Meatball Sundaes, Pickle Pops at the Minnesota State Fair

Church dining halls link the summer ritual to its century-old agricultural roots.

The Hamline Church Dining Hall at the Minnesota State Fair, Falcon Heights, Minn., Aug. 24, 2023.
The Hamline Church Dining Hall at the Minnesota State Fair, Falcon Heights, Minn., Aug. 24, 2023.
AP Photo/Giovanna Dell'Orto

FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. (AP) β€” As the sun rose on an unusually steamy opening day of the Minnesota State Fair, Jeff Knott and his two daughters joined the already long breakfast line outside the Hamline Church Dining Hall.

The Lutheran family, at the fair to show the teen girls' pigs Billy and Lil' Red, favor this Methodist all-volunteer diner for its early opening, variety of foods including the signature "hamloaf" sandwich, and religious mission.

"They use their proceeds for mission work, which I think is important," Knott said before the family bowed their heads to say grace at the hall's bustling tables. "Can't get deep fried Oreos, though," quipped Elsie Knott, 13.

Faith offerings are plentiful and deep-rooted at the late-summer agricultural fairs that, nationwide, bring together 4-H children parading their prize animals and political candidates unleashing their ambitions.

Here in the middle of the Twin Cities, in addition to two church dining halls that have served up hot meals for a combined 200 years, there are fairgrounds Sunday services, booths handing out free Bibles or Qurans, and a stage for Christian bands beside the rides.

With pre-pandemic attendance surpassing two million β€” in a state with 5.7 million residents β€” the fair gives religious leaders a unique opportunity to showcase their hospitality and offer a rapidly disappearing slice of Americana to an increasingly diverse crowd.

"Service is my love language," said Stephanie Engebrecht, a first-time dining hall volunteer and staff member at Hamline United Methodist Church in St. Paul.

"Any time you work hard at something, you can't help bonding with people," Engebrecht added, refilling coffee cups for a couple who first came to the fair together on their honeymoon 62 years ago.

This dining hall, founded in 1897, and the smaller one run by Minneapolis' Salem Lutheran Church, are the sole survivors of what a century ago was a thriving scene catering to farmers who came to display the cream of their crops, livestock and crafts.

"There was very spirited bidding by Twin Cities churches to be at the fair. Churches were built on state fair dining hall money," said Jane McClure, Hamline Church's historian. Fair fundraising remains important, helping finance homeless and food ministries in the churches' neighborhoods.

The dining halls also preserve that fast-disappearing agrarian atmosphere, said Chris Gehrz, a history professor at nearby Bethel University who regularly attends the fair with his family.

"It's something quasi-religious, having this ritual," Gehrz said, adding that outright proselytizing has been tightly regulated since a 1981 U.S. Supreme Court ruling found the fair could restrict the Hare Krishna society from distributing literature about their faith.

At the dining halls, the religious touch is light β€” a few prayer signs on the walls, "pastor" name tags worn by leaders as they serve Swedish meatballs or dill pickle lemonade paletas, a Midwestern take on Mexican popsicles.

"You're not overt about Christianity because this is just what you do," said McClure, who takes vacation to volunteer all 12 days at the Hamline dining hall, as she's done for 20 years.

But sometimes the faith mission is worn on one's sleeves β€” or rather aprons and vests. On Saturday, members of several Methodist congregations that support LGBTQ inclusion, part of a larger rift within the denomination, wore purple aprons volunteering at the Hamline dining hall.

Just behind it at Crossroads Chapel, volunteers wore bright red vests emblazoned "prayer team." For seven decades, a network of evangelical churches has operated the combined Christian bookstore, chapel and tent offering free Bibles, including Spanish-language and a comic book-style geared toward children.

Aliza Lamprecht, 7, grabbed a copy of the latter after running up to the tent en route to volunteering at the cattle barn.

"It's the largest mission field in Minnesota," said Crossroads board member Terry Schuveiller, adding the prayer teams gave away 5,000 Bibles at last year's fair.

Such evangelization is what drove fellow board member and musician Doug Peterson to set up the chapel's outdoor stage with live entertainment.

"We have to be relevant to the culture, but true to the word of God," said Peterson. "I'm a farmer. I'm just planting different kinds of seeds at the fair."

Despite being tucked away inside the education building instead of by the swing rides, the Building Blocks of Islam booth also had a steady flow of visitors getting free Qurans from volunteers in hijabs.

"There's no other place with so many Minnesotans together," said Mashood Yunus, who helped found the group to combat misinformation about Islam. "This is election year now, so we really want to make sure we don't let misinformation spread."

Volunteers are trained to maintain civil engagement even in the rare occasions over the last ten years when they've encountered hostility, and the fair has designated a large upstairs room where volunteers can perform daily prayers, Yunus added.

Catholic Mass is also celebrated both Sundays of the fair with hundreds in attendance, said the Rev. Robert Fitzpatrick. The retired priest jokingly calls it "Mass on a stick" β€” a nod to iconic fair foods.

"It's a tool of evangelization too," Fitzpatrick said.

There used to be a bigger Catholic presence, including a Q & A with a priest. About a decade ago, the fair also had chaplains visiting 4-H children on the day their animals go to market, said former chaplain Sally Johnson, who now volunteers at the Methodist dining hall.

Today, all these organizations are struggling to find enough volunteers, a widespread problem for charities across the country after the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Closing does come up," said the Rev. Mariah Furness Tollgaard of Hamline Church. To serve approximately 30,000 meals at the fair, 600 volunteer shifts are needed. That's a big ask even in a 500-member congregation where some have volunteered for 50 years, let alone for smaller and cash-strapped Salem Lutheran.

"It really is a walk of faith," said Salem volunteer coordinator Rachel Carmichael as she coached half a dozen teens for whom the fair is also a job training program. "You just provide the opportunity and God can be there."

Salem's signature item is Swedish egg coffee. For the last three decades, volunteer Jim Zieba has started brewing it at 4:30 a.m. every day of the fair. Now in his mid-70s, on opening day he figured he had boiled 48 pots β€” each serving 40 cups β€” before people started lining up for a lunch of "Swedish meatball sundae."

"I don't want to leave these guys in a lurch. I'm the last of the everyday workers," Zieba said.

Snapping a picture of the egg coffee recipe β€” yes, an egg is mixed in, shell and all β€” Bonnie Birnstengel said she gets a cup first thing on her annual fair visit.

"You bet I always do, even when it's hot out," she said, though it's not quite as good as the egg coffee her mother-in-law brewed.

The Methodist dining hall is the first annual stop for Lane Christianson, who 15 minutes after the fair gates opened was eating the "holey hamloaf breakfast sandwich."

"It's a little slice of America here," he said.

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