Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

In which I experience the joy of serving on Thanksgiving November 25, 2016

I KNEW IF I STAYED HOME Thanksgiving morning in to early afternoon, melancholy would seep in. No matter how hard I tried. This would be my first Thanksgiving without any of my grown children home to celebrate. So I needed to divert my thoughts from missing them.

The setting for Faribault's Community Thanksgiving Dinner.

The setting for Faribault’s Community Thanksgiving Dinner, which began 30 years ago in a restaurant.

I didn’t even think. I knew exactly where I would go, what I would do. And that was to head to the Faribault American Legion and volunteer, with my husband, at the Community Thanksgiving Dinner. That volunteerism, that mingling with other volunteers and guests, was, I will selfishly admit, about helping me as much as helping others. It worked.

Bagged lunches await pick up by guests and by those delivering meals to homes.

Bagged lunches await pick up by guests and by those delivering meals to homes.

When you take the focus off your sadness, happiness shines. I felt myself smiling as we delivered 12 meals to five homes, each recipient grateful for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and bagged left-overs of a turkey sandwich and apple.

Randy shuffles meals and bags around as we prepare to deliver them.

Randy shuffles meals and bags around as we prepare to deliver them.

From a mobile home to a condo to an apartment to single family homes, we brought not only food, but also holiday happiness: To the woman recovering from pneumonia with her husband in the hospital. To the woman whose meal I left on the kitchen counter per her instructions to also take the $5 (given to the Faribault Foundation) lying near the cracked open exterior side door. To the woman who answered the door in her bathrobe. To the woman who waited outside her apartment building for us to arrive. All welcomed us with gracious gratitude.

A child's artwork on a placemat reminds diners of life's many blessings.

A child’s artwork on a placemat reminds diners to be thankful.

Those blessings of giving and receiving exude the spirit of Thanksgiving.

Hundreds of pounds of turkey are baked along with hundreds of pounds of potatoes peeled...

Hundreds of pounds of turkey are baked along with hundreds of pounds of potatoes peeled… (This image for illustration purposes only and not taken at the community dinner.)

Back at the Legion, Randy and I paused to eat. Volunteers expected to plate and package 1,200 meals in three hours. From conversations I overheard and my observation that the kitchen ran out of whole turkey (and resorted to pressed/processed turkey), guests exceeded the anticipated number.

All tables are festively decorated and all guests served at their tables.

All tables are festively decorated and all guests served at their tables. Children contribute their art.

I’ve often wondered who attends the Community Thanksgiving Dinner, meant for anyone no matter their financial means, their age, their anything. Seated at our dinner table were a retired long-time Faribault Woolen Mill employee dining with his 20-something grandson, who had to work later in the day at Target; a retired hospital employee and Vietnam War vet with nowhere to go for dinner; and a couple, like us, without children at home. I also spotted a neighbor, church friends (both dining and volunteering) and others I know from the community.

Kids decorate placemats.

Kids decorate placemats.

I was particularly impressed by the number of kids helping. I applaud parents who are teaching their children at such a young age the joy of serving others. Watching a girl, perhaps six, carry a plate of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, a dinner roll and cranberries to a diner, is one of those moments that impresses hope for the future.

Volunteers dish up meals.

Volunteers dish up meals for take-out and to serve to diners.

Likewise, observing others my age and older scurrying to serve the sit-down meals reaffirms that goodness exists.

Randy and I filled in where needed. I primarily poured milk while he greeted, served and more.

Some three hours after we arrived at the Legion, Randy and I left. As we exited the parking lot, I was already calling our 22-year-old son in Boston, home alone, but planning a Thanksgiving dinner for Saturday with friends. I called the daughter in northeastern Wisconsin, catching her as she returned from the grocery store with her husband before going to the home of friends for dinner. I texted our eldest, in California with her in-laws. She also texted photos of her family, including our granddaughter. It helped to hear their voices, to be able to tell them, “I love you.”

Preparing for diners by plating pumpkin pie.

Preparing for diners by plating pumpkin pie.

The reality of life is that we cannot always be with those we love most. On those holidays, we need to stretch beyond ourselves and our feelings. On this Thanksgiving, that made all the difference for me.

FYI: Later in the afternoon, Randy and I joined our nephew and his family, along with our niece-in-law’s family, for a Thanksgiving dinner. We were grateful for their inclusion of us. I laughed and smiled and ate more turkey, so thankful for the blessings of the day and of life.

I took all of these photos with my smartphone rather than my DSLR, limiting my photography so I could focus on volunteering.

© Copyright 2016 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Tell DeLores to bring lots of grape salad November 24, 2014

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Vintage plastic grapes on a vintage food tray, used here for illustration purposes only.

Vintage plastic grapes on a vintage food tray, used here for illustration purposes only.

ALRIGHT, MINNESOTANS, it’s time to tell the other side of the story, to balance the “I’ve never heard of Grape Salad” to the “I have and I prepare it for my family and they love it.”

Just a little background for those who are unaware: The New York Times recently published an article listing Thanksgiving dinner foods that best represent each state. Grape Salad was selected for Minnesota, evoking the wrath of many a native. Most of us have never heard of the salad and don’t consider it at all representative of our state.

But then along come several Minnesota Prairie Roots readers, including DeLores Johnson from Belview in my native Redwood County, MN., who have, indeed, heard of Grape Salad and prepared it.

The salad is so popular with DeLores’ extended family that they ask for it every Thanksgiving and Christmas. The request is the same each holiday: “Tell DeLores to bring lots of Grape Salad.”

She first made the salad about 10 years ago after discovering the recipe in a newspaper (but not the local The Redwood Falls Gazette). Having never heard of Grape Salad until then, DeLores thought it worth a try although she hesitated to reveal sour cream as one of the four ingredients.

But her family loved the salad. Her grandchildren even argue over who gets the last little bit in the bowl, claims DeLores. She doubles the recipe. It’s apparently that good.

DeLores terms Grape Salad as “delicious” and says people from all over have called her for the recipe. “I never knew it would be such a hit,” she says.

One year, when grapes were especially expensive, DeLores nearly didn’t prepare Grape Salad. But because she knew the kids would be disappointed, she bought what she needed and the grapes cost more than the meat.

No wonder she tells her grandkids Grape Salad is special because it’s made with lots of love.

So there you have it. That’s DeLores’ Grape Salad story and she’s sticking to it.

HERE’S THE RECIPE for Grape Salad, direct from DeLores:

Red or green seedless grapes (DeLores emphasizes seedless; one year she bought the wrong grapes and spent a lot of time cutting grapes in half to remove seeds.)
1 cup brown sugar
8 ounces sour cream
8 ounces Cool Whip

Mix the dressing and then add the grapes. Enjoy.

TIPS: For Christmas, DeLores sometimes buys red and green grapes to make a more colorful holiday salad. Grape Salad can be prepared a day in advance, refrigerated and stirred just prior to serving.

FACT:  When DeLores was growing up, the only grapes she had available to her were wild grapes like those used to make jelly.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Offering my two cents, as a Redwood County native, on the Great Grape Salad Controversy November 20, 2014

NOW THAT THE LUTHERANS and my native Redwood County, MN., have been drawn into the New York Times Great Grape Salad Controversy, I feel obliged to also join the discussion.

Thanksgiving Day dinner at my house with family.

Thanksgiving Day dinner at my house with family several years ago included these foods. To the left you’ll see a nearly empty bowl of a lettuce salad. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Here’s the background, just in case you’ve had your head stuck in a snowbank the past several days and are unaware of the Times article. Writer David Tanis chose a food to represent each of the 50 states (plus Washington, DC and Puerto Rico) on the Thanksgiving dinner table. For Minnesota, he selected Grape Salad. That choice has resulted in a backlash from Minnesotans unhappy, and that’s putting it mildly, with the selection.

The only grapes you will find sitting out at my house for Thanksgiving are these grapes in a bowl of vintage fake fruit I got from my mom in September. I'd guess they are vintage 1950s or 1960s.

The only grapes you will find sitting out at my house for Thanksgiving are these grapes in a bowl of vintage fake fruit I got from my mom in September. I’d guess they are vintage 1950s or 1960s.

If you have lived in Minnesota your entire life, like me, your immediate reaction probably mimicked mine: “What is Grape Salad?”

It is, according to the Times published recipe, a combination of grapes, sour cream and brown sugar.

A selected page of salad recipes published in The Cook's Special, published in 1973 by St. John's Lutheran Church, Vesta, MN. That's my mom's

A selected page of salad recipes in The Cook’s Special, published in 1973 by St. John’s Lutheran Church, Vesta, MN. That’s my mom’s Orange JELLO Salad

Tanis shares on his Facebook page that the recipe was a staple in 1950s and 1960s Minnesota Lutheran cookbooks and was even published in the Redwood Falls Gazette. Hmmm. But I’ve never heard of Grape Salad, let alone tasted it and I grew up in the 50s and 60s on a crop and dairy farm 20 miles west of Redwood Falls near Vesta, where I attended St. John’s Lutheran Church. The Gazette arrived in our rural mailbox each week.

My friend Kristin made peach Jell-O in a pan.

Several years ago my friend Kristin prepared peach-filled Jell-O for Family Game Night at the Lutheran church I attend in Faribault. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

The go-to salad during my youth was Jell-O, specifically red strawberry Jell-O laced with bananas and maybe topped with whipped topping, but not usually. Jell-O was served only on special occasions, like a holiday or on the midnight lunch table at extended family birthday and anniversary celebrations. The last time I ate Jell-O was a few weeks ago while on a pre-colonoscopy diet. Otherwise it’s been years since gelatin touched my lips.

As for grapes, they were a rare treat in my childhood home due to lack of availability and cost. And when Mom did buy grapes for her six children and farmer husband, the fruit was devoured in an instant. I remember stuffing grapes into my mouth so fast that I would nearly choke. But if I didn’t, I wouldn’t get many and I loved grapes. Still do.

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

A few of the salad bar options at a 2011 soup and salad luncheon at St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, rural Faribault, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

So for Tanis to choose Grape Salad as representative of Minnesota for Thanksgiving dinner 2014, or even Thanksgiving dinner 1960, seems, well, not at all Minnesotan.

What food would you select to represent Minnesota?

Even though (most) Minnesotans believe the Times writer got it totally wrong with his Grape Salad choice, this whole controversy serves some good, too. The spotlight is shining on our state. What a great time to showcase Minnesota foods and our uniqueness. Specifically, I hope tourism folks in my native Redwood County realize this opportunity and run with it in a creative and humorous way.

© Copyright 2014 Audrey Kletscher Helbling