So what’s the one thing that can unite Minnesota’s partisan congressional delegation?

Cravaack, Franken share top honors in annual Hotdish-Off competition

Sen. Al Franken (solid apron, at right) trades hotdish secrets with Rep. Michele Bachmann (from left), Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Erik Paulsen, Rep. Tim Walz, Rep. Collin Peterson, Rep. Chip Cravaack and Rep. Keith Ellison at the Minnesota congressional delegation’s second annual Hotdish-Off competition in Washington on Wednesday.

By: News Tribune staff, Duluth News Tribune

So what’s the one thing that can unite Minnesota’s partisan congressional delegation?

If you said buying a bridge in Stillwater (to replace the sickly cousin of our own Aerial Lift Bridge), you’d be on the right road. But a better answer is Sen. Al Franken’s second annual Minnesota delegation Hotdish-Off competition, in which he and Rep. Chip Cravaack tied for top honors on Wednesday.

“If there’s one thing that can bring a bunch of Minnesotans together, it’s hotdish,” said DFLer Franken, who served up “Mom’s Mahnomin Madness Hotdish” and congratulated Republican Cravaack on his “Minnesota Wild Strata Hotdish.”

Giving kudos to both, Democratic Sen. Amy Kobuchar said, “Thanks for working out your tied scores without a recount.”

Added GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann: “Today is a bipartisan opportunity to celebrate our great state and last week’s bipartisan success on passing the St. Croix River Crossing legislation.”

Hmm. Maybe they really are bridging the divide.

Here are the recipes from all the participants.

Sen. Franken’s Mom’s Mahnomin Madness Hotdish

Ingredients:

1 lb. Wild rice (Mahnomen)

one stick butter

10 cloves of garlic

3 medium sized yellow onions

4 stalks of celery

2 lbs. White button mushrooms

2 cans (8 oz. each) of water chestnuts, drained, then sliced into 1/4” rounds

1 can cream of mushroom soup (diluted with 1/2 cup fo water)

salt to taste

Roast turkey – pulled from the bone

Turkey gravy (aujus)

1 cup grated parmesan

Preparation:

In a colander, rinse the wild rice.

Put the rice in a pot, and cover with 3 inches of water. Boil in a pot, uncovered, for about 20 to 25 minutes. If you’re using Mahnomen wild rice, it will cook more quickly than the paddy variety.

While the rice is boiling, slice (do not mince) the mushrooms, onions, garlic, and celery.

Melt the butter in a skillet, and sauté the onions, garlic, and celery until they begin to bleed a little liquid into the butter. Then add the mushrooms. The celery and onions should not be totally soft.

Once the rice has cooked, drain it and add to the sautéed vegetables.

Add pulled turkey and gravy, water chestnuts.

Place mixture in casserole dish, sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese, and place in pre-heated 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or until top is browned and hot dish is heated through.

Rep. Cravaack’s Minnesota Wild Strata

Ingredients:

Loaf of French bread, sliced and cubed

12 eggs, beaten

4 cups milk, divided

3 tsp. dry mustard

15 oz. extra sharp cheddar cheese, shredded

2 lbs. ground pork sausage, browned and drained

1 C. cooked Minnesota wild rice

1 (10.75 oz) can Cream of Mushroom soup

Instructions:

Place French bread in a well-greased 9 x 13 inch baking pan. Mix eggs, three cups milk and dry mustard together. Carefully pour over bread. Sprinkle cheese, sausage and wild rice over bread.

Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight. Before baking, mix cream of mushroom soup and 1 cup milk together and spread over bread mixture.

Bake covered at 375 degrees for one hour. Let sit 15 minutes before serving.

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I grew up with an outhouse.

After we laid out three bowls of halved butter sticks, Beatrice remembered that we needed a utensil for people to spread the butter onto the fresh baked rolls that were in a large basket at the end of the dinner tables. She stood in the supplies closet, hands on her apron wrapped hips, and stared at the shelves filled with platters, bowls and pitchers. “Every time someone takes them they get put back in a different place,” she said as she set out to search for a specific set of butter knives.

Beatrice Ojakangas had agreed to do an interview with me a week earlier, when we were snowed in. I got her phone number from a member of Trinity Lutheran during their first Lenten meal of the season. On the afternoon that we were all couch-bound due to the snow I dug out the Trinity Lutheran cookbook I was given and flipped through the pages until I found Bea’s number scribbled on a post-it stuck to the hotdish section.

It turned out that she wouldn’t be in town for a while considering that her and her husband lived 10 miles outside of the city and it would take a while before they got plowed after the big storm. She informed me that she spent most of her Wednesdays in the First Lutheran church preparing for their post-service dinners. I was assured that I could find her there to do an interview if I was interested.

It was that next Wednesday that I found myself standing behind Bea in the church supplies closet letting her sift through her memories of when the last time was that the knives were used and where they could have ended up. Once she found them, I realized that there was a reason she was so dead-set on using them. The handful of knives were different shapes and sizes but were all formed from the splintered wood of First Lutheran’s former church pews.

The sense of family and history in this specific church was spoken to in many ways, I realized once I’d spent about five hours in their basement kitchen. During our interview Bea commented shortly on the meaning of eating and gathering around food in the church setting. Similar to what most had told me, she talked about the important of building community at church around food, but it wasn’t until I got into the kitchen that the sense of connectedness and a sense of a surrogate family was clear. I asked if there was anything I could do to help, since I mainly wanted to get a feeling for what a communal dinner was like in their church, and she said that if I was interested in helping I could throw on an apron and some gloves and get to work. So I did.

Every Wednesday during the Lenten season there is a wide range of volunteers that help to set up for the dinner that proceeds the 45 minute worship service on the main floor of the building. Underground, a handful of women spend their whole day baking dozens of loaves of bread, stirring soups and setting tables full of salads, meats, cheeses and vegetable medleys. Considering that they spend the majority of their afternoon and evening in and around the kitchen with each other, they can be found chatting about the weather, discussing so-and-so’s husband’s allergies or congratulating each other on newborn grandchildren. Their conversations transcend “Minnesota Nice” and touch on a sense of familiarity that the women in this kitchen have with each other and the community around them.

As they weaved in and out of the four doors that lead from different places in the building into the kitchen, they would greet each other and delve straight into their duties without hesitating to quickly strike up conversation. I stood in the middle, slicing homemade hot dog buns for the brats that Bea’s husband would later boil in a giant pot on the stove, and listened. The two women behind me, slowly slicing fresh cranberry, rye and wild rice bread loaves moved between conversations with me about how fast food has ruined a reliance on home cooking, and soft whispers about a friend’s husband who can barely find anything he can eat anymore because the list of things he’s allergic to keeps growing. They asked me repeatedly where home was, and after I answered they’d converse with each other about their own residences.

There was a sense of comfort rooted in hours spent in the kitchen as well as in the pews together, side by side.They spoke openly about how quick pick-up meals have removed my generation from a reliance on home cooking and pushed us toward something even more convenient than the one dish hotdish. They admitted that although their children grew up on hotdish their grandchildren would not. And in the midst of it all they sporadically chatted about ill friends, how they got their street plowed and gave me quick recipes for each of the dishes that we’d be serving that night. It was a well-rounded afternoon of chatting that went beyond the niceties of casual introductions.

Once the bread was sliced, the wedged potatoes were in the oven, and the cheese on the counter started to sweat, the women untied their aprons, grabbed a glass of water and told me that if I felt the need I should snack as much as I wanted. They then took their seats at a table in the dining room and leaned back in the padded purple folding chairs to rest. I moved in and out of the kitchen to set the table, look for tongs or help Bea carry platters full of refrigerated dishes, and before I’d take my place back stirring lemonade or piling up bars behind the counter I would rest for a moment to take in some conversation.

These women were friendly in a way that made the snow packed windows, industrial refrigerators, and the plainly decorated walls somehow set the stage for a warm home. A home in which anyone was welcome and the setting didn’t have to be fancy to draw you in, the conversation just had to be constantly flowing and open. There didn’t have to be sepia tinted pictures on the walls to draw me in and illustrate the stories they told, they just had to speak in a way that painted them clearly in my head. So every few minutes I’d stand close to their table with a wedge of bread or a glass of water, watching them pick at slices of cheese or cookies they’d nabbed from the desert trays.

Walking to school “uphill both ways” became less of a story to chuckle at when Bea referenced the outhouse that she grew up with and the pail behind the stove that they’d use in the winter. The lack of allergies that their kids had compared to the ones mine will have. The dedication to cooking for and feeding five daughters 60 years ago. They sat and laughed about their children calling only ever once in a while desperate for a hotdish recipe, or frowning at what a shame it is that their grandchildren ask them how they got on without modern technology or plumbing.

As the evening went on I became more acquainted with how things worked at First Lutheran on a Wednesday. Bea, patting the front pocket of her apron, noted that the “cash register” lay close to her so anytime anyone asked where to buy the bread, they should be directed her way. Gluten free bread was to be provided and clearly marked, and each of the three tables had to have one of everything on it. So, we laid out three platters of sliced cheese, three platters of rolled meats, three bowls of finely shredded carrot and apple salad, three bowls of creamy pink Russian dressing, three freshly filled bottles of ketchup, three bowls of pungent curried hummus, and so on, and so on. Once in a while I would be introduced to a newcomer in passing, and at one point Bea’s husband Dick showed up to cook the dogs. He laughed when he heard that I was studying the hotdish but assured me that I’d come to the right place if I had come to talk to his wife. We chatted about the west coast, mushroom hunting and his extensive familiarity with every inch of their 50 acre property on which he finds loads of shrooms if the weather’s right. And, due to his commitment to good food and real meals (thanks to his wife, the renowned cook) he left me with the note that cream of mushroom soup wasn’t cream of mushroom soup unless they’re wild.

Once we were finished checking off tongs for each side of the table and mixing enough lemonade for young and old alike, it was time to head upstairs. After nearly a half hour of singing, trumpet blasting and group prayer the congregation was invited to light a luminary. Outside of the kitchen the connectivity within the church was still evident, as each white-headed man and woman shuffled to the center of the sanctuary they were met with arms outstretched from the ocean of church members to pat their wrinkled forearms or hold their shaking hands for a few seconds. Each person who waited their turn to light a candle was engaged in quiet conversation, whether it be a brief hello, a hug or a nod in their direction signifying that someone across the room was thinking about them.

After the room was glowing with candlelight we were released for “light supper” and I hurried downstairs to find Bea. During the entire afternoon she had seemed busy, thoughtful, and very focused on how to make the potato tomato soup a bit more flavorful. When I found myself in front of a whole new woman, who took my arm and introduced me to nearly everyone down the line of hungry church-goers as “Alica, who is here studying the hotdish!” Her face lit up once people had plates full of food and cups full of soup. Somewhere during that service she’d breathed a sigh of relief letting the table packed with food speak for itself. She personally gave me an example of what she’d been talking about earlier, how people who gathered around food were able to form a community, make friends and relax with those who they spent other times worshipping with.

“I think people, especially after this meal, they sit around, they get to know each other, they talk. I think it’s this whole idea of getting to know each other and build a community. You have to do that intentionally, because it doesn’t happen always. Just by accident you sit down with someone that you didn’t know and you sit and you start talking,” said Bea.

The table that I sat at held two mother-daughter couples and eventually the priest that I had seen upstairs only minutes before. He sat down amongst us women and took on a new persona. I had seem him in the sanctuary, elaborately robed and smiling but calm in a way that made the high ceilings shrink and walls move in, creating the feeling that in this giant room these people were there for the grand gesture of worshipping their god but in a manner that felt comfortable and intimate. In the basement, he managed to continue exuding a commitment to comfort within the church walls, as his smile was outlined with cream dressing and I could pick up his slight lisp when he moved in close enough. He embodied a happy man in the simplest terms and appreciated each bite as if it was made by his own mother. The six of us chatted about maple syrup snowcones, eating fresh snow in Chester Creek Park, eating hotdish out of a bedpan and the tuna noodle casserole that lead to tuna noodle casserole no more. They took me in as their own, introducing me to those who wandered by the table and making Bea an honest women in terms of her declaration that being around food brings people together.

Once my apron had be folded and returned to a compartment full of tablecloths and potholders it was time to leave. My plate was empty and the coffee mugs were all used up so I packed my bag and searched to say goodbye to my all-day hostess.

“Look for a white head, that’s how I spot her,” said Dick.

She emerged from a hallway, pushing a cart into the kitchen with a wide smile on her face. With little left to do but wrap left-overs and wash dishes she seemed relieved, content with having fed her friends a perfect meal and ready to say goodnight. I thanked her profusely as we made plans for her to get me a copy of her book “The Best Casserole Cookbook Ever” on Sunday morning after the early service. During our last few minutes talking before I left she made up for the short conversation we’d had in the church library hours before with the warm loaf of bread in my arms and the sincere invitation to come back whenever I pleased, accompanied by a gentle squeeze of my arm and the persistent smile on her face as I walked out the door.

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There’s a fine line between camp and nostalgia.

At 8 months old David Walters of HauteDish was moved from Louisville, Kentucky to a town about one hour outside of Brainerd, Minnesota. He grew up on the resort that his family owned in Northern Minnesota, working full-time since the age of 12. For him, gathering around food was a twice daily event.

“Usually we wouldn’t have time for breakfast but usually lunch and dinner were the only times where you hung out with everybody. I mean, you know, you see your sisters but they’re doing this, you see your dad, he’s doing this. You spend the whole day together but you don’t necessarily have a time where it’s just you guys and you can actually talk and so I don’t know if that can be said for everyone else but there is something to be said for the Midwestern work ethic and maybe part of it’s as simple as that. Brings people together at a moment where they don’t have a lot of outside influence.”

His experiences with his family and meeting for meals have given him an appreciation for using mealtime to entertain and enjoy the people around you. His involvement with HauteDish is reflected in his goal to make the restaurant a place for people to enjoy the act of eating together as well as the food their eating.

“You know, in order for restaurants to succeed in Minnesota, if you’re one of relatively our size, you have to appeal to a demographic broader than just the uber foodies. Because it’s just not that big yet and you can’t sustain yourself. So a lot of what we wanted to do was demystify fine dining. Because you know I didn’t grow up going to three or four star restaurants and neither did my parents, neither did any of my partners. And you know we wanted to make it fun, go out and have great food and have a good time.”

To speak to the people that grew up in the same circumstances as many of the people working at HauteDish, their menu was created to reflect familiar meals and tastes for the locals.

“A lot of what he does will be deconstruction where it has all the basic, baseline. The tater tot hotdish will have ground beef, cream of mush soup, tater tots, carrots, peas, that kind of thing and cheese. So essentially all the elements of that are there. In place of the ground beef it’s braised short ribs, the cream of mushroom soup, it’s porcini béchamel, fried onions or whatever it’s some shallots. Instead of your regular Oreida tater tots it’ll be potato croquets.”

Walters noted that aside from their mission to dress up the familiar flannel tater tot hotdish in a freshly pressed suit, the tradition will always be there. Although the younger generations are at times lacking in a nostalgic outlook on the hotdish and traditional Midwestern cooking, they’ll get there.

“There’s certainly a camp value to it. That’s probably what you’re getting when you talk to a little big younger folks, but you know at the same time, there’s probably a very fine line between camp and nostalgia. That’s probably what it all hovers around. Give all those kids seven years, that you were talking to, and they’re living by themselves and they’re like, ‘Oh I could make a hotdish and I could eat it for a week and be fine.’ And not to get overly sentimental about it but it could be as easy as comfort food. It makes you feel better. Not necessarily when you were a kid. But something just reassuring about it. That’s what, when you speak to a deeper connection that people have with food, something similar to that.”

He assumes that the attachment to this dish is based on a lifetime of tradition for many families, and the connection that Minnesotans, specifically, feel to one another.

“There’s a really juxtaposed superiority and inferiority complex that goes on in Minnesota where, ‘We’re Midwestern rubes! But… We’re not rubes!’… whatever celebrity that came to Minnesota or is from Minnesota, they’re ours. You know, Bob Dylan, Minnesota. But he did all this stuff in New York and he doesn’t come here often. I think people who grew up here, it’s a lot of things though, you go through the winters here are just brutal sometimes… it’s just brutal but you get out of it and you have a sense of appreciation for one another and everything and I think that’s some of it too. ‘Oh, you’re from Minnesota? You can deal with it when it’s 30 below? Alright.’ There’s something to that.”

After our chat was over I wandered around the city until HauteDish opened for dinner. There was no way I was going to leaveMinneapolis without sitting at that bar and having my own plate of hotdish right in front of me. I waited patiently until 5:00 pm and took my place in front of a menu with no hesitations about what I was going to order.

All of the seats had been taken down from the tables, arranged around the bar and many of them were filled with what Walters had said was the typical demographic. Down the bar to my right, a white-haired couple fiddling with an iPad over a pink cosmo and pint of beer. A few seats away from them two sports fans with backwards mesh caps and oversized jerseys that somehow looked hip and sophisticated in the dimly lit room. The evening light and lights that were dimmed more and more as the sunset, set a new mood compared to the bright afternoon light that poured in through the high, front windows we’d been sitting in front of hours before.

As I waited for my plate my bartender Jonas filled me in aboutWisconsin. I was instructed to find a gas station cooler full of cheese curds and sausage, and also to just go toWisconsin, because with a smile he assured me that “It’s a funny place.” Finally it arrived.

The usual helping of a hotdish is a pile of anything and everything you could find in the fridge that evening, slowly melting out onto the plate toward the edges as it went from a solid spoonful to a pool of soup spotted with vegetables cut up so tiny you can barely identify them.

This, was something different.

As Walters said, it harkened back to the basics of the country hotdish but the braised beef came apart with a simple nudge from my fork, the croquets oozed creamed potatoes from their thin, crispy shell, and the green beans were arranged delicately atop the meat potatoes and wisp of béchamel that circled the croquet tots. A hotdish, in the opinion of many, is a meal that’s provided in one dish. So, with everything ingredient there, meant to compliment each other so perfectly, I figured it was only appropriate to eat it all in the same bite. So I carefully arranged a bitesize piece of each component onto a fork and dug in.

Minutes later I found myself proclaiming to Walters that I felt as though I’d eaten food for the first time since I got to Minnesota. The plate was close to getting licked clean but I settled for scraping the bits and pieces I dared not leave behind off of my fork and knife.

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Good luck hockey Saturday Jimmy!

A new perspective can be gained from behind a steering wheel compared to the one you get from a seat on a bus. I decided to rent a car for a few days and head north, then south to explore a little bit of the Minnesota that lies outside of Duluth. Instead of slipping in and out of sleep with my forehead pressed against the cold, dirty window of a Jefferson Lines bus I found myself toggling the heat, trying not to spill boiling hot coffee on my lap and watching for deer.

As I cruised up the 61 toward the Canadian border I took in what I always imagined a Midwestern winter to look like. Piles of snow banking the highway with frosted trees and Lake Superior lapping the shore only an arms length away. As I curved around the lake on the highway that bends to the water’s edge the radio spewed gospel and country, always with a hint of static in the background. It reminded me that Cut Face Creek and Grand Portage are places you’d have to zoom in as far as possible to pick them up on a map. Where radio station hosts have regulars that announce potlucks and where it’s okay to say things like “Well I think Falwell had something when he was talking about that Teletubby.. I mean, he was purple…”

When the sun set I refocused my eyes and only took them off of the dotted yellow line to peep the occasional modern Norman Rockwell scene in the brightly lit kitchens that spotted the roadside (and since I was barely going 30 for fear of deer and ice, I was lucky enough to catch some of the little details) A chestnut-haired woman stood in her kitchen, a dinner plate spinning through the white dishtowel in her hand. She was accompanied by a small boy sitting at the dinner table in front of the window, both of them watching the news on the 10 x 10 inch television set atop the refrigerator. Magnets littered the fridge, signifying to me that this place was a home.

I spent a few days in Canada with my grandmother, chatting about hearing aids and carrying the ancient vacuum that she hates but for some reason holds onto, upstairs. Waiting for me in the fridge on Saturday night was the mac and cheese my mom had learned to make, of course, from my grandmother. So we ate it with my cousins, drew pictures of bears eating steaks with their kids, and talked hockey with my uncle. Canada.

I drove back into the US Sunday afternoon and hit the road for Minneapolis Monday morning. As removed as the 35 is, it connects Duluth and the Twin Cities so I expected something new. And I was rewarded. About an hour and a half into my drive I noticed that the little yellow death light popped on and I was urged to get to the nearest gas station, and fast. As I turned off of an exit that implied that there was gas but forced you to hunt for it, I took left over right and headed into town. Billboards, in this town, don’t advertise movies or liposuction. Instead, they are host to pictures of giant smiling newborns that have somehow found a way to talk and tell me that they’ve had fingerprints since before they were born. ProLife Across America monopolizes the advertising and their only competitor that drew my eye was a half-sized ad for a cash wise liquor store.

Just as the billboards disappeared and the speed limit decreased to “Get out of your car and walk, please” I found a gas station. As I pulled into the driveway I put on my gloves as quickly as possible, drove in a few circles trying to figure out which side my gas tank was really on, then parked the car in front of a pump and ran up to the door. To my surprise, although the small towns between Minneapolis and Duluth bombarded with plenty of abortion ads, and bait and tackle shops, they are apparently lacking in people to man the cash only gas station Sunday – Wednesday.

Finally, after ten minutes of pure stress and planning for what to do on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, I spotted a “good luck hockey Saturday Jimmy!” sign and could pull off the highway to get the sigh of relief and full tank of gas that I needed.

Once in Minneapolis I pulled the car around the corner from HauteDish and waited for my interview. I had emailed David Walters a few weeks back to chat about their menu that reflects traditional Midwestern cooking. He agreed to sit down with me on Monday afternoon so to Minneapolis I went and around noon I found myself seated in the front of their dining room across from him and a french press full of fresh coffee.

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Sinners come forth!

There are lots of little things that draw me to constant mobility. The little things that you get used to that you deal with routinely at home. When I spend a few months in one place and I can get from my seat in class to my couch at home with my eyes closed, or when I can spend an hour in the grocery store, fluidly collecting everything on my list without looking, I need to move.

Here in Duluth, the little things are still slowly showing up, which after two weeks of being here, is exciting. During my first few hours in our house I learned that the oven has to be set 25 degrees below the cooking temperature and cooking time has to be cut 5 minutes short. The buses don’t circle around and it’s normal for an entire pint glass full of gin to be $3.00 so don’t argue with the bartender. You can tell where property lines begin and end where the sidewalk is shoveled or isn’t. And nice Minnesotans aren’t messing with you, it’s normal to say hello to strangers on the street, and even follow it up with an exchange of “How are you?”

One of the most exciting experiences to get used to is meeting new people and cooking for new tastes. Sunday morning was my morning to cook for theInterfaithChurchacross the street and I was paired with a member of the congregation named Sarah. We had chatted a few times on the phone but it wasn’t until I was sitting in the passenger seat of her truck Sunday morning that I really got to know her. We were locked out of the church and with the number of snowflakes rapidly multiplying we found refuge in her car. I sat knocking the snow off of my boots onto her floor mats as she stared at me from the drivers seat. We’re both fromCaliforniaand although she used to go back every year it has been a while since she’d run the streets of LBC. Her husband and daughter happened to cook a hotdish on television that the local radio station so she offered to hand over the H is for Hotdish cookbook to me and also to help me with anything else for my project. As the keys took longer to get there we stared out of the windshield and turned our heads in unison every time a car passed to see if it was who we were waiting for. We sat, in the warmth, and she recommended restaurants as I explained how Evergreen worked. Eventually, as I could have sworn the butter started melting and the last of the macaroni noodles were cracking under the weight of my feet, the door was opened. We slid on our gloves and took a deep breath simultaneously as we opened our doors, crunched the snow under our finally dry shoes, and snuck into the church basement barely wet from the snowfall.

As I’ve elaborated on before, church basements have a musty comfort that I can’t help but appreciate. Sarah began rearranging the tables and chairs that had been pushed toward the walls for the previous night’s talent show. The long one usually goes in the middle, it looks better like that, she said. And the tiny one usually stands alone at the end to hold plates and silverware and napkins. She pushed the tables, dusted off countertops, and was ready and willing to help with anything I needed. When it got too quiet down there she’d ask me about California, or Washington, or the other places I’d lived and told me about how raising her children in Long Beach was far from ideal, so Minnesota was where she’d found her home for the last 20 years.

I unpacked the ingredients I’d brought to prepare my mom’s Baked Mac and Cheese as she talked. I spent some time opening every cupboard, one by one, to find utensils and pots and dishes. I moved slowly through the kitchen, relishing the fact that sometimes a cupboard labeled “plates” housed vases and the hunt was on. I took my time sifting through the drawer full of old whisks that I imagine were used to blend birthday cakes for Jesus and casserole dishes that had held decades full of tater tot masterpieces. The cups, still stained from a hand-washing the night before with dry water marks and traces of a trembling old woman’s fingerprints from her hands that couldn’t take the hot water any longer. I soon learned the rules, dishtowels weren’t to be used to clean the actual dishes and anything too big for the dishwasher had to be washed in the industrial sink. Righty tighty, lefty Lucy meant nothing when it came to the hot and cold switches on the faucet but I learned quickly and soon had a giant pot of water at a rolling boil and 32 ounces of cheese grated.

Slowly people came in, and I was introduced to each and every one of them. “This is Alicia, I’m sorry, I just have to tell your story one more time. She’s here studying the hotdish! And today she’s cooking her mom’s baked mac and cheese!”

I awkwardly wiped cream or butter or dishwater off of my hands with the towel slung over my shoulder and tried to shake the hand of every newcomer before they saw a more familiar face. After an hour of spilling, wiping, pouring and draining I divided the two pounds of noodles between a casserole dish my roommate lent me and one I’d found in the corner of the counter. I let my mom’s version of a cheesy béchamel ooze over the noodles, sneaking into the ends of the macaroni and filling up every inch of clear glass on the sides of the dish with a creamy white sauce. I mixed in the remainder of the cheese, generously sprinkled bread crumbs for a crust and added a handful of parmesan to brown on top. The oven, which I was assured was at 375 when I set it to 375, was hot, the dishes full, and into the oven they went with five minutes left to breathe before service.

Things went slowly as I waited before and after each and every song or speech for smoke to come pouring from the staircase that led to the kitchen, or for a smoke alarm to suddenly erupt. By some luck and the grace of the angels that our spiritualist guest speaker said was watching over the children in the pews (something I definitely have to look into) it worked out.

Once we went downstairs and I pulled the casseroles from the the oven, placed them on a mismatch of potholders and matched a serving spoon with each one I was surprised to find out that that was it. I looked around and the only thing that was accompanying my dish was a small container of fresh fruit that a woman had kindly donated. I realized, once seated at my table, that I wasn’t contributing to a potluck but simply to a one-course meal that I and I alone had prepared.

“I bet you get a lot of dinner invitations,” was the first thing I heard to ease my nerves. I looked around as the huge paper plates were each filled with a mound of noodles, cheese and crumbs. The kids in the room seemed to have an excitement in their eyes that I rarely saw on days other than Christmas and although I was disappointed that the gluten free attendees weren’t satisfied I was happy to see that sticking the classic and the familiar worked.

What was more surprising was that it seemed as though the church casserole dish had some sort of magical power that allowed it to never run out, as the hefty boy across the room somehow managed to get thirds, an eight year old girl got seconds, and all of the women at my table whispered “I think I’ll just have a little more…” at least once or twice.

I myself had a plate and in between bites was pleased to thank people for compliments and support. I was obviously a wreck, afraid that people weren’t going to have enough, like it enough, or that somehow milk, cream and cheese would be too spicy. Couchsurfer Mike had warned me to watch the trashcan to see what was actually getting eaten, and once I looked over to find last weeks guest speaker scraping the last of the noodles out of the corningware at his table… I wasn’t worried anymore.

Me at my first Lake Superior Interfaith Community Church potluck 🙂 Thanks Mike

The church photographer, Mike, who I met the first weekend I was here stood up at the end of his meal and announced that he was changing my name to the Princess of Potluck. For the first time all day I broke a smile without making sure I’d gotten the pepper out of my teeth because it seemed like they were genuinely pleased. I hadn’t needed the cumin or horseradish or fancy meats or even cream of something soup. People wanted an excuse to gather around food that they knew, in a setting that was comfortable, and with people that they could have a Sunday afternoon chat with.

Sarah put it best, as she said, circled with a few women at the end of the afternoon, “People wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t a meal.” She herself had trouble getting to know people when she first came to church at Lake Superior Interfaith. She learned to love the hugging and the hand holding but somehow eating together seemed intimate in a way that didn’t involve the physical contact. She pointed out that it gave people a chance to talk about things other than church while still in a local and familiar community of fellow church goers. The food didn’t need to be fancy and they didn’t even need to leave to eat it. All it took was a few dishes full of a warm casserole and a few folding tables set up downstairs to entice people to stay  at least a few hours and find friends around something they’d be going home to do anyway: eat.

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