Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Soup, salad & sandwiches at St. John’s March 12, 2014

SUNLIGHT FILTERS through the fellowship hall windows on an early Sunday afternoon in March. Outside the 40-degree temps feel balmy after a brutally cold and snowy Minnesota winter.

St. John's United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault.

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault, Minnesota.

I’ve left my coat in the van, drawing my sweater tight around me as I pause to photograph St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, before hurrying inside. The strong wind has a bite to it.

Salad options.

Salad options.

Inside, I grab a shiny silver tray, select a salad from choices on ice, pinch lettuce into a bowl and add toppings before placing the tray on a table to photograph the salad selections. While I do so, a teen ladles a generous scoop of Ranch dressing atop my lettuce salad.

Lynn, right, tends the potato soup in this duo scene of kitchen and fellowship hall.

Lynn, right, tends the potato soup in this duo scene, divided by a wall, of kitchen and fellowship hall.

Next, I move toward the kitchen serving window to consider the soup offerings—chicken noodle, potato bacon and bean. All homemade. I start with potato. Lynn fills my bowl.

Kim and Keith serve diners.

Kim and Keith serve diners.

Juggling camera and tray, I move down the line to the sandwiches. Kim and Keith are ladling soup, too, and refilling the sandwich tray.

Sandwich choices from ham to sausage to open face.

Sandwich choices from ham to sausage to open face.

I choose an open face sandwich topped with a mix of meat and chopped pickles.

My husband and I settle onto folding chairs at a table nearest the kitchen. I want easy access to photograph the scene, the moments that define this first of three Sunday Lenten soup luncheons at St. John’s.

I’ve been here before, often enough that parishioners welcome me into this country church east of Faribault just off Minnesota State Highway 60 along Jacobs Avenue.

My first tray of food.

My first tray of food.

I know the routine, too. Gather my food and then transfer bowls and sandwich onto a paper placemat so the trays are ready for the next diners.

Key food preparer Craig, carrying a coffee pot, right, says 60 -70 diners were served at Sunday's luncheon.

Key food preparer, organizer, church organist and co-youth leader, Craig, carrying a coffee pot, right, says 60 -70 diners were served at Sunday’s luncheon.

There’s something about familiarity and dining in the company of the faithful, the din of conversation and the clack of kitchen noises, that comforts as much as a hearty homemade soup.

Mandarin orange dessert awaits diners.

Mandarin orange dessert plated for delivery to diners.

For two evenings and a day prior, Craig and his mother, 88-year-old Elsie, and their neighbor, Lynn, have labored, preparing the three soups, the nine salads and the mandarin orange dessert. Parents of Youth Fellowship members brought the sandwiches.

This is a labor of love and of service—the chopping of onions, the soaking of beans, the dicing of ham, the mixing of homemade dumplings (by the octogenarian)…

Brandon dries dishes. The Youth Fellowship sponsors the soup and salad luncheons.

Brandon dries dishes. The Youth Fellowship sponsors the soup and salad luncheons.

In the kitchen, 13-year-old Brandon dries dishes beside his mother and Elsie. Others tend the soup, sandwiches, salad and dessert. Youth hustle to bring and refill beverages, to clear tables, to deliver dessert. Craig rushes to refill coffee pots and cups.

Bibles, florals and candles  decorated tables.

Bibles, florals and candles decorate tables.

I observe it all, from tabletop bible centerpieces opened to Psalms to the dainty floral pattern on church china to the stool I’ve seen Elsie use in the kitchen every time I’ve been here. She’s always in the kitchen.

The hardworking team.

The hardworking team.

This congregation works together, feeding diners like me who appreciate their efforts and the taste of great homemade food as much as this rural setting and fellowship.

Inside the church kitchen, that's Elsie standing next to her stool.

Inside the church kitchen, 88-year-old Elsie works next to her stool.

Once I’ve finished my first bowl of potato soup, I get a new bowl and a scoop of bean soup, followed by a second helping of potato. I pass on the third soup; I’m not a fan of either chicken soup or of dumplings.

As I finish my dessert, Kim and Keith join my husband and me to rest for a bit and eat lunch. We talk about kids and the horrible long winter and vehicles in ditches and the couple’s continually snow blown driveway and such. It’s a comfortable conversation.

Elsie, 88, enjoys a bowl of bean soup.

Elsie, 88, sits in the kitchen and enjoys a bowl of bean soup at the end of the luncheon.

Before we leave, I pop into the kitchen again and catch Elsie finally sitting down with a bowl of bean soup.

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FYI: If you’re interested in attending St. John’s next two soup luncheons, here are details:

The church is located at

The church is located at 19086 Jacobs Avenue, rural Faribault.

These will be your salad options.

These will be your salad options.

On the way out the door, study the Germanfest photos on the bulletin board:

St. John's UCC Germanfest is another must-attend annual event in September. Great food, entertainment, bingo, quilt show and more.

St. John’s UCC Germanfest is another must-attend annual event in September. Great food, entertainment, bingo, quilt show and more define this ethnic gathering.

And then purchase a jar of St. John’s famous homemade apple jelly or butter:

Beautiful and savory St. John's apple jelly.

Beautiful and savory St. John’s apple jelly.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Grassroots dining: Church dinners are the best March 28, 2011

GIVEN A CHOICE of eating at a church dinner or dining at a restaurant, I’ll choose the holy place. I appreciate the good home cooking and fellowship that comprise church dinners.

So Sunday my husband and I headed to St. John’s United Church of Christ in Wheeling Township, about a 15-minute drive from Faribault, for a Lenten Soup Luncheon.

 

St. John's United Church of Christ is northeast of Faribault about two miles off State Highway 60 on Rice County Road 24 near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park.

As soon as I stepped inside the fellowship hall attached to the old stone church and saw the spread, I regretted that I’d snacked on a doughnut at my church only an hour earlier.

This luncheon offered soups, salads, sandwiches and bars. A regular smorgasbord with nine salad and three soup options and, well, I didn’t count the varieties of bars but suffice to say any chocolate lover would have been happy.

 

Some of the bars offered for dessert. I tried the bar with the marshmallow topping on the back left.

Salads like tuna pasta, tangy rhubarb squares and 3-bean, and the spinach-strawberry I chose, awaited diners who could select plated salads and/or build their own.

 

Even the salad bar sign grabbed my attention. How cute and eye-catching and kitschy.

The plated and build-your-own salad bar fills two tables in the dining hall.

A few of the salad bar choices, including a tangy rhubarb square on the right in this photo.

After I’d selected my salad and placed it on a fancy silver tray, I headed to the kitchen where cooks were ladling potato-bacon chowder, hamburger vegetable soup and chicken noodle with dumpling soup from large roasting pans into hefty bowls.

 

The busy-as-a-beehive kitchen crew at St. John's United Church of Christ.

Volunteers were ready with roasters full of soups in the kitchen.

I started with the potato and eventually sampled the other two. The creamy and savory potato was my hands-down favorite, although I also appreciated the spicy kick to the hamburger veggie. I’ve never been big on chicken noodle soup or dumplings. The chicken soup is served at every Lenten Soup Luncheon the church hosts. Oyster stew and chili will be the other featured soups at the last luncheon from 11:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 10.

 

The Lenten Soup Luncheon sign posted by the kitchen. The final luncheon is from 11:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. on Sunday, April 10.

A diner's tray (not mine) that includes a bowl of chicken noodle soup with dumplings.

Church dinners are all about food and fellowship. I scored an invitation to visit a farm with a robotic milking operation while visiting with church members at my table.

Of course, no church dinner is complete without bread, so diners were offered an array of sandwiches. I inquired about the ground concoction on an open-faced sandwich, was told it was bologna and pickles, paused, thought, and picked it up. And you know, for someone who doesn’t really care for bologna, I liked the spread.

 

Plenty of sandwich choices like ham, tuna and, yes, even ground bologna and pickles were offered.

Except for lutefisk, I’ve never tasted a church dinner I didn’t like.

I notice and appreciate details like the lovely floral dishware. My husband and I learned that once you carry your food to your table on the fancy silver tray, you're supposed to take your plates and bowls off the tray and servers will pick it up for others to use. We even had big, hefty soup spoons for eating our soups. Now that impressed me.

 

There's no specific cost for the St. John's Lenten Soup Luncheon, which benefits the youth fellowship group, helping members finance mission trips and more. Cost for the meal is whatever you choose to donate. Just drop your money in the bucket before picking up a fancy silver tray at the salad bar.

FYI: Click here for more information about St. John’s United Church of Christ, 19086 Jacobs Avenue, located near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park, rural Faribault. Watch for a future post featuring photos of the church interior and exterior.

PLEASE SUBMIT A COMMENT and tell me about a church dinner you enjoy and why.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling