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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From the Minnesota northwoods: The charm & quirks of Park Rapids September 25, 2017

An array of shops pack downtown Park Rapids. A July 24 fire damaged the iconic marquee at Park Theatre, right.

 

“IT’S NISSWA ON STEROIDS,” I told my friend Sharon in describing Park Rapids, a resort town just to the north of her Minnesota home. She laughed. Both communities pack shops and tourists. But Park Rapids in Hubbard County is home to around 4,000 permanent residents. Sixty miles away in Crow Wing County, Nisswa’s population is half that. Add in the seasonal populations, though, and those numbers grow significantly.

 

At Smoky Hills Art Gallery, I discovered this lovely mural.

 

I toured both towns on a recent trek north with my husband for a book release party and my first-ever stay at a northwoods Minnesota lake cabin. Each community holds characteristics that make it unique and memorable.

 

Rain fell all afternoon during our Park Rapids visit.

 

For Park Rapids, it’s “the small town with the extra wide Main Street.” And the local tourism folks aren’t exaggerating with that tag. When we turned into downtown, I observed a parking lot of vehicles jammed into the business district. Vehicles parked diagonally curbside along both sides. But in the middle of this extra wide Main Avenue, two rows of vehicles also parked parallel. The unusual parking made quite the impression. I would later learn from a shopkeeper that the original town founders built the street wide to accommodate oxen drawn wagons.

 

I noticed, and appreciate, the beautiful potted plants that line the sidewalks in downtown.

 

 

 

On this rainy Friday afternoon, minimal extra space existed as seemingly everyone was in Park Rapids for the day rather than on nearby lakes. And being in town meant shopping and dining at businesses lining several blocks.

 

I love capturing the nuances of small towns, like this barbershop image.

 

Typically I don’t like shopping. But I managed to spend an entire afternoon ducking in and out of shops to peruse merchandise ranging from tourist kitsch to books to antiques to crafts to original art and much more. Because of the rain, I left my good camera (my Canon DSLR) in the van. That marked my major disappointment as Park Rapids offers so much to photograph. The smartphone camera would have to do on this visit.

 

Recommended as a place to dine, the logging camp was closed for the season.

 

There are dining options aplenty from bars to fancier restaurants and in between.

 

My heaping bowl of Chicken Wild Rice Hotdish with salad and bread on the side.

 

But before the merchandise browsing began, we needed to eat. We’d gotten several recommendations, but landed in a booth at The Good Life Cafe after a brief wait. Oh, my gosh, I cannot rave enough about the creamy and savory Wild Rice Hotdish described as vegetables parched with wild rice, cooked slow in vegetable stock and finished with mushrooms in a parmesan cream sauce topped with toasted almonds. This dish, with chicken added for a few dollars more, is divine, absolutely one of the best restaurant foods I’ve ever eaten. Randy ordered the Beer Cheese Pretzel Burger and was also impressed.

 

 

Fueled by fantastic food, we began our exploration of downtown Park Rapids with Ben Franklin as one of our first stops. I grew up with this five-and-dime, now a Main Street rarity. It still offers an eclectic collection of goods. But prices are, as you would expect, no longer nickel and dime low. I appreciated the opportunity to walk through this store and remember Ben Franklin as I once knew it.

 

 

I chose to skip the local pawn shop after noticing a sign outside the door that advised customers to PLEASE UNLOAD GUN AND REMOVE SKI MASK BEFORE ENTERING. Randy entered. I moved onto the next-door gift shop.

 

 

Upon the recommendation of friends, we both popped into Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks which specializes in an assortment of flavored popcorns made on-site. Samples entice customers to buy, which we did—their top-selling caramel popcorn. I also favored the puppy chow (peanut butter/chocolate/powdered sugar) flavor.

 

 

As the afternoon wound down and our energy waned, we had one more stop, at the Minnesoda Fountain, an old-fashioned 1950s ice cream parlor.

 

 

Still full from lunch, we didn’t need the blueberry shake we shared. But when you’re on vacation, such indulgences require no excuses.

 

Please check back for additional vacation posts, including one on Nisswa.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My first stay at an Up North Minnesota lake cabin September 22, 2017

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THROUGH THE PLEATED SHADES, lightning flashed like a strobe light outside the cabin. Soon thunder rumbled, not loud and crashing, but slow and ramping in volume. I willed myself to shut out the light, the sound, to fall asleep here in this place nestled in jackpines along the shore of a lengthy lake four hours from my southeastern Minnesota home.

 

Downtown Park Rapids features two rows of parallel parking down the middle of the street and diagonal parking curbside on both sides.

 

Randy and I arrived in a flush of rain after an afternoon in Park Rapids, a resort town abundant in shops and quirky in its center of the street parking. Already I loved this place, despite the grey skies and near constant rain.

Yet, this was not my vision of our first-ever stay at a Minnesota northwoods cabin. But when you can’t control the weather, you can either choose disappointment or embrace the situation. And I was determined to make the best of our visit with friends Jackie and Rick.

 

Jackie, right, took this selfie of the two of us. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.

 

When Jackie invited us to their cabin, I accepted with the enthusiasm of someone who has always wanted to experience this quintessential Minnesota activity of “going Up North to the cabin.” Our friends made us feel as comfortable as if we were family and long-time friends. We are neither. I met Jackie several years ago after connecting with her via blogging. She and Rick live some 40 miles from us in Rochester. Jackie is a nurse by profession and a blogger with strong photography skills.

 

Randy and I, left, with Jackie and Rick. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.

 

We joke that we could be sisters given our shared interests in photography, barns, cemeteries, country churches, small towns, gravel roads and much more. We are women of faith, mothers of three, grandmothers and wives who are grateful for loving and supportive husbands of 35 years. We each birthed sons who weighed nearly 11 pounds. Jackie beat me by two ounces.

Mostly, though, we have that natural connection of conversing with ease, of laughing and enjoying each others’ company in a developing friendship. Previously, the four of us had gotten together briefly several times. This weekend at the cabin would forge our evolving friendship.

 

With Rick at the wheel, we head across the lake. Photo courtesy of Jackie Hemmer.

 

Given the weather, we mostly sheltered inside the cabin peering through spacious windows toward the grey lake and rainy skies. We laughed and talked with barely a lull in the conversation. When the weather broke for a bit Saturday morning, I suggested a boat ride. I surprised all of them. I had to overcome a general uncomfortableness on water to board a boat.

 

As the boat picks up speed, waves trail behind.

 

I appreciate that Jackie and Rick honored my request that we not venture too far from shore. Eventually I felt comfortable enough to ask Rick to increase the boat speed. The distractions of my camera and Rick’s history tour of the lake along with Jackie’s encouragement made for a pleasant ride. There’s something to be said for friends who are supportive and loving.

 

Watching Randy relax and unwind from work gave me much joy. We needed this vacation.

 

That evening, after dining on grilled steak, we clustered around the dining room table for a game of Outburst. Boys against girls. We laughed and talked and laughed some more between munching on caramel corn from Molly Poppin’s Gourmet Snacks in Park Rapids. Before 11, we were off to bed and I slept well without rumbling thunderstorms.

 

Only a few boats were on the lake Saturday morning.

 

As wonderful as the cabin experience was, I had hoped to spot a loon. Sunday morning while looking across the lake, I noticed a black floating shape with the seeming distinctive curve of a loon. Jackie handed me binoculars while she fetched her glasses. Through the lenses, we confirmed a loon sighting. It would have to do—this lone loon in the distance. I was thrilled.

 

A grouping of loons. Photo by Jackie Hemmer.

 

That evening, hours after our mid-morning departure, Jackie texted a photo of seven loons with this message: Saw about 15 loons on the lake tonight just beautiful!

 

 

Just beautiful. That summarizes, too, our weekend stay with friends who blessed us with a delightful time at their Up North cabin.

 

FYI: Click here to read Jackie’s blog, “Who Will Make Me Laugh.”

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photos by Jackie Hemmer are also copyrighted and used with her permission as noted.

 

Back from the Minnesota northwoods September 19, 2017

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Jackie Hemmer photographed me shooting lake scenes while on a boat ride on a lake south of Park Rapids. My husband and I were weekend cabin guests of Jackie and her husband, Rick.

 

WORDS TOOK ME to the northwoods of Minnesota. To a friend’s cabin. To a lake. To a book release party.

I am home now six days later, my suitcase emptied, tucked back in the closet.

But now the words and images of those days mingle memories of small towns explored, of laughter and good conversations shared, of a boat trailing waves and a loon on a lake, of wild rice hotdish and Gull Dam good beer.

Stories. There are so many stories waiting to be written.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Photo courtesy of my friend, Jackie Hemmer, who shares her words and photos at “Who will make me laugh.” Please check out Jackie’s blog post about our friendship and recent visit by clicking here.

 

Near Menahga: “The perfect recipe for a fire” May 16, 2013

It's easy to understand how fire could race through acres of pines under hot, dry and windy conditions. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Itasca State Park.

It’s easy to understand how fire could race through acres of pines under hot, dry and windy conditions. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo from Itasca State Park, used for illustration purposes only and not within the Green Valley Fire area.

HUNDREDS OF MILES removed from the Green Valley Fire raging in the Park Rapids/Menahga area of northwestern Minnesota, I cannot even fathom the challenges faced by firefighters, the fears experienced by residents.

My connection to the region comes via the co-editor of a literary journal, The Talking Stick, in which I’ve been published several times. Late Wednesday afternoon I emailed Sharon Harris of rural Menahga, concerned about her and extended family who live nearer Park Rapids than Menahga.

The fire came within two miles of Harris’ home and that of her mother, sister and niece. They had to evacuate their pets—cats and dogs—to a local animal clinic. Without a trailer, though, Harris’ niece had to leave her horses behind.

“We were lucky,” says Harris, who was able to return to her home and sleep overnight after evacuating her pets.

Not so fortunate were those who lost their homes—at last count 12 homes, two commercial properties and 43 outbuildings in Hubbard and Wadena counties, according to information posted at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on the Minnesota Incident Command System website.

Harris, who works in Menahga at the First National Bank of Menahga and Sebeka, says many bank customers lost their homes.

The fire, which has reportedly burned through a pine stand of 7,100 acres, is 25 percent contained, according to the most recent information posted by the MNICS Wednesday evening. Click here to read details.

Harris, off work due to a family medical situation, drove to Menahga late Wednesday evening to catch up on work. She writes:

So much smoke still in the air in the area where the wildfire jumped Highway 71. It is right around Blueberry Golf Course and the Hubbard County/Wadena County line where it crossed. I guess the golf course is okay, amazingly. So it will be Friday before I drive to Menahga in the daytime and will be able to see any damages.

She remembers well the weather conditions on Tuesday, the day the fire began around 3 p.m. and then quickly spread to the area north of Menahga. Harris says:

I have never felt such a wind that day (Tuesday). When I drove from Menahga to Park Rapids around 4 p.m. that day, the wind just buffeted my car all over the road. Crazy. The perfect recipe for a fire: so hot, so dry, and wild wind.

And, as often happens in the early, uncertain stages of a major wildfire, locals are speculating about its cause. “I heard that lightning started it. Before that, I heard that someone was doing a controlled burn and it got away from them…”

No matter the cause, the facts stand: Twelve homes destroyed. Two commercial properties gone. Forty-three outbuildings burned. Already.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Raising funds to preserve priceless paintings in Park Rapids August 27, 2012

BETWEEN NORTHWESTERN MINNESOTA and Chicago, you won’t find another art collection like the Gabor and Edith Nemeth Study Collection dating from the 15th to 19th centuries.

Now that “Old Masters” collection of 42 European paintings owned by the Nemeth Art Center in Park Rapids is in need of a permanent storage unit to preserve the valued art for future generations.

A campaign is currently underway to raise $1,200 for materials to construct a modular custom storage unit that will keep the paintings separated and vertical, thus preventing further damage. As of August 23, the NAC had raised $600 via an online campaign and direct contributions, according to NAC Executive Director Meredith Lynn.

Brian Stieler of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts has volunteered to design and build the storage structure. And representatives of the Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis have already been to Park Rapids to assess the collection and lay out plans for restoration.

“St. Jerome,” painted by a 17th century follower of Hendrik van Somer, and part of the collection.

About a third of the paintings require restoration, Lynn says, with several in such condition that they can no longer be exhibited. More than 30 of the pieces are continually on display (during the center’s open months from May – September) in the 1900 Victorian style brick courthouse turned art center which opened in 1977.

That was the year the historic and priceless collection of paintings, by students who studied well-known masters like Rembrandt, Rubens and Bosch, came to be owned by the then newly-established North Country Museum of Arts.

European born art restorer and dealer Gabor Nemeth, who came to the U.S. in the 1940s and worked thereafter primarily in Los Angeles, also maintained a home in the Park Rapids area (his primary residence now) and brought his collection to Minnesota in the mid 1970s.

After a three-day January 1977 exhibit of his collection in Park Rapids—a show which drew long lines of some 4,000 people total in the then town of 2,700, according to newspaper reports—Nemeth decided to offer the art to Park Rapids. Conjecture had long been that St. John’s University would be the recipient of the collection (for a reason unknown to Lynn; I asked).

In an article published in the May 2, 1977, issue of the Bemidji-based newspaper, The Pioneer, Nemeth is quoted: “There is really nothing up here as far as art goes. People will appreciate it (the collection) if they are given the chance to see it.”

“Adam and Eve,” a 17th century painting by a student of Cornelisz.

Clearly the people of Park Rapids realized the significance of Nemeth’s offer as 30 families borrowed $35,000 to purchase the paintings, a price “significantly less than the appraised value,” Lynn notes.

She won’t put a value on the paintings today other than to assess it’s “quite high.” Beyond the monetary value, the art center director calls the collection “historic and unique paintings with priceless cultural value.”

Speculation has existed that perhaps the masters themselves may have dipped their brushes into oil or tempera to work on paintings in the collection. The art center lays no official claim to that suggestion, although Lynn says, “…it’s possible that painters such as Rembrandt painted on several of the canvases that we own.”

The identities of whose who painted the pieces as part of a greater studio study setting are primarily lost to history, according to Lynn.

Many of the paintings were originally acquired for Lois Warschaw, an art collector and prominent political figure in Los Angeles, prior to ownership by Gabor Nemeth and his wife, Edith.

Today, as it always has, the Gabor and Edith Nemeth Study Collection centers the Nemeth Art Center, which opened in August 1977 after the Park Rapids community pulled together to purchase the paintings and remodel the courthouse into a center for the arts.

Says Lynn:

New visitors to the Nemeth Art Center are always pleasantly surprised by the beauty and historical relevance of our paintings. Park Rapids is a small town, but the arts community here is growing and hopefully our collection will help raise awareness of the town as an arts destination.

That’s exactly what Gabor Nemeth hoped for 35 years ago—that his collection of Old Masters paintings would draw tourists to this community in northwestern Minnesota. And it does. The collection includes works of biblical scenes like “Madonna and Child,” “Madonna of the Harpies,” “The Holy Family,” “Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane,” “Christ in the Wilderness,” and several genre paintings such as “Kitchen Scene” and “The Card Players.”

Today efforts also focus on preserving the collection via construction of the custom storage unit. With $600 more in contributions (as of August 23), the project can proceed.

But the art center’s goals go well beyond a storage fix. Options are under consideration to move into a handicapped accessible building with more consistent climate control. The center is also working on a seven-year plan to restore the study collection paintings.

Executive director Lynn summarizes the situation and needs:

The Nemeth Art Center is a unique institution, and this collection forms its backbone. Maintaining historic items is important and costly, and the NAC cannot provide the community with something so special without continued help.

“Portrait of a Noblewoman,” an 18th century painting by a follower of Rubens.

IF YOU’D LIKE to contribute to the storage unit fundraising effort, click here to reach the NAC storage unit project campaign on indiegogo.

Or visit the NAC website, by clicking here, for details and contact information.

To read a detailed history on The Gabor and Edith Nemeth Study Collection, click here to a presentation prepared by Steven R. Peterson with grant funding from the Region 2 Arts Council. Thanks to LouAnn Muhm, chairperson of the NAC Board of Directors, for directing me to this presentation, the source for some of the information cited in this post.

Special thanks to NAC Executive Director Meredith Lynn for answering my lengthy list of questions via email.

If you wish to view the Gabor and Edith Nemeth Study Collection, art center hours are from 10:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, May – September. Each month the NAC also features a curated exhibit of contemporary art in addition to pieces from its permanent collection.

Finally, check out the current “Rembrandt in America” exhibit now showing at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts by clicking here. Perhaps viewing that will inspire you to support efforts to preserve the priceless paintings in Park Rapids.

Images of paintings are courtesy of the Nemeth Art Center