St. Paul 'church lunch' has got some soul


Low-key, original, communal -- can I get an Amen?

When you walk down into the basement of Central Presbyterian Church and see those bright lime green walls, you may say to yourself, "This is just what I came for!" The phenomenon of 'church lunch', as these lunchtime Wednesday gatherings are called, effortlessly does what so many restaurants fail to do -- have an identity. It knows exactly what it is, lime green walls and all.

On my most recent trip, an elderly volunteer took my donation (recommended minimum is $6.00) as I entered. After glancing at the handwritten menu of the day (black marker on tall white pad), I proceeded to the long cafeteria tables full of food. Everything was set up in perfect order, buffet style: salad, soup, bread, dessert, and two beverage tables, one for hot, the other cold. One table had styrofoam cups and pitchers of hot coffee. The other had paper cups and six glass pitchers, three of ice water, and three of iced tea. This preparation is the work of the church volunteers, like the church ladies who briskly move in and out of the kitchen during the meal to make sure there is enough of everything, filling and re-filling, if necessary.

Each week, the same tiny elderly woman stands at the end of the line hunched over, carefully serving the dessert of the day. She's so focused on her work that If you try and talk to her, she likely won't respond. Hard of hearing or just diligent? You'll never know. Just one of the church lunch mysteries you'll have to stomach.

People sit in folded chairs around large round tables or long rectangular ones. The clientele at church lunch is a mix of people from downtown, some affiliated with the church, but many not. Large groups of people working in the nearby Minnesota Public Radio building regularly make it over every Wednesday for church lunch. If you sit near enough, you may recognize their voices...

Though often a mixed bag in terms of execution, the menu always includes something rather interesting. Each week, it changes. Past visits have found me spooning salad loaded with bits of ham, or eating baked beans or chili, or brownies for dessert. My most recent trip included a cucumber and pineapple salad with celery seed dressing, slices of whole wheat sourdough bread and a Brazilian soup that included black beans and thick bits of ham. The broth had a tropical flavor to it and the meatiness of the ham (not thin cold cut slivers, but chunks) won me over. For my lunch companion, it was the second soup, the vegetarian cream of potato soup that was the better of the two. The soup was not too heavy and included sliced mushrooms as well as chunks of potato. We were both disappointed in the dessert, an eggnog rice pudding. It tasted a little like overripe bananas and the texture of the rice was slightly undercooked and hard.

The atmosphere at church lunch is so relaxed that you can stay as long as you want, just make sure to bus your tray cafeteria style as you go. The industrious church workers will already be busy washing when you slip your cleaned off plate to them.

Despite the sometimes strange menu items, its 'so-not-like-the-office' atmosphere makes church lunch a place where even major food missteps are forgiven. Hallelujah.