Bring on the strawberries

Red Oak Grove is preparing for its annual Strawberry Festival. -- Herald file photo

The strawberry: a sweet, red fruit that grows on a low-growing plant and is available in massive quantities at an Austin-area church Tuesday.

Red Oak Grove Lutheran Church will hold its 71st annual Strawberry Festival on Tuesday. The festival, which consists of a large meal served to hundreds of attendees that capitalizes on strawberries, raises funds for the church. A team of volunteers will serve the meal from 4 to 7 p.m.

“We have a menu of sloppy Joe’s and hot dogs, potato salad and baked beans,” said congregation member Doris Draayer said, naming off a few of the foods the church will prepare.

In accordance with its namesake, the festival will also feature a variety of strawberry-based foods. Attendees can find strawberry ice cream, strawberry shortcake, whipped cream and angel food cake as they go down the food line.

Draayer said there will be two separate lines of food in different rooms to cut lines down; one will be in the basement, the other in the fellowship room. There will also be tables outside, assuming the weather holds up.

“A lot of people like to bring children and sit outside if it’s nice,” she said.

An elevator will be available for those who would like to eat downstairs but would like to avoid going down the steps.

While the majority of the guests come at the scheduled time for dinner, the church holds a separate meal earlier in the day.

“We have people from the rest homes coming for the noon luncheon,” said Verna Magnuson, the church’s historian. Nursing home visitors come from Austin or Blooming Prairie. “That’s been going on about two to three years now.”

Draayer said it helps these guests enjoy their meals without the commotion and confusion that comes with the larger crowd.

“That works very well for us,” Draayer said. “We can give them more attention and help.”

In the past, the church typically has seen about 800 people, though attendance has reached as high as 900 some years.

Besides needing a lot of strawberries, preparation for the festival calls for a lot of volunteers. A team of 65 to 70 volunteers will help arrange and serve the food. Most of them are in their 80s, which Draayer, who is 86 herself, said was common.

“Sunday after church we will peel our potatoes and do our eggs and put them in the cooler,” Draayer said. This keeps the potatoes cold and ready for the potato salad, which she said is a favorite dish of many attendees.

“People like it so well that they don’t believe [the volunteers] make it,” Magnuson said.

The church’s 300 pounds of strawberries have already been gathered and placed in the freezer.

There is no up-front cost for the Strawberry Festival, Draayer said. Guests go down the line, pick up the food they want and pay for it at the end.

“It’s our money-maker for the year,” she said. The money raised ends up being used in part for church projects. Right now, Red Oak Grove is working toward getting new chairs for the pastor’s office and new rugs in other parts of the church.

The rest goes toward mission work, she said.

“We give to Good Earth Village, Marie Sandvik in Minneapolis, Red Cross, Salvation Army, Rachel’s Hope,” she said. “Different projects like that.”

While cost will vary, Draayer said a plate full of different foods should run less than $10 per person.

While strawberries are the feature of this festival, Magnuson said the church used to have a similar gathering in the fall.

“We used to have a lutefisk supper,” Magnuson said. That changed when a building remodel left the church with no exterior windows that opened from the basement, where the kitchen is. The strong smell the dish carries meant it would no longer be an option.

“You need to have ventilation when you have a lutefisk supper,” she said.

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