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.