Famed 'church lunch' offers extra helpings during RNCby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
Thursday is not just the last day of the Republican National Convention, it's also the last day of an extended week of what's known as "Church Lunch".
St. Paul, Minn. — Every Wednesday, people in downtown St. Paul can head to the Central Presbyterian Church on Cedar and gorge themselves on an array of homemade salads, soups, breads and desserts.
And like many others in the hospitality business, the church geared up to offer church lunch every day of the Republican Convention.
The first thing you need to know about church lunch is it's not a potluck. There's no hodge-podge of food where you might show up one day and find 17 plates of desserts and the macaroni salad will just have to serve as the main course. That's because everything's been planned out.
Church Lunch has its own chef.
"I think people don't expect to find this in a church - they think of church as maybe Minnesota hot-dishes," noted Barb Westman, the church lunch chef.
"But instead we're doing really fresh food, I try to keep abreast of food trends. All the breads are homemade. My sister is an expert on salad dressings.
"And we have access to home-grown vegetables this time of year and I guess we know how to use them."
That's not to say it doesn't have the feel of a typical church lunch. It takes place in the basement, which recently got a paint job so it wouldn't look too 1950's.
The food is served in huge bowls and dishes on a regular fold out cafeteria table. And don't forget the church ladies replenishing the stock and serving brownies.
But last Wednesday's menu included Texas baked beans, vegetable primavera pasta salad, garden salad with egg and pickles, rye bread, and brownies. The menu is written on an easel that people see when they first enter the basement to pay for lunch.
Mark Peil comes just about every Wednesday from a nearby job at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. He said comes just for something different and to get out of the office.
"I enjoy being around other people," Peil said. "It's good food, good church lady food."
It's such a draw that the St. Paul Pioneer Press's food critic wrote about church lunch last year. Pastor Dave Colby said, on average, about 150 people show up every Wednesday. Not bad for some church ladies in a basement.
"We try to make it really low-key," Colby said. "It's not an evangelistic tool, we don't push religion down anybody's throat, and that was a conscious choice.
"We think there's something intrinsic about the value of meals and, in Christian words, 'table fellowship' that doesn't need words to describe what's happening."
The church also sits next to a certain public radio station in downtown St. Paul, which typically supplies a fair number of patrons on any given Wednesday.
"It's the highlight of my week," said Susan Leem, a producer on MPR's "Midmorning."
"When I was pregnant a couple years ago, I could not hold anything down except for church lunch."
But business has been slower than expected at church lunch this week. That's kind of a letdown for chef Barb Westman. She says some protestors dined here this week.
But the expanded service was still a must, regardless of how many came for lunch.
"The church has a new mission to serve downtown St. Paul," Westman said. "Their slogan is 'in the city for good.' This is an opportunity to serve the city, to provide this meal for good, and hopefully we'll represent the city and state in a good way."
And the best part of church lunch? Westman said you can stay as long as you want and you don't have to leave a tip.
- Morning Edition, 09/04/2008, 6:54 a.m.