To her neighbors, Gert Kuschel is more than just a good cook and a good friend - she's kitchen royalty.
The Brainerd area native, long known as someone who would send along a container of soup to an ailing friend, "officially" obtained the title of soup queen from Wayne Erickson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Brainerd, and former owner of Brainerd's Front Street Cafe.
Kuschel drove her golf cart the short distance to Erickson's house one day with an offering of soup for a contingent that was heading to the hunting shack. Erickson and the other hunters enjoyed the soup and he responded with a voice-mail message in which he raved about her cooking and relinquished any claim of soup mastery of his own.
"You are the soup queen of Brainerd," she remembered him saying on the voice mail.
A smiling Gert Kuschel of northeast Brainerd demonstrated the "Joy of Cooking" as she stirred one of 33 soups that she offered to more than 100 friends and family members last month in what turned into a day-long open house.
Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey
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Erickson, who described Kuschel as an unbelievable cook who prepares dishes the old-fashioned way, recalled the message he left her.
"You have surpassed my expectations of good soup," he told her.
Last month the soup queen reigned over her subjects on soup day - offering 33 soups to more than 100 friends and neighbors. The soups, arrayed in a maze of crockpots, included tomato garlic basil, oyster stew, chicken tortilla, stuffed pepper and chicken dumpling. Two of the soups were gluten-free. Small custard cups were available to test soups before deciding on which one was bowl-worthy. Served with the soups were a variety of breads and hot popovers.
All of the prepatory work - the chopping of the celery and carrots and the making of the dumplings - is done before the big day. The soups are cooked and then stored in her garage where the cool February temperatures keep them as well as any refrigerator. When soup day came this year the serving periods were 10:45 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m. By the time the pots and pans are cleaned it's an all-day event.
Born: Nokay Lake Township, Crow Wing County.
Family: Three children, Pamela, Albie and Misty; five grandchildren, a sixth grandchild passed away earlier. Her husband, Albin, died nearly six years ago.
Favorite soup: Probably my most favorite is homemade noodles and chicken.
Favorite smelling soup? I do like a good bean soup.
Favorite cookbook? Can't pick just one. No. I have 500 cookbooks.
Favorite television channel: The Food Channel.
Hobbies: Gardening and golf.
"We worked - four of us - until 10 p.m.," she said of her helpers. "I call them my slaves."
Card tables are set up on two levels of Kuschel's home and crockpots are everywhere. The first soup day was in 2008 with 22 soups and about 60 people. The idea of attracting friends and family with a dizzying variety of soups came to Kuschel one night and now it's become a tradition that's in its second year.
"In the winter ... there's not much going on February," she said. "It's fun to make a bunch of soups. I didn't realize what a production it was going to be."
Recipe research was conducted by Kuschel on the Internet and from cookbooks propped up on the stand of an elliptical exercise machine at the gym.
The challenging part of the endeavor, she said, was returning the pots and pans to the right people. A tip jar was set up with the proceeds split between two Faith Baptist Church missionary projects.
Kuschel's mother, Elvera Bescheinen, owned the Log Cabin Cafe but Kuschel saw the demanding nature of the job and never aspired to run her own restaurant.
"I helped my mom at the restaurant," she said. "It's 24 hours. I didn't want a restaurant, thank you," she said.
Kuschel said her sisters are great cooks as was her mother.
"I couldn't cook like she did," Kuschel said. "She was a great cook."
Kuschel worked at the Brainerd State Hospital for 32-1/2 years. For much of that time she was a building coordinator who would order furniture and make purchases for the buildings.
The retiree said sharing soup on a cold winter day is a great way to get to know people. She recalled that when her house was full of people and all the soups were being warmed the inside temperature started to get uncomfortably warm.
"I turned the heat completely off," she said.
While cooking for such a large group might seem like a daunting task, it didn't bother Kuschel.
"What's the difference if you cook for five or 75?" she asked.
MIKE O'ROURKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5860.
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