Church dining halls have been a tradition since the earliest days of the State Fair, but today the 117-year-old hall operated by St. Paul’s Hamline United Methodist Church in St. Paul is one of only two still in business.
“Every year when it ends, it’s kind of like, ‘Ooh, that was such hard work,’” said Jan Bajuniemi, treasurer of the church committee that operates the establishment. “Then you let a few months go by and people are saying, ‘Well, we have to start getting ready now.’”
The dining halls date back to a time when families and exhibitors working at the fair were hungry for something more substantial than novelties on sticks.
But the classic dining hall plays an important role in the modern fair, too, Bajuniemi said. Fair workers and exhibitors still put in long hard days and want to sit down to a square meal now and then. Also, the hall offers tables and chairs, so you’re “not just sitting down on a dusty curb to eat your pork chop.”
To keep things fresh, the mostly volunteer staff adds new menu items every year, including this year’s Izzy’s ice-cream flavor, Jell-O Salad (lime-flavored ice cream with cranberries and mini-marshmallows).
But don’t worry, lovers of the diner’s signature ham loaf. At the Hamline Church Dining Hall, that classic dish is as popular as meatballs or chicken and will probably hold a permanent place on the menu.
“There is a group of people that is steadfast in their love for ham loaf and come back every year, just anxious for the ham-loaf dinner,” Bajuniemi said. “It’s like any other food at the fair. Some people don’t go near it and other people love it.” □