Never underestimate the power of a good meal — especially if it includes dessert.
Elaine Christiansen’s life has been a testament to the truth of that sentiment. From the test kitchens of Pillsbury, to the 4-H Cafeteria and Hamline Church Dining Hall at the Minnesota State Fair, to the makeshift kitchens where she cooks for annual humanitarian missions in Guatemala, Christiansen has spent a lifetime exploring ways to feed and care for her fellow human beings.
And the cherry on top is that she always seems to have so much fun in the process.
“I like doing things for others,” said Christiansen, 88, of Falcon Heights. “I think my purpose in life is outreach. I have a pretty strong work ethic.”
How she started
You might call Christiansen one of the original — and one of the last true remaining — home economists.
She grew up on a potato farm near Osseo with her brother, Eldon Tessman. When she and her brother were 12 and 14, their father died in a tragic hunting accident. Not long after, their mother encouraged them to join 4-H.
After Christiansen had started high school, her mother needed to move to Arizona for health reasons, so Christiansen finished school there and went on to earn her college degree in home economics education from Arizona State University in Tempe.
As her mother’s health recovered, they moved back to Minnesota and — quite sure she didn’t want to go into classroom teaching — Christiansen began her career with University of Minnesota Extension as a home agent in Martin County in 1951, later moving to the state 4-H office on the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus.
One of her responsibilities was managing the 4-H cafeteria during the State Fair, a task she handled for 30 years — first as a 4-H staff member and later as a consultant — which involved feeding up to 1,200 kids per day.
It was during her time working in the 4-H office that Christiansen met her future husband, Martin, a graduate student in applied economics.
The couple went on to have four sons — John, David, Jim and Joel — and Christiansen became a stay-at-home mother. But she also became active in Twin City Home Economists in Homemaking, an organization that was instrumental in the publication of two Cooking in Minnesota cookbooks, featuring recipes from the kitchens of real homemakers, who painstakingly selected, edited and tested the recipes.
Since 1975, a whopping 40,000 copies of each book has sold, raising $822,404 to fund scholarships, grants and programs in home economics. Today the group is still active as the Twin City Home and Community section of the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences.
Pillsbury to Panama
Christiansen’s volunteer recipe work paved the way for her next chapter of paid work in recipe development with Pillsbury and the legendary Bake-Off.
In 1969, when her youngest son was in kindergarten, Christiansen started as a freelance consultant, testing recipes that had been submitted to the contest. She then continued to work with the Bake-Off — in contract and staff positions — until 1996.
“It was an amazing transition to go from being a 4-H farm girl to corporate America,” said Christiansen, who was crowned the 4-H Vegetable Queen in 1950 and went on to become the National Vegetable Queen.
Her Pillsbury work involved just about every aspect of what she described as the “glory years” of the Bake-Off, getting the 100 finalists’ recipes into a cookbook, making arrangements for the Bake-Off contestants and attending the events.
“I was impressed by the absolute integrity of every phase of the contest,” she said. “It was really the goal of everyone at Pillsbury to ensure that the 100 finalists had a successful, happy experience and an equal opportunity to earn the prize money.”
Christiansen’s husband and children were supportive of her being a working mother.
“Martin and the children made adjustments to have me work away from home,” she said.
In 1982, Martin died suddenly of cardiac arrest. Christiansen eventually took on full-time work in Pillsbury’s consumer service and publications department, continuing there until she retired as an in-house employee in 1994.
Retirement was just the beginning of the next chapter of her life, however. In 2000, Christiansen married Hal Routhe, who had been a coworker of Martin’s and who was a longtime friend. For their honeymoon, Christiansen and Routhe joined an Airstream trailer caravan and traveled through Central America to Panama and back.
Routhe died in 2014 after an extended illness.
World travel has become increasingly important to Christiansen over the years. She’s now been to all seven continents, including Antarctica (where she’s been twice). Some of her other favorites include Turkey, the fjords of Norway and — more on this later — Guatemala.
50 years at the fair
In addition to those worldly travels, Christiansen’s kept close ties to home, too, with decades of volunteer work.
One of her longest-standing volunteer jobs — 50 years running — is at the Hamline Church Dining Hall during the Minnesota State Fair. Her church, Hamline Church–United Methodist in St. Paul, has run the popular hall since 1897.
Every year, the concession donates a portion of its proceeds to a local organization working to address hunger issues. In 2017, the dining hall posted record sales — $280,000, up 40 percent — a huge feat in an era when nonprofit food booths have all but disappeared at the fair.
Every day the fair is in operation, Christiansen arrives for her shift at 5:30 a.m., smiling and ready to work.
“It’s such a wonderful group of volunteers, who carry on the tradition of the forward-looking women of the church to provide home cooking and friendly service at the fair,” she said.
In recognition of her commitment, Christiansen was named an honorary life member of the Minnesota State Agricultural Society in 2014, an honor that comes with a highly coveted (and rare) item — a parking pass to use at the fairgrounds.
“The Minnesota State Fair is a grander event because of Elaine Christiansen,” said Minnesota State Fair Agricultural Society Board President Al Paulson.
Jan Bajuniemi, a fellow volunteer who’s been working with Christiansen at the dining hall for more than 20 years, said Christiansen’s been an inspiration to everyone around her.
“She sees the whole package of what we’re doing in the dining hall, from the business side of food, to the taste, to the presentation,” Bajuniemi said. “And her energy is amazing! I’m 75 and I can’t do what she does.”
Global volunteer work
While she’s proud to contribute to hometown events, Christiansen also has volunteered with two global organizations — Helps International and Common Hope. It all started about 20 years ago, when a former classmate at a reunion told her about volunteering for medical missions in Guatemala.
“I said I wished I could do that, too, but I wasn’t a nurse,” Christiansen said. “She explained that they have kitchen crews who travel along to feed the group of 130 volunteers.”
Helps International volunteers visit a remote area of the country, conduct needed surgeries, install water purifiers and set up ONIL cooking stoves, a safer and more efficient alternative to the open fires typically used in home cooking in Guatemala.
Christiansen went on her first trip the very next year. Each journey involves traveling to Guatemala City by air and then on to a remote area. She most recently visited the highland city of Huehuetenango.
“The kitchen looks like a MASH unit,” Christiansen said. “We walk into an empty space and then begin to unload. Sometimes we might not have all the supplies we need, and we improvise.”
The team serves three meals daily for the seven-day visit. Christiansen’s in charge of breakfast breads and desserts.
“It’s hard to cook pancakes without a griddle, but I’ve done it,” she said, adding that she enjoys the challenge of creating familiar, tasty foods in an unfamiliar place.
“I have such fun making the desserts. It’s high altitude, so we have to be aware of that, and I’ve found the old-fashioned desserts perform the best,” she said. “Having something to look forward to is important to people who are working hard, so I’m glad we can give them a yummy meal and dessert.”
A perennial favorite of many of the volunteers is her quick and tasty peach cobbler. (Check out the recipe in this issue’s In the Kitchen department.)
“We go in at 5 a.m. and we’re done by 8 p.m. It’s a long day, but we’re having fun,” Christiansen said. “The people working together are full of humor, and we have great camaraderie.”
Doesn’t she get fatigued from those long days?
“I wear good tennies,” she said, “so I’m OK.”
Her four sons and their families understand her need to go globetrotting in the name of doing good. In fact, one of her sons will go along on her trip this spring.
“They have always been supportive,” she said. “And they know it’s good for me to have some adventure in my life.”
On one of her early trips to Guatemala, Christiansen became aware of Antigua-based Common Hope.
“You agree to sponsor a child, and your contribution goes toward their educational expenses and general family support,” she said.
So far, Christiansen has sponsored 10 children, often traveling to Antigua to attend her sponsored child’s high school graduation.
“We write back and forth, and I get remarkable letters, full of gratitude,” she said. “By the time they graduate, I feel like I’m part of their families, and I know this help is making a difference.”
Diane Anderson, who was Christiansen’s coworker at Pillsbury, has been on four trips with her, including one visit to a girl Christiansen was sponsoring.
“Elaine had visited the family many times throughout the years, but within six months of her last visit, the girl’s twin sister was stricken with leukemia and died,” Anderson said. “When we arrived at their home, we sat in the girls’ tiny bedroom, where a prominent candlelit shrine honored her sister. I will always remember the outpouring of love that day — how Elaine cradled the mother’s face in her hands, and how she gazed directly into the mother’s eyes to comfort her grief. Their face-to-face expressions spoke volumes.”
For Christiansen, there’s clearly sweetness to be gained by doing for others, and there’s a special reward in working as a part of a team.
“Martin and the boys and I were a team at home, and I’ve always enjoyed the team atmosphere at work and with volunteer opportunities,” she said. “Everyone I’ve ever worked alongside is part of my story, too. I didn’t do any of this by myself.”
Christiansen said her volunteer work and her eight grandchildren have filled and enriched her life since her retirement from Pillsbury.
“I’m just so grateful that I can reach out and give a helping hand,” she said. “I firmly believe that we are one world and we need to take care of each other. If we just open up our hearts to others, the whole world becomes our neighborhood, our community.”
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local and national publications. She lives in Minneapolis. Follow her on Twitter @KendrickWorks.