As a volunteer at her church, JoAnn Blatchley has one of the most only-in-Minnesota titles around: She's a hot dish minister.
At St. John's Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, the members of Blatchley's hot dish ministry keep track of fellow parishioners who need extra help or are going through a tough time and take turns cooking and delivering dinners to them.
"You realize, 'My goodness, somebody's spending all day at the hospital with their loved ones, let's make sure that we get this offered,'" she said. "People don't like to ask for help, but it's here."
While many churches work to provide meals to members of their congregations without making it official, hot dish ministries can be found across the state, at places of worship like Nisswa's Lutheran Church of the Cross and Minneapolis' Mayflower Church. They usually go hand in hand with other caring groups led by volunteers within the congregation, like a prayer shawl ministry for those who prefer crocheting to cooking.
"We know that loneliness is increasing in our society and that it is unhealthy to our souls and bodies," said the Rev. Sarah Campbell, the team lead minister at Mayflower, where the hot dish ministry is one of many congregational care groups, providing a way for members to support one another.
At St. John's, Blatchley often simply refers to the entire endeavor as "hot dish" — as in, "I'm not sure when we started hot dish per se, it's been around forever."
But decades ago, when she first moved here from the East Coast, she was unsure about the term — which has been what Minnesotans call a baked combo of meat and veggies since at least 1930, when the first hot dish recipe was recorded in Mankato's "Grace Lutheran Ladies Aid Cookbook."
"I knew what a casserole was, but then somebody told me to bring a hot dish to a potluck," Blatchley said. "Well, I figured it out."
Each week, a big part of St. John's hot dish ministry mission includes talking with the church's rector and looking over prayer chain requests to figure out who would be especially helped with a meal. They keep things organized so that "one person doesn't get six casseroles and another person gets neglected," Blatchley said.
She and her co-director will give people a call and ask if they'd like a meal or two. While they help out in the short term, when there's a death in the family or a brief hospitalization, they also work to provide meals on a regular basis for those who need consistent help.
"We have had a number of those through the years, and especially with a long-term situation it really needs to be organized," she said. "I've gotten to know people better, and some I have a special connection with. It's not just reaching out to the people that you know, but people within the whole circle of the congregation."
Once they know who needs a meal, they call volunteers who provide the groceries, do the cooking in their own homes and deliver the prepared meals.
When it's her turn to cook, Blatchley's go-to hot dish is Cuban-style chicken with rice and peas.
"And a bag of salad and a loaf of French bread. That's my fallback," she said. "Some people do ground meats, pasta dishes."
Beyond crisis care
When members at Minneapolis' Mayflower Church formed their hot dish ministry nearly a decade ago, they wanted to commit to caring for those facing a crisis or transition and go beyond having basic meals stocked in the church freezer, said Christina Gough, the ministry's current coordinator.
They organize a spreadsheet and a calendar of about a dozen volunteers, who take turns each week to customize and cook meals to fit members' dietary needs and tastes, let them know when to expect a delivery, and stop by with the food.
"It gives it a personal touch, because you've already talked to the person and then they're expecting to see you," Gough said.
Hot dish isn't always on the menu, but the ministry's title is fitting, she said. "It feels cozy, it feels comforting," she said. "It taps into that idea of a comfort offering."
On a recent Saturday, hot dish ministry volunteer Belle Scott dropped off a supper of roasted chicken, roasted pears with Swiss chard and a dessert of peach cobbler at Jolene and Gene Roehlkepartain's house in St. Louis Park — the seventh delivery in the past six months as Jolene undergoes treatment for pancreatic cancer.
When it's Gough's week, she will often take what her own family is having for dinner — whether that's fajitas or homemade macaroni and cheese — and make extra.
"This makes it like, if I was having someone over to dinner, this is what I would give them," she said.
That also helps with another of the ministry's benefits, one for those doing the cooking:
"It gives you a chance to make a new friend," said Gough.