Long before locally-grown and locally-sourced exploded into a movement, St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, already tapped both for an ethnic dinner that today draws some 600 guests from throughout Southern Minnesota and beyond to the rural Nerstrand area church each September.
Authentic German cuisine focuses Germanfest, an event started in 1997 to celebrate the area’s German heritage. From that first meal to today, many of the ingredients for the buffet come directly from the land, most from the garden of Craig Keller, fest general chairman. He lives just down the road from the historic church founded in 1856 by his great grandfather.
With vegetables like potatoes, onions, beets, cabbage and sweet corn harvested locally, volunteers prepare ethnic dishes, such as sauerkraut, that draw rave reviews. Keller often hears, “It’s the best German food we’ve ever tasted.”
And there’s reason for that praise. With a commitment to using primarily fresh ingredients, following old family recipes and years of practice, St. John’s offers authentic ethnic down-home cooking. The buffet features a lengthy list of foods — sauerbraten, brats, rinderwurst, sauerkraut, German potato salad, mashed potatoes and gravy, red cabbage, German style green beans, corn, sweet-and-sour beets, homemade pickles, bread and desserts of Black Forest cake, German chocolate cake, apple kuchen angel food cake, cream puffs and the especially popular bread pudding.
His ancestors, Keller said, would not approve of serving bread pudding, considered a “poor man’s dessert.” But diners love the bread pudding Keller bakes in small 1 ½-quart casserole batches using a family recipe that includes a savory and buttery vanilla sauce.
The tangy scent of vinegar lingers in the fellowship hall where diners fill their plates buffet style then settle in to sample foods from the Old Country. Onions sauteed in bacon grease go into the freshly-made German potato salad. Cinnamon laces rinderwurst, an all-beef dish made pate´, rather than sausage, style for the masses. Wait staff in German costumes stitched by parishioners keep beverages filled, tables cleared and diners happy. A third of St. John’s 150 members volunteer at Germanfest. Food prep begins a year in advance and continues throughout the day. This year’s fest is on Sunday, September 29.
But the event is about much more than food. Longtime volunteer Shirley Little invites folks “to enjoy the camaraderie and the church community in itself, the good food, good music and lots to see.” She encourages those who love polka music to attend and listen, maybe even dance, to the old time tunes of Tim Chlan and Friends, The Ray Sands Band and The Stuttgart Three. Bands perform under a tent continuously from 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. with an hour break for the Polka Praise Service inside the sanctuary at 3 p.m.
Also outdoors, next to the aged limestone church in this peaceful rural setting, are a farmers market, petting zoo, root beer stand and BINGO.
“It’s a good all-around family event,” said Keller.
He’s right. People of all ages return year after year on the last Sunday of September for the music, the food, the activities, the fellowship and more. This year Keller’s mother, 94-year-old Elsie, celebrates her 80th Confirmation anniversary along with others confirmed in years ending in nine. The reunions are part of each festival.
The Keller family’s love of their heritage and of this church are evidenced throughout Germanfest. In an historical display staged in the narthex, handiwork, a baptismal certificate, vintage portraits and other items come mostly from the family’s collection.
There was a time, during the world wars, when the family, like so many other German Americans, hid their ethnicity, Keller noted. During WWII, his grandma burned books written in Deutsch. “To preserve anybody’s heritage is important whether German, Italian, French … We’re proud to be of the German heritage,” Keller said today.
Pride also shows in hand-stitched to current-day quilts draped over church pews by members of a community quilting group for the fest quilt show. Church women also sew several quilts and raffle them.
As if that’s not enough, some dozen volunteers craft apple jelly and apple butter from the fruit of an aged crabapple tree on the church grounds. Not one to waste anything, just like his frugal German ancestors before him, Keller didn’t want those apples to go to waste. His mother suggested the jelly and thus St. John’s signature apple jelly came to be with 200-plus jars available for purchase along with a variety of homemade goodies in the bake shop. Holiday ornaments, greeting cards and more are sold in a Christmas store.
For dedicated volunteer Keller, also an insurance agent, farmer, baker (he has a side cake business) and church organist, his love of cooking, his love of fellow church members and his appreciation for the crowds of appreciative diners keep him motivated to continue Germanfest. And then there’s the reason this all started — “to try to promote the local German heritage” in this church where he’s rooted back four generations.
Sunday, Sept. 29
Serving from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-6 p.m.
Cost: adults, $15; ages 5-12, $5; and 4 and under, free.
No reservations needed
St. John’s United Church of Christ is located at 19086 Jacobs Ave., rural Faribault, near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. Visit https://stjohnsunitedchurchofchrist.info.
Story and photos by Audrey Kletscher Helbling