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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The circus connection to a Massachusetts university May 23, 2017

A sculpture of Jumbo the elephant (in the background) looms over attendees at the Tufts University 2016 commencement. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

WHEN RINGLING BROS & Barnum & Bailey Circus performed its last “Greatest Show on Earth” in New York state this past Sunday, my thoughts immediately shifted to Tufts University in neighboring Massachusetts.

Why?

 

On graduation day 2016, students and others gather at a recently installed new Jumbo sculpture on campus. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

Because an elephant is the mascot at Tufts University in Somerville/Medford.

So what?

Well, there’s a connection to the circus. P.T. Barnum and Jumbo the elephant hold historic importance at this elite private research university. Barnum was an early Tufts trustee and benefactor who donated the stuffed hide of Jumbo to the college. For nearly 90 years, Jumbo was on exhibit at Barnum Hall until a fire destroyed both in 1975. Now the famous elephant’s ashes are kept in a peanut butter jar in the athletic director’s office.

 

Posted on an athletic field fence at Tufts University. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

Despite the loss of the original Jumbo and changing attitudes toward circuses and the treatment of elephants, this mighty mammal remains Tufts’ adored mascot. I’m good with that because this university has established the Tufts Elephant Conservation Alliance to save elephants and to educate on the topic.

 

The commencement ceremony begins at The School of Engineering, Tufts University in May 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

So why do I, as a Minnesotan, take any interest in this when I’ve never been to the circus or, up until a few years ago, had never heard of Tufts? Well, my son graduated from Tufts last May with a computer science degree and now continues to live and work in the Boston area.

 

Picnic lunches served after the 2016 commencement were bagged in Jumbo stamped bags. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

During his three years as a transfer student into Tufts, I fell hard for the Jumbo mascot, although not hard enough to purchase a spendy Tufts Mom t-shirt or sweatshirt. But when my husband and I attended Caleb’s college graduation at this time a year ago, I got my Jumbo fix on campus.

 

Caleb poses in front of the Tufts’ sculpture of Jumbo. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo May 2016.

 

I couldn’t help but consider that on Sunday, the date the circus closed out its 146-year history at that final show in New York, a new group of Jumbos was graduating from Tufts University and posing next to the iconic elephant sculpture on campus.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The highs & lows of a 3,000-mile road trip June 10, 2016

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Traveling on Interstate 90 somewhere in upstate New York.

Traveling on Interstate 90 somewhere in upstate New York. This is one beautiful state.

MAKING A CROSS COUNTRY road trip isn’t easy. It’s especially grueling when you’re under a schedule with minimal time to stop except for gas, bathroom breaks, and to eat, sleep and pay tolls.

Although we spotted many signs directing us toward New York City, we did not go that way.

Although we spotted many signs directing us toward New York City, we did not go that way.

Despite the challenges, there’s a certain sense of adventure and accomplishment in completing a long-distance journey. It’s a great way to see the country. My husband and I traveled 3,029 miles on a late May road trip from Minnesota to Massachusetts and back. I’ve already taken you to our destinations of Somerville and Medford.

Ohio is a big state to traverse from west to east. Be ware of state troopers here. They were thick on the Interstate, the highest number we saw in any of the nine states we drove through.

Ohio is a big state to traverse from west to east. Be ware of state troopers here. They were thick on the Interstate, the highest number we saw in any of the nine states we drove through.

Now it’s time to take you other places.

Finally, after 2 1/2 days of travel, we reached Massachusetts.

Finally, after 2 1/2 days of travel, we reached Massachusetts.

But before I do that, here’s a summary of trip highs and lows:

Our room at the Super 8 Motel in Princeton, Illinois, where we met Carl, the desk clerk. See that picture of the Chicago skyline? Carl once worked in the second building from the right. We loved Carl.

Our room at the Super 8 Motel in Princeton, Illinois, where we met Carl, the desk clerk. See that picture of the Chicago skyline? Carl once worked in the second building from the right. We loved Carl. The quiet room overlooked a field and the John Deere dealership. Total cost: $66.81.

Highlights:

Road construction was expected. Everywhere.

Road construction was expected and endured. Everywhere.

Lowlights:

  •  Road construction.
  •  Toll booths.
  •  Too many dead deer along the Interstates, especially in Pennsylvania with New York coming in second.
  •  Hotels that allow smoking.
  •  A less than welcoming Illinois hotel clerk who refused to give us an AARP discount because the hotel “had met its quota for the night.” I’ve  never heard  of this before. We didn’t believe him and left. He had a bad overall attitude.
  •  Cleaning an apartment kitchen used by college students.
  •  Getting lost in a really bad part of Buffalo, New York, for 1 ½ hours.
  •  Crazy and dangerous drivers in Buffalo.
  •  Failing to see Niagra Falls once we reached the general falls area only to encounter road construction and no directions how to get to the American side of the falls.
  •  Morning rush hour in Hartford, Connecticut, on a rainy Monday.
  •  Nearly being hit head-on when a vehicle crossed the center line on a state highway in Iowa.
  •  Too many miles (600 driven one day) and not enough sleep.

FYI: Check back next week as I showcase specific places from our trip.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Minnesotan’s impression of Davis Square in Somerville June 9, 2016

Banners mark Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Banners mark Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts.

UP UNTIL RECENTLY, I was unfamiliar with squares. Not as in geometric shapes, but as in a geographical location in a city. When my son, who lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, would talk about Davis, Harvard and Porter Squares, I pictured a park-like setting centering cultural events.

A streetscape in Davis Square.

A streetscape in Davis Square.

Well, a square is not exactly or solely that. Rather, the two squares I visited (Davis and Porter) recently are the convergence of about a half-dozen streets with businesses surrounding them. These seem city versions of small town Main Streets with a mix of retail, restaurants, professional, service and entertainment oriented businesses and nonprofits packed into a compact area.

A biker squeezes around a bus in busy Davis Square.

A biker squeezes around a bus in busy Davis Square.

Sure, there’s a bricked area with picnic and patio tables, benches, trees and art in Davis Square. But lacking are the lawn, abundance of flowers and water features I expected. Hard surfaces handle the heavy pedestrian, bike and vehicle traffic that make this place visually chaotic for a rural Minnesotan like me.

A snapshot of pedestrian traffic.

A snapshot of pedestrian traffic.

When my husband, son and I—all native Minnesotans—waited for the “walk” signal to cross a street, we found ourselves standing alone while others hurried around us, intent on getting wherever they were going. Pedestrians obviously rule here. People just step right in front of vehicles, seemingly oblivious that they could be struck. That, more than anything, scared me during a recent trip to greater Boston.

Mass transit is a necessity in this densely populated metro area.

Mass transit is a necessity in this densely populated metro area.

As for the converging streets in the square, you better know where you’re driving. Sort of like roundabouts but not, these intersections are confusing to someone unfamiliar with the streets and how the traffic pattern works. I understand why public transportation, available at the squares, is the preferred way of getting around.

On a beautiful late May afternoon, we chose to dine outside The Boston Burger Company.

On a beautiful late May afternoon, we chose to dine outside The Boston Burger Company.

That all said, I enjoyed people-watching in Davis Square where the three of us dined at The Boston Burger Company late on a Monday afternoon.

The 420 burger was way too thick to fit in my mouth.

The 420 burger was way too thick to fit in my mouth.

I ordered the 420 burger (mozzarella sticks, fried mac & cheese, onion rings, fries, bacon, golden BBQ sauce and American cheese) available at 4:20 for $4.20.

That sandwich board would be for a burger.

That sandwich board would be for a burger.

And, yes, 420 was explained to me as I was totally clueless that it references cannabis. Anyone who knows me well would also be surprised that I actually ate a burger.

My son let me sample his King burger. I loved it. And the beans were great, too. Authentic Boston baked perhaps?

My son let me sample his The King burger. I loved it. And the beans were great, too. Authentic Boston baked perhaps?

The husband, as I expected, ordered his predictable burger, one topped with blue cheese. The son chose The King, a burger featuring peanut butter, bacon and a fried banana dusted in cinnamon and sugar. It was delicious.

I regret not taking the time to step inside this theatre.

I regret not taking the time to step inside this theatre.

I’d highly recommend dining outside The Boston Burger Company across from the Somerville Theatre for a front row seat to people-watching. I was thoroughly entertained.

Most cyclists take biking safety seriously. And they should given the heavy vehicle traffic.

Most cyclists take biking safety seriously. And they should given the heavy vehicle traffic.

The list of characters was ever-changing. From the inebriated man whom we worried was about to pee in public, to the young man dribbling a basketball, to the cyclist businessman with his pants legs rolled up to the woman with crimson hair to the chain of daycare kids to the man shouting to himself, I could have penned a dozen stories prompted by the people I saw.

I noticed lots of kids with their parents when I was at Davis Square.

I noticed lots of kids with their parents when I was at Davis Square.

One thing was particularly noticeable to me. With the exception of parents and their kids, I noticed few people interacting. It was as if all these individuals crossing Davis Square were in their own little worlds, en route to wherever they needed to be. The pace was hurried. The scene reminded me of the ants in the Ant Hill Farm my oldest brother had as a kid.

This is the most unusual cyclist I saw with his son riding in front.

This is the most unusual cyclist I saw.

I understand that those who frequent this area may not view Davis Square as I did on a late Monday afternoon in late May. And that’s OK. I was, after all, simply a visitor from Minnesota not widely-traveled outside the Midwest.

BONUS ART PHOTOS:

This colorful art creatively disguises a utility box. I love this type of street art.

This colorful art creatively disguises a utility box. I love this type of street art.

One of two sculptures I spotted.

One of two sculptures I spotted. The bronze masks on the Davis Square sculptures were installed after the original sculptures were vandalized. The sculptures are based on actual people who lived in the Square area.

I spotted this sign while dining, but then forgot to check out the park once I finished my burger.

I spotted this sign while dining, but then forgot to check out the park once I finished my burger.

Lucky for us, there was room to park in one of the public parking lots late on a Monday afternoon.

Lucky for us, there was room to park in one of the public parking lots late on a Monday afternoon. That’s where I photographed the colorful car art.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Exploring a greater Boston neighborhood from a Minnesotan’s perspective June 8, 2016

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Porches front mostly well-kept houses in the neighborhood near Powder House Square and Tufts University.

Porches front well-kept houses in the neighborhood near Powder House Square.

WELCOMING FRONT PORCHES grace nearly every home in the neighborhood where my son lives in Somerville, Massachusetts near Tufts University.

Balconies or enclosed porches extend from most second floors.

Balconies or enclosed porches extend from most second floors.

Likewise, second floor balconies front nearly every home.

Perennials were in bloom in many yards when I visited in late May.

Perennials were in bloom in many yards when I visited in late May.

Both are necessities in a neighborhood with minimal green space, not enough to call a lawn or a yard by Minnesota standards. I would be surprised if many homeowners have lawnmowers. Bushes, plants and even artificial turf fill the slim lines of land between houses and sidewalks.

I noticed signs like this around Powder House Square.

I noticed signs like this around Powder House Square. Words printed in the blue circle read: “Municipal Freedom Gives National Strength, Somerville, Mass.”

There are no boulevards. Narrow sidewalks trace next to the street. Asphalt circles trees. The lack of land, of space between homes, is especially evident to me, a rural Minnesotan used to lots of elbow room. Everything feels cramped in this neighborhood of old homes.

The most colorful house I spotted in the neighborhood.

The most colorful house I spotted in the neighborhood.

Noticeably absent are FOR SALE signs on these mostly three-story aged houses, many of them parceled into apartments. Up until recently, my son was paying $850/month rent for the second and third floors of a house apartment shared with three other college students. He’s now subleasing a place nearby for $700/month for the summer.

I was delighted to find a Little Free Library near my son's apartment.

I was delighted to find a Little Free Library near my son’s apartment.

A local noted that houses in the neighborhood are passed down from generation to generation. He lives in his in-law’s house; they live in Florida. I suspect families are hesitant to sell because such a decision means they could never afford to live here again.

A lot of the homes have this barn roof design.

A lot of the homes have this barn roof design.

Most of the homes in this area between Tufts and Powder House Square are similar in design. The barn-like roof lines present a comforting, welcoming and homey appearance. At least to me, a farm-raised woman.

Residential streets in my son's neighborhood are one-way. I can't fathom how residents managed in the recent winter of record snowfall.

Residential streets in my son’s neighborhood are one-way. I can’t fathom how residents managed in the recent winter of record snowfall.

But I didn’t feel welcome here when I learned that my husband and I couldn’t park our van on the street in front of our son’s apartment for three days without a permit. After driving nearly 1,500 miles from Minnesota, parking rules were the last thing I wanted to encounter. But I suppose such regulations are necessary given the lack of space in neighborhoods. Residents are discouraged from owning a second vehicle. Parking is a challenge in this densely populated area.

Miscellaneous whatever on the back of a street sign by Powder House Square.

Miscellaneous whatever on the back of a street sign by Powder House Square.

The son reminded me several times that “It’s not like in Minnesota where you can drive right up to a store.” Or someone’s house. Many residents rely on their own two feet, bikes or public transportation—the “T” or the bus—to get them places.

Could I live in the Boston metro? Maybe if I was 20-something. But now? No. I need space.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Walking around the Tufts’ neighborhood the day after graduation June 7, 2016

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Art on a utility box by campus.

Art on a utility box by campus.

THE MORNING AFTER MY SON’S recent graduation from Tufts University in Medford/Somerville, Massachusetts, life was back to normal.

 

Snapshots, 331 construction workers in Medford, MA.

 

Construction workers labored on a campus building project while a police officer stood nearby to stop traffic if needed. His Boston accent matched every preconceived notion I held of a Boston accent. Thick. Unpronounced “r’s.” Perfect Boston diction to my Minnesota ears.

 

Snapshots, 334 watering dog in Meford, MA.

 

On this Monday morning while my son attended appointments, my husband and I walked around his neighborhood and lunched at a campus coffee shop on a busy street corner. I people-watched. The construction workers. The cop. A young woman who pulled a water bowl and water bottle from her backpack to hydrate her dog on a street corner.

 

Snapshots, 338 congrats on house in Somerville, MA.

 

After lunch we walked around the neighborhood, skirting smelly garbage cans on the narrow sidewalk while also surveying the broken furniture, rolled rugs and assorted goods emptied from college students’ apartments. Parents filled car trunks and U-Hauls. A college co-ed carried boxes from campus to a new off-campus apartment.

 

Snapshots, 343 scavenging Somerville, MA.

 

And, in the street, a woman rolled a cart bulging with can-filled garbage bags and assorted loot from all the graduation parties the day prior.

 

Snapshots, 337 grad napkin on ground Somerville, MA.

 

I noted the residue of those celebrations—a stray napkin, a congrats banner stretching across a porch, a commencement banner still hanging from a post.

 

Snapshots, 349 carvimg on tree

 

And, etched into the bark of a hillside tree, I noticed names. Knifed there by college students, I suppose. Not just this year. But through the years.

 

Snapshots, 346 house on hill Medford, Ma.

 

The day sparkled with the kind of light that is bright and sharp and new, as in this is spring, your kid has finished college, new.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Touring Tufts University in greater Boston June 6, 2016

Tufts melds almost seamlessly into the residential neighborhoods of Medford and Somerville.

Tufts melds almost seamlessly into the residential neighborhoods of Medford and Somerville.

PRIOR TO MY SON considering Tufts University as a potential transfer college three years ago, I’d never heard of this Massachusetts university. But Caleb had done his research, followed by a flight to Boston to explore three colleges there. All three eventually accepted him, with Tufts offering a financial aid package that would allow him to afford an education at the Medford/Somerville campus.

Caleb and Randy climb Memorial Steps, in honor of Tufts' war dead, to the campus. There are a lot of steps.

Caleb and Randy climb Memorial Steps, in honor of Tufts’ war dead, to the main campus.

I shall always be grateful to the benefactor who gave my son this opportunity to learn at a highly-ranked student-centered research university. Caleb needed the challenges Tufts offered. He needed to leave the Midwest. He needed a place like Tufts.

I zoomed in on the Boston skyline from the patio roof of Tisch Library.

I zoomed in on the Boston skyline from the patio roof of Tisch Library.

After visiting Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus for the first time the day before commencement, I understood why Caleb loves this university. The college, set atop a hill and with a spectacular view of the distant Boston skyline from the roof of Tisch Library, is stunningly impressive.

Eaton Hall

The political science, sociology and classics departments, among other offices, are located in Eaton Hall.

A newer building on campus.

A newer building on campus.

New construction is underway on campus, as seen to the right in this photo. That's the John Hancock building in the distant Boston skyline.

New construction is underway on campus, as seen to the right in this photo. That’s the John Hancock building in the distant Boston skyline.

Aged buildings define the campus, although newer ones also stand and are under construction.

This new Jumbo sculpture was recently installed on campus.

This new Jumbo sculpture was recently installed at Tufts. It’s a popular spot for photo ops.

Tufts (with four campuses) was established in 1852 and has an enrollment of nearly 12,000 students. It’s mascot is Jumbo the elephant of circus fame. President Barack and Michelle Obama’s daughter Malia toured Tufts in March 2015, settling later on Harvard University in next-door Cambridge as her college choice. Noted individuals like Meredith Vieira, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Michlle Kwan are Tufts alum.

Ballou Hall, built 1852-54.

Ballou Hall, built 1852-54. Graduation ceremonies were held on the adjacent green.

Goddard Chapel, built in 1883.

Goddard Chapel, built in 1883.

Beautiful stained glass windows and dark wood dominate Goddard Chapel.

Beautiful stained glass windows and dark wood define Goddard Chapel.

The Gifford House, home to the college president.

The Gifford House, home to the college president.

Given my appreciation for old buildings and lovely architecture, I loved the historic feel of Tufts. There’s something comforting and storied about structures that have existed for a long time. There’s an ongoing connection to generations of students who’ve walked these halls and this campus under a canopy of trees with spacious green space, seemingly a premium in the greater Boston neighborhoods I saw during my late May visit.

I adore the reading room in the Edwin Ginn Library at The Fletcher School.

The Edwin Ginn Library at The Fletcher School looks like something out of a movie set. Oh, to study here. And my son did.

A sculpture on campus.

A sculpture on campus.

Posted on an athletic field fence.

Posted on an athletic field fence.

It is easy to love Tufts.

Caleb spent a lot of time here, in the computer lab.

Caleb spent a lot of time here, in the computer lab.

I understand why, at age 22, my son likes living in greater Boston. This metro area teems with young people. There’s a certain vibe, a constant hum, a busyness that prevails. People are walking/hurrying everywhere. The mass transit system makes getting around easy.

My son and I pose atop the Tisch Library with the Boston skyline as a backdrop.

My son and I pose atop the Tisch Library with the Boston skyline as a backdrop.

It’s not a place I would choose to live. But it is, for now, my son’s home. And although I don’t like having him 1,400 miles away, I have accepted that he lives here, too far from Minnesota, in a city he loves.

FYI: Check back for a tour of a neighborhood surrounding Tufts.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling