Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

A rite of autumn in southern Minnesota: My sister’s soup party October 19, 2015

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Soup, 15 crocks of


CROCKPOTS BRIMMING WITH SOUPS and chili crammed the tables in a Waseca garage on a recent Saturday evening as my sister Lanae and her husband, Dale, hosted their annual Soup Party.


Soup, 42 crock close-ups


It is a rite of autumn, this gathering of family and friends to sample a soup smorgasbord. Each guest arrives with a crockpot of homemade soup or chili—this year 22 types ranging from Bourbon Chili to Chicken Fajita, Beer Cheese and many more tasty varieties.


Soup, 24 crocks 2


You can always count on Teresa to bring a crock of Oyster Stew from across the street. And Monica, my other sister, never deviates from her Broccoli Cheese Soup. Kristi, a particularly creative cook, prepared savory Dill Pickle and Hungarian Mushroom Soups.


All soups are labeled.

All soups are labeled.


My middle brother arrived this year from southwestern Minnesota with Mystery Meat and Ham Soup. He challenged guests to name the mystery meat for a $10 prize. It was alligator.


Soup, 17 bread


Soup, 21 cheese balls


Soup, 19 Bloody Finger Cookies


Food traditions extend beyond the soups. Julie from next door always brings bread, although this year not as much given she’s battling cancer. My sister the hostess always buys a mega container of cheese balls and dumps them into an orange tub. Monica always brings Bloody Finger Cookies.


Soup, 53 smell my feet sign


A sarcastic message chalked on a board in the garage.

A sarcastic message chalked on a board in the garage.


Soup, 57 hat swaying in tree


A talented floral designer, Lanae always decorates her home and yard with Halloween themed items—this year witches hats swaying from a tree, strategically placed pumpkins, Halloween signage and more.

Vintage metal trays hold soup samples scooped into Styrofoam cups.

Everything is ready. Vintage metal trays will hold soup samples scooped into Styrofoam cups.

In the backyard, my brother-in-law Dale builds and tends a campfire as guests retreat to talk and laugh and settle in after eating way too much soup and too many sweets.

As the sun sets in southern Minnesota, guests gather on the driveway and in the garage to sample soups and chili.

As the sun sets in southern Minnesota, guests gather on the driveway and in the garage to sample soups and chili.

It’s a memorable evening, an autumn tradition that connects family and friends through good food and conversation. Rarely have I missed Lanae and Dale’s Soup Party.

© Copyright 2015 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.


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


Saint Peter’s version of the Super Bowl January 29, 2013

IN THIS WEEK of Super Bowl XLVII, at least one Minnesota community has already tapped into the super sporting event hype to benefit the local arts community. And that happened in a way you likely would not expect, via Souper Bowl VII.

The hand-thrown pottery bowl I chose at the Souper Bowl for my chicken wild rice soup.

The hand-thrown pottery bowl I chose at the Souper Bowl for my chicken wild rice soup.

Saturday afternoon, my husband and I joined arts-loving diners at the St. Peter Community Center for soup served in hand-thrown pottery bowls. And the bowls were ours to keep at a cost of $12 each (or $8 per kid) for the art and the meal.

Six local potters gave of their time and talents to create 240 soup bowls for the luncheon of donated breads and soups—tomato basil, chicken wild rice and chili—cookies and beverages.

Joel Moline and Thalia Taylor kneading clay during a visit to the Clay Center in March 2012..

Joel Moline and Thalia Taylor kneading clay during a visit to the Clay Center in March 2012..

While I really do like soup, a lot, I appreciate even more the whole Souper Bowl concept. What a creative way to expose the arts to the general public while raising monies for the Arts Center of Saint Peter Clay Center programming. (Read a previous post about the Clay Center by clicking here.) The goal is to keep arts center activities “accessible, affordable and vibrant to the St. Peter community and surrounding region,” according to promotional information.

The selection of bowls remaining when we arrived at noon, an hour after doors opened.

The selection of bowls remaining when we arrived at noon, an hour after doors opened.

Choosing a bowl added a fun  element to the event. Here’s how the process worked for me: I narrowed my selection to my favorite color, green. But with only a few green bowls on the table and the hue I liked best in the hands of a debating diner, I faced a dilemma. Should I pick my second favorite green bowl or wait for this woman to decide between the two bowls she balanced in her hands?

A few green bowls sat among the mostly brown and blue ones.

A few green bowls sat among the mostly brown and blue ones.

I opted to wait, to hover, but not so close as to call attention to my interest in the green bowl. My game plan paid off when the woman finally set the green bowl down and walked away. I moved in for the fumble, snatching up the coveted prize. Touchdown.

Diners line up for soup or chili. Seconds could be had for a freewill donation.

Diners line up for soup or chili. Seconds could be had for a freewill donation.

My ever patient spouse waited nearby as I took a few photos before we entered the dining area and washed our bowls which were then filled, his with chili, mine with chicken wild rice. A volunteer behind the serving counter even heated my soup in the microwave when I told her it wasn’t hot enough. How’s that for Saint Peter nice? And Randy was invited to return for more soup since his bowl was somewhat small; he tried tasty tomato basil in the second quarter.

A soup server heated my soup in the microwave and then placed the hot bowl on a plate.

A soup server heated my soup in the microwave and then placed the hot bowl on a plate.

A few more photos later and we were dining, in the fine company of arts center board member Harry Hunt and his wife, Bonnie. Harry, who works in financial services, shared that he isn’t an artist, seeming even a bit apologetic about his lack of artistic talent. But I was quick to tell him he could certainly contribute to the arts board with his financial expertise.

The Arts Center of Saint Peter, 315 South Minnesota Avenue, St. Peter, Minnesota.

The arts center in downtown St. Peter, photographed on a visit there in March 2012.

Eventually, I turned our table talk to the March 1998 tornado in St. Peter which caused an estimated $300 million in property damage and claimed one life. I wanted to know if the Hunts had been affected by the tornado.

Bonnie recalled how they had been visiting family in the metro when they learned of the bad weather in southern Minnesota. “Well, let’s see if we have a home left,” she joked as the couple drove back toward St. Peter, unaware that a tornado had ravaged their community. They arrived to find their home on the edge of town destroyed. The Hunts rebuilt.

Today they laugh at an incident shortly after the disaster. Harry was working in the basement of their destroyed home when someone called down to announce the arrival of then Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson. Harry emerged from the basement and greeted the Governor: “Welcome to our open house.”

You can bet Randy and I appreciated the winning company and humor of the Hunts as much as the soup and the hand-thrown pottery bowls we took home from Saint Peter’s Souper Bowl.

Potter Missy Wood created this teapot for the Souper Bowl silent auction.

Potter Missy Wood created this teapot for the Souper Bowl silent auction.

HAVE YOU ATTENDED a fundraiser like this? Please share your experiences, thoughts and ideas. We can all learn from one another.

© Copyright 2013 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Food and (some) photos October 14, 2012

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DURING THE PAST 24 HOURS, I have eaten perhaps more food than I would consume in two days.

But three delicious food events fell on the same weekend and I was not about to skip any in the trio.

What I did skip, however, was photographing two of the three, forcing myself to leave my camera at home for one and in the van for the third, just in case. Anyone who knows me understands just how challenging camera abandonment is for me. But I did it, people, I did it.

Four of the 13 chilis/soups served at Lanae and Dale’s annual soup party.

So, instead of seeing photos from Saturday’s Fall Festival in downtown Faribault, which included a buffet of chili along Central Avenue, you will see photos only from my sister Lanae and her husband Dale’s ninth annual soup party Saturday evening.

You also will not see photos from the fall dinner I attended today at Trinity Lutheran Church, North Morristown. I hadn’t even entered the sanctuary when I was asked, “Do you have your camera?” Yesterday I heard the same question several times while strolling Central.

People have come to expect that I will always have my camera around my neck. It was time for me to break free of the camera. Besides, I’ve photographed both the Chili Contest and the Trinity dinner in the past and felt uninspired and maybe a bit lazy. (If you want to see photos from the 2011 church dinner, click here. For past images of the Fall Festival, click here.)

My floral designer sister always has her yard and house seasonally and beautifully decorated.

But, prior to scooping up soup in my sister’s garage, I shot a few photos inside and out and then put away my camera.

I hope you will be inspired by these photos to host an autumn soup party. Guests brought 13 soups/chilis like split pea, potato, Gunflint chili, white chili, minestrone, tomato and more in crockpots. Paired with homemade breads and sweetened with sweet treats, the soups and chilis presented a perfect meal for a fun-filled fall evening with family and friends.

The soup party started and ended with a backyard campfire. Here a few guests and host Dale gathered before we ate.

I was distracted from the food by this gigantic toad in my sister’s backyard.

Then 7-month-old Mychel and her mom arrived and I invited them for a quick photo shoot on the front steps because, well, how could I resist that sweet baby face?

And then I noticed the sweet baby shoes and how could I resist photographing the feet of mom and daughter?

The sweet baby shoot continued as Mychel walked with her mom toward the garage.

In the garage Mychel’s grandpa, Scott, left, and other guests eventually started filing through the soup line.

My niece Cortney and guest Sheila scoop up soup. Casual and warm attire are necessary for this event which is staged in the garage, driveway and backyard. Layers are added as the evening progresses and cold settles in.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


An evening at the Soup-er Bowl, Minnesota style March 12, 2012

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Diners lined up for samples of homemade soup in the fellowship hall of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Morristown, Sunday evening for the Cannon Valley Lutheran High School Soup-er Bowl.

“IT’S SAUSAGE, SHARON, not hot dogs.”

And so the debate waged at our table Sunday evening during the second annual Cannon Valley Lutheran High School Soup-er Bowl—Sharon, remembering how her mother stretched meals with hots dogs; others at our table laughing and telling her she was wrong about the hots dogs in the soup.

After the soup at the center of our conversation placed second in the competition, I sought out the soup maker, Bonnie Borchert, who had her hands immersed deep in soapy dishwater in the kitchen of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Morristown.

“What gave your soup that smokey flavor?” I asked Bonnie after praising her soup and congratulating her. In an agonizing decision, hers got my vote as the best soup.

“Three pounds of Polish sausage.”

There you go, Sharon. Polish sausage. Not hot dogs. No tangy vinegar either, as you suggested.

And so Bonnie took second with her Cheesy Potato Polish Sausage Soup, vying against six other soup makers.

Winner of the 2012 CVLHS Soup-er Bowl: Creamy Chicken Noodle Soup made by Steve LaMotte, representing Trinity Lutheran Church, Faribault.

Repeat contestant Steve LaMotte won the Soup-er Bowl with his Creamy Chicken Noodle Soup, the same soup which last year earned him a second place. Laced with homemade noodles and hefty chunks of chicken and vegetables, Steve’s savory and creamy soup could have passed as hotdish. It was that thick. He promises to return next year, but with a different soup.

The coveted trophy awarded to Steve LaMotte.

While the soups were the draw for those who love soup, like me, the Soup-er Bowl also serves as a fundraiser for CVLHS and as a social gathering. The din of conversation reached a deafening roar in the fellowship hall as diners filed in and settled in to sample the soups.

Good food. Lively conversation. Laughter.

What more could you want in small-town Minnesota on a Sunday evening?

Soup makers, including Steve LaMotte, right, served the soups to diners. The soup makers did not scoop up the soups they prepared. That was done intentionally to preserve the integrity of the voting process. One diner (aka my sister Lanae) voted for two soups. I considered hers a spoiled ballot.

And the kids, as kids will do, entertained themselves by running and swinging and jumping off/ on the table and chair racks under a mural of the women at the tomb on Easter morning.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Soup sampling at the Soup-er Bowl March 10, 2012

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Some of the soups served at the 2011 Soup-er Bowl.

GIVE ME A BOWL of soup—hot, thick, cheesy and packed with vegetables or savory, creamy tomato basil—almost any type will do except oyster or clam chowder.

My friend Mike knows how much I enjoy a good bowl of homemade soup, which is why he asked me recently to prepare a soup for a soup cook-off. But I was out of town on the day of the event and had to decline his invitation.

That was last weekend. This Sunday, March 11, the winners in local soup competitions at four area Lutheran churches advance to a Soup-er Bowl finale at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Morristown.

Cannon Valley Lutheran High School, of which Mike is the volunteer development director, is sponsoring the event where diners will sample eight soups for $5 and then vote for their favorite. I will be there, as I was last year.

Let me tell you, these soup makers can cook, which makes choosing a winner difficult. This year the offerings will include cheddar broccoli, potato ham, potato cheese/Polish sausage, plantation peanut, chicken noodle, cheesy potato, white chicken chili and creamy chicken noodle.

I see a lot of chicken in that list. Just, FYI, last year’s second place winner is returning with his creamy chicken noodle soup that included homemade noodles and hefty hunks of home-grown chicken. Honestly, I am not a big fan of chicken noodle soup, but I loved Steve’s soup. That says a lot right there.

Anyway, if you’re into soup, join me at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 404 W. Franklin St., Morristown, for the 5 p.m. Soup-er Bowl. You needn’t be Lutheran—all are welcome.

CLICK HERE to read a post about the 2011 Soup-er Bowl.

And click here to read a post about an annual soup party hosted by my sister Lanae and her husband, Dale.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Trying tofu at a soup party September 30, 2011

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Guests gather inside and outside a Waseca garage for an autumn soup party.

IT IS, FOR MY EXTENDED FAMILY, a rite of autumn in Minnesota.

The orange tub of cheese balls. My nieces’ bloody finger cookies. Julie’s homemade breads, still warm from the oven. Vintage trays stacked high. Crockpots, brimming with soup, crammed onto tables inside the garage. Sampling each soup or chili. And afterward, conversation and laughter around the backyard campfire.

Last Saturday night my sister Lanae and her husband Dale hosted their eighth annual soup party at their Waseca home for family and friends. For me, and many others, it’s a must-attend autumn event.

Tortellini with Italian Sausage Soup, left, and German Potato Salad and Creamy Corn with Jalapeno soups to the right in photo.

Homemade breads, this year crafted by Lanae and Dale's friends, Julie and Vicki.

Bloody finger cookies, a soup party tradition.

Sweatshirt weather on a day that transitions quickly from cool to cooler. Oranges and reds and yellows. Chili that bites and heats the innards. Comfort in the familiarity of Chicken Noodle Soup laced with thick, homemade noodles. Unfamiliarity in the Chinese Hot & Sour Soup among these mostly Germans more connected to the German Potato Salad Soup.

Trying tofu for the first time in that tasty Chinese soup.

Listening to my other sister share how her family detests the stench of the Broccoli Cheese Soup she brings every year.

Trading left-overs with Carol, who raves about my Black Bean Pumpkin Soup, which I don’t find all that great. I think I’m the winner, getting her Chicken Noodle Soup. Carols thinks she’s gotten the better end of the swap. It is a matter of opinion, a matter of taste preferences.

Crocks of soups and chilis are set up on tables inside the garage.

Vintage metal trays provide the perfect place to set bowls of soup/chili and other food.

Before the party, guests tell my sister what soup/chili they are bringing so she has labels ready to mark each soup on party night.

We don’t arrive expecting to like all of the soups and chilis—15 this year:

  • Chinese Hot & Sour
  • Reuben Chowder
  • Broccoli Cheese
  • Gunflint Chili
  • White Chili
  • Chocolate (yes, soup)
  • Lemon Orzo
  • Tortellini with Italian Sausage
  • German Potato Salad (yes, soup)
  • Ham & Bean
  • Creamy Corn with Jalapeno,
  • Pumpkin Black Bean
  • Stuffed Sweet Pepper
  • Chicken Noodle
  • Red Chili

But we arrive expecting to enjoy ourselves in the company of family and friends on a beautiful autumn evening in Minnesota. And we do. And I did.

Soups/chilis are uncovered and party-goers start lining up to sample the offerings.

THANKS, LANAE AND DALE, for hosting this fun, tasty event.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling