Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

More than just green fried tomatoes November 18, 2021

The vegetable garden outside Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault, Minnesota.(Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2020)

AT THE END of the growing season a few weeks back, I walked into Buckham Memorial Library and spotted a stash of green tomatoes free for the taking. To say that I reacted with joy might be an understatement.

I felt practically giddy at the thought of preparing green fries, a coveted food I haven’t eaten in years because…I don’t have a garden.

A green tomato in the library garden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo August 2020)

But, back in the day, my mom planted a sprawling garden, growing vegetables to feed our farm family of eight. Green fries were a summer-time to harvest staple as were the tomatoes left to ripen on the vine.

Items grown in the library garden are free for the taking to the community. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo August 2020)

Earlier this summer and fall, when I stopped at The Friends Organic Learning Garden on the library’s east side to look for produce, I noticed choice green tomatoes. I was tempted to pick a few. Who would miss the green orbs? But my conscience prevailed and I walked away empty-handed.

Perfect for making green fries. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

So when those green tomatoes appeared inside the library, I quickly took four, reining in my greedy impulse to grab more.

Step one: Slice the tomatoes. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

The next day, I sliced two of those beautiful green tomatoes, dipped both sides in all-purpose white flour and laid the slices into a hefty cast iron skillet sizzling with butter. Lots of butter. I ground on fresh black pepper, sprinkled on salt and then waited for the slices to brown, flipping and seasoning and adding butter as needed.

Frying the tomatoes to golden brown. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

The result: golden circles of green-fried tomatoes that tasted of sun and sky and earth. And of yesterday’s garden.

As I forked into the savory rounds, I thought of Mom and how she spaced tomato plants evenly in the tilled soil and ringed each with a rusty tin can opened on both ends. The cans protected the tender plants from the prairie wind and cold. I remember pouring water into those cylinder reservoirs, overflow sometimes flooding the surrounding ground. When the plants edged over the cans, Mom removed the weather shields.

To me, green fries rate as much more than a food I enjoy. They are part of my culinary family history. A connection to my now 89-year-old mom who, though no master chef, did her best to feed her family with food sourced from our farm.

TELL ME: Do you have a favorite food tracing to your childhood and that you crave today? I’d like to hear. And, have you ever eaten, or made, green fried tomatoes?

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From garden to library, sharing the earth’s bounty November 4, 2021

The beautiful Harvest Box inside the Cannon Falls Library. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

INSIDE THE ENTRYWAY of the Cannon Falls Library, a multi-tiered mini vegetable stand holds an array of fresh vegetables on a mid-October morning. Green peppers. Green beans. Cucumbers. Squash.

The produce is artfully displayed in a beautifully-crafted wooden shelving unit labeled with an appealing graphic of colorful vegetables and the words, Harvest Box. I figured this was the yield of an on-site garden, similar to the one at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault.

But assumptions are not always correct as I discovered. Rather local gardeners provide the produce. That includes Quiet Waters Ranch, a 22-acre Sogn Valley farm owned by Ben and Amanda Luther. Their non-profit received a Healthy Eating in Community mini-grant in 2018 from Live Well Goodhue County for a Community Giving Garden. Now they supply free fresh, organic produce to the library’s Harvest Box which launched in June. The library also received Live Well funding in late 2020 for the display unit and a mini fridge.

Cannon Falls Library Director Nicole Miller initiated the Harvest Box project after learning of one in North Carolina. She sought county funding for the display unit and fridge and also connected with Quiet Waters Ranch. All of this was prompted by her concerns about local food insecurity. “It’s a low cost way to help people out and to supplement the Food Shelf on days they aren’t open,” Miller said.

She delights in watching local gardeners drop off their extra produce.

I love this concept, this spin on the Little Free Library movement which saw mini libraries popping up all over. I love when communities work together, contribute, support, share. There’s so much good that comes from unity, from understanding that we have the power as individuals and communities to care for one another in real, tangible ways.

TELL ME: Do you have a similar Harvest Box or fresh food program at your local library or elsewhere in your community? I’d like to hear.

For more info about Quiet Waters Ranch, click here.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dilly Beans, pumpkins & more at Meriden roadside market October 25, 2021

Teb’s Food Stand in Meriden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

FROM 7 am – 6 pm DAILY, Louise tends a tiny produce stand along a paved road in the unincorporated northwestern Steele County settlement of Meriden.

A peek inside Teb’s roadside stand. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

That’s where I met her on a recent mid-October Sunday afternoon—outside a shed the size of an outhouse. Louise lives right next door to Teb’s Food Stand, a seasonal business owned by her friend, Teborah Kath. Teb, she noted, was likely, in that moment, busy canning vegetables at her nearby country home.

Teb’s canned Cherry Tomato Mix is almost like a work of art. Beautiful. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Garden-fresh and canned vegetables define the bulk of inventory tucked inside this hand-built shed constructed of salvaged wood, galvanized metal and a modern front door.

Teb’s Dilly Beans. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)
Another jolt of color in canned peppers. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)
An assortment of Teb’s homemade pickles. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Here quart and pint jars edge shelves. Green beans pack tightly inside jars labeled Dilly Beans. Rich red tomato sauce colors Teb’s salsa. Oranges and reds and yellows mix inside jars of Cherry Tomato Mix and Peppers, splashing vibrant autumn hues. For pickle lovers, Teb crafts dill and bread & butter pickles.

Teb sells more than canned and fresh produce. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

She also sells baked goods—I spotted a singular package of bread. Next to the face masks, accessories and scrubbies.

Lots of squash options. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)
Smallish pumpkins splash color into a corner. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)
Bundled corn on a shelf. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Seasonal fresh produce is sold here, too, and artfully staged. Piles of assorted squash fill metal tubs. Pumpkins hug a corner near the door. Decorative corn and gourds rest on shelves. And outside more pumpkins and a collection of mum plants define this as a seasonal mini marketplace.

Prices & mark-downs. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Chatting with Louise, who stepped aside when I started taking photos, proved a delight. Considering her 11-hour days at this less-than-busy location, I asked how she passes the time. Reading? She’s not much of a reader, she said, referencing her farm upbringing and the need to stay physically active. Sometimes she leaves temporarily to do chores at home—like mowing her lawn. Or sometimes she simply has other things going on that take her away from the roadside stand.

If Louise isn’t there, just leave your payment in the locked box. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

A handwritten sign next to a locked honor system box directs customers to go next door or call Louise with questions. But don’t count on her having change. She doesn’t. I purchased two squash for $4, almost $5.

Gourds for fall decor. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

In addition to this small town produce stand, Teb also sells her garden and craft and baked goods at the Owatonna Farmers’ Market. Sales are good, even at the remote Meriden location, Louise noted.

The former creamery in Meriden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Meriden is one of those rural places perhaps unknown to many. Driving into town, I noticed a former creamery, the brick building in remarkable condition.

Meriden’s grain complex. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

But it is the cluster of mammoth grain bins which landmark Meriden. Homes line the road past the elevator to a dead end, an unwelcome warning sign marking the end of the street.

A slow-moving train moves through Meriden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

Back at Teb’s Food Stand, conversation halted when a train car and locomotive rolled into town, horn blaring. Soon it reversed course, crossing the tracks again, horn blaring.

Teb’s Food Stand in Meriden. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo October 2021)

By then I’d gathered enough photos and information to craft a story. To write about Lousie and Teb and this tiny produce stand edging a paved road next to a harvested bean field in Meriden, Minnesota.

NOTE: Teb’s Food Stand will close soon for the season, if it’s not already closed.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

From flowers to cayenne peppers, a birthday celebration October 1, 2021

A beautiful birthday bouquet from my eldest daughter and her family. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

I RECENTLY CELEBRATED a milestone birthday and I’ve never been happier to turn another year older. Gone is my absurdly high monthly health insurance premium of $1,245 (with a $4,250 deductible), replaced by affordable (and usable) Medicare coverage. And now I’m also eligible for the Pfizer booster vaccine. Yeah. Here’s to turning sixty-five.

Walking through the prairie at River Bend toward the woods. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

I didn’t celebrate my birthday with great fanfare or the usual birthday treat of dining out. (Even though vaccinated, I continue to be cautious and careful in these days of COVID-19.) Rather, Randy and I hiked across the prairie and woods at River Bend Nature Center, a treasured place to connect with nature in Faribault.

Omelet and hashbrowns, along with watermelon from the Faribault Farmers’ Market, comprised my birthday brunch. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

Afterwards, I enjoyed a delicious brunch prepared by Randy. We dined al fresco on our patio at a card table draped in one of my many vintage tablecloths.

Then, in the afternoon, we spent time with our eldest daughter, her husband and our precious grandchildren at their home. I appreciated the grilled burger and vegetables with my favorite, cheesecake, for dessert. A wonderful way to celebrate.

The only thing that would have made my birthday even better would have been the presence of our second daughter, her husband and our son. But they called from southeastern Wisconsin and northwestern Indiana and that brought me joy.

Thank you to those who sent cards, this one from my second daughter and her husband. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

Some friends and extended family also texted wishes. I got greeting cards, too.

Gladioli from The 3 Glad Girls. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

And flowers. Randy purchased a clutch of gladioli at the Faribault Farmers’ Market. And when he presented them to me with a “Happy birthday!” while I was chatting with Andy Webster of MEG’S Edible Landscapes, Andy took note. “It’s your birthday?” he asked.

“Well, not today, but tomorrow,” I told him.

Smoked cayenne peppers gifted to me by Andy of MEG’S Edible Landscapes. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo 2021.

Then he scooped a baggie of smoked cayenne peppers from the table. “Happy birthday!” Andy said with a smile. Now if that wasn’t the sweetest gesture from a young man who lives on his dream rural acreage in the Sogn Valley, runs his business and is working on a horticulture degree from Oregon University.

Andy’s genuine passion for MEG’S Edible Landscapes showed in his pitch and his personality. He is a genuinely warm and engaging person. To summarize, Andy sells a mobile system for growing vegetables like peppers, basil, beans, lettuce, carrots and more in bags that you can easily pick up and move. It’s ideal, he said, for someone like me without garden space. If enthusiasm and knowledge make for business success, then Andy is certain to succeed.

His unexpected birthday gift of those smoked cayenne peppers touched me in a way that resonated deeply. In these challenging times, I needed that affirmation of an unexpected act of kindness. What a great way to begin my next year of life.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The story of a library garden August 10, 2020

The vegetable garden on the side of Buckham Memorial Library, Faribault, Minnesota.

 

LEMON CUCUMBERS. Purple beans. Dill. Snap peas. Kohlrabi.

 

A developing ground cherry? Or something else?

 

Dill.

 

Ground cherries.

 

The list of vegetables grown in a community garden at Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault also includes ground cherries, tomatoes, Swiss chard, eggplant, cilantro, rosemary. Plus clover and sunflowers. And maybe some plants I’ve missed.

 

A vegetable blossom.

 

Several types of tomatoes grow in the garden.

 

Purple beans.

 

While I had hoped to harvest beans during a recent stop, I found them still too small and other vegetables (the ones I would eat) not yet ready for picking.

 

 

Sunflowers burst color into the garden.

 

Another view of the garden.

 

But I still took time to photograph this wedge garden, a project of Friends of the Library. The Friends Organic Learning Garden was designed several years ago as a place for folks to gather and learn how to:

  • grow delicious organic food
  • care for the earth and our water supply
  • support pollinators
  • connect with others in the community

 

There’s a bee lawn right next to the vegetable garden.

 

Another unidentified vegetable developing.

 

A warning sign next to the library and by the bee lawn.

 

It’s a great idea. Anything that brings people together, educates and meets a need—providing food—certainly holds value. I have, in past years, enjoyed vegetables from the library garden. That includes lemon cucumbers, which Lisa Reuvers, library employee and lead master gardener, says “were a hit a couple of years ago.”

 

The garden features a hummingbird sculpture, “The Color of Flight, by Jorge Ponticas. This was funded by the “Artists on Main Street” program several years ago.

 

I’ll keep an eye on those coveted orb-shaped cucumbers as they ripen and grab a few for salads…

 

TELL ME: Does your community have a similar garden? Or are you a gardener? I’d like to hear.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A Minnesota roadside sweet corn stand August 13, 2019

 

Along Minnesota State Highway 3 just south of Dundas.

 

ACROSS SOUTHERN MINNESOTA, signs pop promoting sweet corn. Fresh. From the field. Tasting of summer.

 

 

Some farmers sell at local farmers’ markets or to grocery stores. Others vend from pick-up trucks, beds heaped with piles of sweet corn.

 

Randy selects corn from the Highway 3 stand.

 

Others park a wagon roadside,

 

 

secure a payment box thereon and trust customers to pay on the honor system.

 

 

Shove bills into box, bag your corn and go.

 

 

I love those stands—the unmanned ones that show people still believe in the goodness of other people. Trust. Honesty. Goodness. Virtues seemingly lost on too many these days. But still present in rural Minnesota.

 

 

And I love stories, like the one posted at a sweet corn stand along Minnesota State Highway 3 between Dundas and Faribault.

 

These entrepreneurs are growing pumpkins and squash, too, in the field next to the sweet corn stand.

Stories that make customers want to buy, and then return.

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Back at Seed Savers Exchange for a close-up look, Part II October 19, 2018

A garden lab at Seed Savers Exchange, photographed in September.

 

I ALWAYS THOUGHT THAT, as an adult, I would grow a big garden from which I would gather produce to eat fresh, can and freeze. But the reality is that, since leaving my childhood farm 44 years ago, I’ve never lived in a place with enough sunny space for a garden.

 

An easy-to-grow-from-seed flower, the sturdy zinnia, photographed at Seed Savers Exchange.

 

Sure, I’ve grown tomatoes in pots and seeded lettuce and spinach into the earth, but not with great success. I’ve had my most success with herbs. I began growing those only in recent years and wonder why I didn’t do so earlier. The taste of freshly-clipped rosemary, basil and oregano is superior to dried.

 

Cow art at Seed Savers Exchange.

 

While this sign warned of a bull at Seed Savers, I never saw one.

 

Dying morning glories drape the Seed Savers barn accented by a vintage lawn chair.

 

While lack of land and time kept me from gardening, I appreciate the art I learned long ago on a Minnesota farm. There I planted, weeded and harvested in the garden.

 

This signage explains the test garden at Seed Savers.

 

A sign at Seed Savers for cucumbers I tasted in Faribault.

 

Flowers and vegetables mix in Seed Savers gardens.

 

I appreciate those who continue the time-honored tradition of gardening. Like Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Like family members. Like those who sell fresh produce at farmers’ markets. Like my local library, which has a community garden. From that public garden I sampled this summer lemon cucumbers and chocolate peppers, originating from Seed Savers seeds. And when I entered Buckham Memorial Library in Faribault, I passed by pollinator friendly flowers like the draping Kiss-Me-Over-the-Garden-Gate blooms, also from the Seed Savers collection.

 

About those morning glories on the barn…

 

 

There’s lots to learn at Seed Savers Exchange.

 

Seed Savers, even for a now non-gardener like me, proves an interesting place to visit. For the history. For the education shared in signage and plants. For the reminder that it’s important to save seeds, to grow the food we eat, to plant the flowers that bloom beauty into the landscape and into our souls.

 

So many seeds to choose from at Seed Savers…

 

…even milkweed seeds to plant for Monarch butterflies.

 

TELL ME: Are you or have you been a gardener? I’d like to hear your stories. Or, if you’ve been to Seed Savers, I’d like to hear your take on this place.

© Copyright 2018 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Put your money in the can August 2, 2017

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THIS TIME OF YEAR in Minnesota, roadside stands pop up with a bounty of fresh garden produce. Some are staffed. Some are not.

 

 

On Sunday evening, Randy and I stopped at an unmanned stand along U.S. Highway 14 as we passed through Courtland (between New Ulm and Mankato) after a weekend in southwestern Minnesota. We needed potatoes and always appreciate newly-dug spuds.

 

 

Pickings were slim at that time of day. But we found a bag of potatoes for $2 that fit our needs. Randy pulled two bills from his wallet and deposited the money in a mammoth coffee can labeled PUT MONEY HERE.

I love this trustworthiness that exists in rural Minnesota.

 

 

But apparently the gardener doesn’t trust Mother Nature. Inside the coffee can, an over-sized stone weighted the container against the wind.

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A new spin on carrot cake, four-year-old style March 9, 2017

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WHEN MY GREAT NEPHEW Landon turned four last week, he asked for a carrot cake. What preschooler chooses that flavor of birthday cake? A kid who loves vegetables and, as far as I have observed, every food. I’ve even watched Landon eat an ear of raw sweetcorn just pulled from the stalk.

His mom, Amber, makes one delicious carrot cake. She bakes and cooks from scratch. No boxed mixes or convenience foods for her or her family. Or guests. Lucky me.

I could end this story here by singing praises about the carrot-cake-baking mom and the boy who loves carrot cake.

Landon, with help from his nearly two-year-old sister Evelyn, sticks raw carrots into his carrot cake. And, yes, he chose to wear a Halloween shirt at his birthday party. When you’re four, you can do that.

But Landon is Landon and he took this carrot cake thing a bit further. As Amber finished prepping his birthday meal of spaghetti and meatballs, Landon pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter. He then reached into a container of raw carrots, celery, radishes and peppers and pulled out the carrots. As we watched, Landon poked the carrots, like candles, into his birthday cake. How’s that for a veggie loving four-year-old?

© Copyright 2017 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

The trend toward healthier foods in schools and the chocolate milk debate May 7, 2011

SHOULD PUBLIC SCHOOLS offer chocolate milk with school lunches?

That’s an issue being discussed right now in the Fergus Falls Public School system, according to an article published in the Fergus Falls Journal.

The head of the Parent Teacher Organization appeared before the school board recently requesting that chocolate milk no longer be offered to students, except on Fridays as a “special treat.” She’s concerned about the sugar in chocolate milk and about serving healthier food. You can read the entire story by clicking here.

Based on the volume of responses to the Journal article, I quickly concluded that chocolate milk in school is certainly a hot button topic.

Opinions range from “let the kids have their chocolate milk because then at least they are drinking milk” to school lunches need an overhaul to this is a political issue.

Personally, I’ll pick white milk over chocolate any day. I grew up on a dairy farm, meaning I can’t really give an unbiased opinion here. Cows don’t produce chocolate milk. To my taste buds, chocolate milk compares to chugging chocolate syrup and I prefer my chocolate syrup on ice cream.

Here’s my take on banning chocolate milk from school lunchrooms:  Kids will eventually learn to drink white milk if they don’t have the chocolate option.

I think the PTO president erred with her compromise offer to allow chocolate milk as a “special treat” on Fridays. That would send a mixed message to students. Labeling a food as a “treat” only makes it more appealing.

This chocolate milk discussion reminds me of a controversy over soda pop vending machines in schools several years ago. I don’t recall the details, but it was a point of much debate in my community of Faribault. I don’t know how the issue was eventually resolved. And, honestly, because my kids are big milk, and not big soda, drinkers, I really did not pay that much attention to the issue. I should have.

Whether milk or soda is at the center of discussion, it’s good that parents, food service employees, school administrators and others are finally taking a good look at school lunches and working toward serving healthier foods and beverages to our kids.

In Fergus Falls, a Wellness Committee is tackling the topic of improving school lunches. Click here and here for the May school lunch menus in Fergus Falls. You’ll find main menu items like chicken nuggets, hot dogs, corn dogs and super nachos along with baked (not fried) fries, sunflower nuts, fresh fruit and fresh veggies. I can see progress in that list, but still some of those food choices don’t seem all that healthy to me.

And just to be clear here, I’m neither a food purist nor a perfect parent. I’ve served chicken nuggets to my family and I would label my 17-year-old son, my youngest, as a “picky eater.” It’s not that I haven’t tried to get him to eat his fruits and vegetables…

Fergus Falls certainly isn’t alone in moving toward healthier school lunches that feature fewer processed foods and more fresh veggies and fruit.

Throughout Minnesota, students, staff and volunteers are planting gardens, a win-win way to engage and teach students about healthier eating. The gardens will also provide fresh vegetables for school lunchrooms. The Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP) is helping lead the way. You can click here to see what’s happening in your county through SHIP.

In my county, Rice, for example, a “Growing Healthy Foods” workshop is slated for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 11, in the 4-H building at the Rice County Fairgrounds. Master gardeners will present information about gardening in this program funded through a SHIP grant.

While individuals and students are planting gardens, Minnesota schools are also working with local growers to incorporate fresh produce into school lunches.

Check out the Minnesota Farm to School Program to see how some schools are embracing the trend toward eating local. It’s inspiring to read about apple orchards and tomatoes and school gardens and efforts to educate and reconnect students to the land.

I expect, though, that despite efforts to improve the quality of food in school lunchrooms, cost will determine whether healthy, permanent changes can be made. School districts don’t exactly have extra money in their budgets. And parents, in a time of already stretched family finances, won’t appreciate/can’t afford hikes in school lunch prices.

Getting kids to change their eating habits presents a major challenge also.

What’s your opinion on the current trend toward serving healthier foods in schools? Are changes needed? Will kids embrace such changes? Can school districts afford to offer healthier foods (which will likely cost more to buy and to prepare)? Will parents pay higher prices for school lunches?

And, finally, how do you feel about pulling chocolate milk from school lunchrooms?

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling