The candles on this particular birthday cake are going to send up a serious blaze.
In 1897, the Ladies Aid Society of what was then Hamline Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Paul organized a State Fair fundraiser, making sandwiches and cold drinks, carting them to a pavilion on the fairgrounds and selling them to fair workers.
A tradition was born, and today, the Hamline Church Dining Hall, operated by Hamline Church United Methodist, is the fair’s oldest continuously operating food vendor.
It’s the place where fairgoers can gather over long communal tables and dig into stick-to-your-ribs church basement fare: baked chicken with mashed potatoes, California-style hamburgers, scrambled eggs and toast and the kitchen’s signature item, a slab of meatloaf that’s half ground ham, half ground beef. It’s all served, cafeteria-style, by a battalion of friendly folks, most of them volunteers.
As a dining experience, it’s also a dying breed. Family- and budget-friendly church dining halls once dominated the fairgrounds, only to be eclipsed by the fair’s deep-fried, on-a-stick mania.
Today, only Hamline and the summer-camp-like Salem Lutheran Church stand remain. A third is operated by the Robbinsdale chapter of a fraternal organization, the Order of the Eastern Star.
In the early years, Hamline Church Dining Hall evolved from a single building where meals were served on white tablecloths (which were taken home and laundered and ironed, by hand, each night) to a series of smaller stands. By the late 1920s, it was back to a single facility on Dan Patch Avenue.
In 1944, the congregation purchased its current site from another church, East Immanuel Norwegian Evangelical Church of St. Paul. The building and its contents cost $900. In 1968, that building was demolished and replaced with the current building. And no, there’s no air conditioning.
“We’d never get people to leave,” said Teresa Renneke, co-chair of the church’s dining hall committee.
Unpretentious, wholesome fare has been a constant. The origins of the fabled ham loaf are unclear, but Renneke believes that it dates to the 1930s. Today, the kitchen sells roughly 1,000 servings over the fair’s 12-day run.
This year, Hamline is introducing a new item, replacing Swedish meatballs with wild rice meatballs with lingonberry sauce. At lunch and dinner, diners can choose from ham loaf or meatballs (or baked chicken, another favorite) with a side dish (mashed potatoes with gravy, corn, baked beans, roasted potatoes or chips) with coleslaw and a dinner roll for $11.95; a kid’s portion is $7.
Breakfast is similarly reasonably priced. Scrambled eggs, two pancakes and two sausages is $8.50. A stack of three pancakes is $5.95, biscuits and gravy with two sausages is $7.95 and cereal and milk is $4.95. There’s a bottomless cup of coffee for $2.50, and a scrambled egg-ham-cheese sandwich on a toasted English muffin for $4.95.
Pie, baked at Grandma’s Bakery in White Bear Lake, is $2.50 per slice. Oh, and because of the 120th celebration, cupcakes will be going for $1.20.
The dining hall got a boost in 2012 when it began partnering with Izzy’s Ice Cream co-owners (and spouses) Jeff Sommers and Lara Hammel.
“We’re both Hamline grads, and even though the school and the church are no longer affiliated, we had a soft spot for those roots,” said Sommers.
There was another connection: Sommers’ family had a hot dog stand at the fair.
“I had 17 years out there,” he said.
For the past six years, church members and ice cream makers have brainstormed an attention-grabbing flavor that’s thematically appropriate for the fair, or the church, or Minnesota, or some combination thereof.
Past flavors include Church “Elder” Berry, Mini-Donut Batter Crunch, Jell-O Salad, Butter Queen Coffee and Chocolate Agate Crunch. All, with the exception of Jell-O Salad, will be reprised during this year’s fair, at $5 and $7.
The 2017 newcomer is S’more Fun. A labor-intensive concoction, it’s roasted mini-marshmallows and semisweet-chocolate-enrobed graham crackers mixed into a roasted marshmallow base. Sommers wonders how many more only-at-the-fair flavors they can create.
“Pretty soon we’re going to be exhausted, from a conceptual standpoint,” he said. “We’re not out there to make the fanciest or the coolest flavor. We do this in the spirit of good fun, but we will not be making lutefisk ice cream, I can assure you.”
Last year, the dining hall’s gross revenue was $195,536, or approximately $16,000 per day.
“We don’t make nearly as much as Sweet Martha’s,” said Renneke with a laugh, and she’s right. In 2016, the chocolate chip cookie juggernaut raked in a cool $4 million. The runner-up, Midwest Dairy Association — operator of the All-You-Can-Drink Milk booth — logged sales of $1.1 million.
The church doesn’t reveal profit figures. A major expense is the 15 percent of gross sales (minus any collected sales taxes) that all vendors pay to the fair. But the dining hall does turn a profit.
“If we didn’t have volunteers, we wouldn’t make any money,” said Renneke. “Every church has some kind of giant fundraiser. This is ours.”
There’s a paid chef/manager, Erik Hendrickson. Youth workers also get paid, to scrub pots and pans, scoop ice cream and help with the cooking.
“For a lot of them, it’s their first job, ever,” said Renneke. “They learn work skills.”
The church’s 15-member dining hall committee starts its preliminary planning in February. During the run of the fair, it takes 60 people a day to keep the dining hall’s three daily shifts — breakfast, lunch and dinner — operating smoothly. That’s 720 job slots from Aug. 24 through Labor Day, and they’re covered by a staff that numbers approximately 250 people, who receive an admission ticket and a meal.
An impressive percentage of volunteers have logged 50 or more years of service at the dining hall. What keeps Hamline’s volunteers coming back, summer after summer?
“The folks who do it wholeheartedly believe in the dining hall and the State Fair,” said Renneke. “And it’s an awesome fellowship opportunity. You get to mingle with people you might not normally mingle with. We have a good time, and we’re proud of what we’re doing. And we’re holding onto a tradition.”
Most volunteers are culled from the church’s 400-member congregation.
“But people bring friends, neighbors, co-workers,” said Renneke. “We’ve had people who ate at the dining hall, thought that it looked like fun and wondered if they could volunteer.”
The answer, of course, was “yes.”
“They keep coming back,” she said. “They’re part of the family. I’m glad that we look friendly, and we look like we’re having a good time. Because we are.”
1667 Dan Patch Av.
Breakfast served 7-10:30 a.m., lunch and dinner served 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
State Fair Ham Loaf
Serves 6 to 8.
Note: Adapted from the “Hamline Cookbook.”
For ham loaf:
• 1 1/2 lb. ground ham
• 1 1/2 lb. ground beef
• 3 c. dry breadcrumbs
• 1 small onion, chopped
• 1/2 tsp. salt
• 1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
• 1/2 tsp. curry powder
• 1/2 tsp. ground sage
• 1/2 tsp. allspice
• 2 c. milk
• 3 eggs, slightly beaten
• 2 c. brown sugar, packed
• 2/3 c. vinegar
• 1/4 c. prepared mustard
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
To prepare ham loaf: In a large bowl, combine ground ham, ground beef, breadcrumbs, onion, salt, pepper, curry powder, sage and allspice and mix to combine. Add milk and eggs and mix to combine. Pack mixture into a 5- by 9- by 3-inch loaf pan.
To prepare sauce: In a medium bowl, stir together brown sugar, vinegar and mustard and mix until thoroughly combined. Pour half of sauce over loaf. Bake for 90 minutes. Remove from oven and serve with remaining sauce on the side.
Nutrition information per each of 8 servings:
Calories 760 Fat 35 g Sodium 1,260 mg
Carbohydrates 71 g Saturated fat 12 g Total sugars 42 mg
Protein 40 g Cholesterol 190 mg Dietary fiber 2 g
Exchanges per serving: 2 starch, 2 ½ carb, 5 med.-fat protein, 1 ½ fat.