to the judges in the open class competition.

The artfully displayed bacon-wrapped pheasant prepared by a team from eastern Wisconsin.

This crisscross of raspberry chipotle sauce, bacon-wrapped pheasant and several sprigs of whatever artfully arranged on a square white plate would have wowed even Chef Gordon Ramsay. I was wowed, by the presentation and the taste—love that raspberry chipotle.

My husband and I sampled several meats as we wandered the Rice County Fairgrounds competition site. Chicken. Pork. Ribs. Brisket. And then an apple-topped cheesecake.

Another Wisconsin team handed me a fork and told my husband and me to eat whatever we wanted. They had prepared 60 pounds of meat for the competition, were tired of eating it and didn't want to take any home. So we didn't hesitate to taste some mighty fine BBQ and dug right in.

I wanted to try the apple dumplings tended by Tom Mcintosh of the fancy pheasant team, but those were going to the judges.

Tempting apple dumplings.

All in all, even though I arrived too late to watch competitors grill (due to pouring rain) and prepare their entries, I saw enough to realize you can do a lot with a grill, knowledge, creativity and a love of cooking.

Left-over grilled meat prepared by a team from western Wisconsin.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


From backyard barbecuing to competitive barbecuing May 23, 2011

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An example of the barbecued meat prepared for the Minnesota in May BBQ Contest.

Tom Mcintosh of Appleton, Wisconsin, shows off bacon-wrapped pheasant with raspberry chipotle sauce for the open class division.

THEY START OUT innocently enough, barbecuing in the backyard.

Then, before they know it, they’re competing in barbecue competitions, driving all over the country with their gargantuan grills loaded into trailers.

Some have created their own rubs and sauces, while others doctor up purchased sauces.

They spend hundreds of dollars on meats, entry fees and travel expenses. Maybe, eventually, if they win enough contests, they’ll break even.

I met several of these die-hard barbecue contestants Saturday while walking the grounds at the Minnesota in May BBQ Contest in Faribault. By the time I arrived in the early afternoon, the teams had already turned in their mandatory entries—chicken, pork ribs, pork and brisket. Teams of judges evaluate the food on taste, tenderness and appearance in this Kansas City Barbeque Society sanctioned event.

The competitors had been grilling for hours—under tents in pouring rain—when I got to the contest site at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Now they were relaxing, some of them kicking back with bottles of beer, others visiting with attendees and/or packing up.

As I wandered the soggy grounds with my husband, sidestepping puddles, I spied grills that looked more like space age inventions than grills. Mighty impressive. The Q Crew from Waldorf has even appropriately named its grill “the pig casket.”

Since I’m a word person, I noticed the creative names these teams of barbecue enthusiasts have given themselves: BurntOut Smokers, Rebel Fire Que’n Company, The Monkeys’ Uncles Competition BBQ Team… I didn’t pause to ask the stories behind the names and logos; I simply snapped photos.

At least one group of guys, from western Wisconsin, had time to talk. Not about their team name, which I don’t remember, but about the reason they do this: “To get a break from the wives and kids.” Not that they don’t love their families, but…

These buddies especially enjoy the fun of small town BBQ contests, like the one in Gilmanton, Wisconsin, where they start the day with Bloody Marys.

They’re an easy-going, laid-back bunch, these barbecuing fanatics. Or at least they are once the meats are turned into judges. Before that, I’d guess the atmosphere under those team tents rates as tense. After all, they’re in it to win it.

BBQ sauces and rubs were for sale.

Contestants arrived with mega-sized grills.

Creative team names were posted on tents and trailers and vehicles.

The Q Crew from Waldorf appropriately calls their grill, in the background, the "pig casket."

The team trailer for spitfire, one of many creative BBQ team names.

WATCH FOR MORE BBQ images in one more blog post.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Iowegians bring their barbecuing passion to Minnesota May 22, 2011

Bubba'Q's logo and slogan on the side of their BBQ trailer.


They’re from Ottumwa, Iowa. That’s “A-ttum-wa (short “a”), not “Oh-ttum-wa (Minnesota long “o”).

They’re about as cheerful and friendly a couple as I’ve met. Talkative with a definite accent that I would have placed as more southern Missouri than southeastern Iowa. They set me straight, in a kindly way, on the pronunciation of Ottumwa, a community of 25,000 along the Des Moines River.

Big smiles accompanied their language lesson and an intro to barbecuing at the Minnesota in May BBQ Contest in Faribault Saturday. Nearly 60 teams competed for about $10,000 in prizes in the two-day Kansas City Barbeque Society-sanctioned event.

While Bubba and Sabrina didn’t win a prize this time—they have taken grand champion honors in other competitions—they seem content simply to barbecue, win or not. Clearly, this is their passion.

They own Bubba-Q’s, a restaurant and catering business in Ottumwa that features traditional pit style barbecued meats. The dessert menu of scratch made pies, triple chocolate fudge espresso brownies, banana delight pudding and more sounds mighty tasty too.

I wasn’t able to sample any of Bubba-Q’s meats, but Bubba tells me their style is “a little sweet, a little heat.”

I’ll take his word for it.

The ribs they prepare for competitions differ, they say, from the ribs prepared in their restaurant, where customers prefer them falling-off-the-bone tender. The judges, want tender, but chewable, still on the bone ribs.

The two agree that no matter how often and where they compete, and they’ve traveled to many competitions as far away as New Mexico and Las Vegas, they never quite know what will please the judges. Bubba says that’s OK. Then he smiles. Again. He’s just that kind of guy—with a face that shows he’s happy to be barbecuing, whether in Iowa or Minn-e-soooooo-ta.

Bubba and Sabrina's home on wheels and traveling BBQ central.

Even their pick-up truck advertises their barbecuing passion.

WATCH FOR MORE photos from the Minnesota in May BBQ Contest in future blog posts.

For the first time ever, Faribault hosted the Minnesota in May BBQ Contest at the Rice County Fairgrounds.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Take this snow and shove (shovel) it March 20, 2011

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ON THE FIRST DAY OF SPRING in Minnesota, my true love gave to me…chicken on the grill.

But, before he could cook the chicken, he shoveled 2 ½ feet of snow from the patio to access the Weber. That would be the grill which, until yesterday, lay tipped on its side, having toppled off a melting snow mountain.

After shoveling his way to the grill, he fired it up.

But, as anyone knows, even in winter-spring, a man cannot grill without beer. So my true love chiseled a bottle of Nordeast into an icy snow bank to reach icy perfection. By the time I photographed the chilling beer, the bottle was nearly empty.

Later he iced a bottle of Grain Belt Premium.

And so on the first day of spring in Minnesota, I did not get five golden rings or a partridge in a pear tree. Yes, I am well aware that I am referencing The Twelve Days of Christmas here. But with all the snow still remaining in our northern state, December 25 seems like yesterday.

Rather, on this fine spring day (if you call 40-plus degree temps, rain and thunder in the morning, and snow-blotched lawns and boulevards “fine”), I got chicken, and potatoes, on the grill.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Only in Minnesota in winter January 24, 2011

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FORGIVE ME if you’re not from Minnesota. But we Minnesotans obsess about the weather, especially in winter. We have good reason. With snow and cold hanging around for six months or more, the weather definitely impacts our daily lives.

Take my life.

Sunday night my husband grilled chicken and potatoes in the Weber grill atop the snow mountain that was once a backyard patio. The temperature hovered around 10 degrees.

This morning, when my 16-year-old left for school, the temperature registered 15 degrees. That’s 40 degrees warmer than the minus 25-degree reading on Friday morning when he refused to walk eight blocks to school.

The past two days I’ve had an upstairs window open with a fan blowing hot air outside. Sounds crazy, I know. But I’ve been staining and varnishing window trim on the second floor and the fumes were getting to me. I had a headache. My mouth tasted like stain and varnish. Not healthy. So for some six hours, that window remained open on Sunday and is still open today.

But, hey, the temperature this afternoon is a balmy 28 degrees, so it’s not like I’m allowing sub-zero air into the house.

WHAT TYPES of crazy things have you done in the cold of winter?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Barbecue heaven July 18, 2010

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IF YOU’RE GONNA BARBECUE, you better have beer.

And, if you’re a novice at barbecuing ribs, then the bible helps too.

Not that my husband turned to God’s Word Saturday night during his first-ever attempt to make barbecued ribs. But he did refer to The Barbecue! Bible by Steven Raichlen.

My husband checked out The Barbecue! Bible from the local library to find a recipe for grilled ribs. I don't know why he chose a Memphis recipe.

Flipping to the Book of High on Hog, the second to last chapter, “Memphis-Style Ribs,” he read not of sweet, flowing honey, but of cumin and cayenne, pepper and paprika. Apparently the tribe of Memphis prefers spicy to sweet.

Following the written word, he mixed a dry rub of mostly spicy spices with a bit of brown sugar tossed in for a touch of sweetness. But because we were missing an ingredient for the mop sauce—namely yellow mustard—he substituted Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue Sauce for the homemade sauce. What can I say? Sometime we obey; sometimes we commit sins of omission.

But he certainly didn’t omit the beer. Apparently when you barbecue, you need beer, so says the Book of, well, uh…

While my husband grilled, he drank beer and did a sudoku puzzle.

After fueling up the Weber grill with charcoal, he grabbed a slab of wood from an oak pallet and axed the piece into wood chips. I watched and uttered, “Thou shalt not cut off thy fingers,” or something similar.

Next he baptized the wood—total immersion style—and later tossed the sticks inside the hot-as-you-know-where grill.

Flipping the ribs, adding wood for a smoked flavor...

Some two hours later, after more stoking of the fire, tending of the pork and imbibing of beer (for me a strawberry margarita) we feasted on savory ribs, fresh baby red potatoes and corn-on-the-cob, in a meal fit for royalty.

And if gluttony is a sin, then on Saturday I sinned grievously.

Grilling pork ribs over charcoal and wood made for a savory meat.

Fresh baby red potatoes and sweetcorn, purchased at the Faribault Farmers' Market, rounded out the meal.

© Copyright 2010 Audrey Kletscher Helbling