When bone-chilling, spit-freezing winter starts on Halloween and continues til Easter, as it often does in the northern reaches of the Upper Midwest, who could blame Minnesotans for going a little crazy when summer comes? Hibernating like bears (if bears had hockey, beer, and NPR) for six months of the year, Minnesotans follow their Scandinavian forebearers and swim, run, dance, bike, party, picnic, dine, and promenade like mad during their precious summer months, soaking up day after sunny, scorching day and basking through bath-warm twilights that linger long past dinnertime.
According to my 11-year-old niece, who has lived in a suburb of Minneapolis since 2006, “everyone” has a cabin on a lake, or at least a townhouse or condo-share with lake-splashing, dock-sunning privileges. Still, it seems like plenty of people have stuck around during this Fourth of July week in the Twin Cities, where I’ve been having a long-overdue family visit with my sister Amy and my nephew and nieces. I pick up a copy of Minnesota Monthly magazine at the Linden Hills Co-Op, a kind of miniaturized Berkeley Bowl of the prairie, where we go to pump our own Minnesota maple syrup out of a tall stainless-steel vat and pick up a few glass bottles of Cedar Summit’s organic, pastured milk. Not surprisingly, the magazine’s cover story is a round-up of the best in local foods, 146 of them, in fact, from Kalona sour cream and Birch Berry Wild Rice to Surly’s Darkness Stout, along with dozens of other pickles, relishes, jams, butters, chocolates, yogurt, breads, syrups, meats, and beers chosen by longtime Minneapolis writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl. Elsewhere in the magazine, local NPR personality and Splendid Table host Lynne Rossetto Kasper writes with pride that in her opinion, only California can compete with Minnesota when it comes to making and supporting high-quality, locally-sourced and -inspired food and drink.
My nephew, age 13, is a big fan of the octopus and frogs’ legs at the tiny, quirky, molecular-gastronomy-influenced Travail Kitchen and Amusements, run by the kind of mustachioed, nose-ringed cool kids you’d see behind the bar at Alembic or in the kitchen at Nopa. Alas, it must be that all the cool kids have cabins, too, because Travail has shut down for the entire month of July, presumably for some lakeside R&R. (The fact that the un-air-conditioned restaurant is mostly a counter facing an open kitchen may have also encouraged a summertime shutdown.)
So my sister and I head to the more traditional Meritage (rhymes with heritage) in St. Paul, a spacious French brasserie with a white-tiled oyster bar (still a bit of a novelty in a city ringed with lakes but far, far away from any salt water) on one side and a crepe cart out front. We take a table on the sidewalk, the better to listen to the live music drifting over from a nearby plaza, where couples in everything from cowboy boots to flip-flops are dipping and two-stepping to Kevin Anthony and the Twin City Playboys, part of the Ordway Summer Dance series.
Our server, with a lavishly waxed and twirled mustache straight off the sign at Tommy’s Joynt, hands us a stack of menus: cocktail and beer list, wine list, bar menu, dinner menu. At the top of the dinner menu are a handful of two-bite, $3 starters, including a demitasse of excellent chilled gazpacho, crunchy with minutely diced raw onion and peppers; a wee fresh-tuna taco; and a pyramid of “compressed watermelon,” vividly pink, which turns out to have been cryovaced to reduce its volume by two-thirds, condensing its cool, sweet wateriness into the essence of what Henry James called the two most beautiful words in the English language, summer afternoon.
We follow our gazpacho with a martini glass of cool, jellied lobster consomme studded with a few chunks of lobster, veiled with a creamy layer of corn puree, and topped with a boutonniere of tiny basil leaves. Corn, lobster, basil: if I weren’t already sitting outside, sipping white wine in a shoulder-baring sundress, one taste of these flavors would leave me no doubt that summer’s in full swing. Peach and arugula salad sounds pleasant but predictable–what California-cuisine menu doesn’t have a stone-fruit salad on offer right now?–but the execution is a delicious surprise. The peach slices, thin as coins and round as the moon, have been cooked sous-vide with vanilla and Muscat to a melting tenderness that would be heaven in a peach Melba with vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of raspberry coulis. But they’re pretty fantastic just like this, under a tangle of snappy arugula scattered with toasted pistachios and shards of Parmesan.
Wild sea bass, with a texture caught between ceviche and crudo, is scattered with “essence of celery,” diced and juiced, adding a green, woodsy note to the supple fish. The $3 bites return on the dessert menu, and so we sample a macaron of the day, lavender-hued and stuffed with chewy-sweet fig, and a satiny espresso pot de creme topped with Valrhona chocolate-crunch beads and a dab of whipped cream.
The next morning, even with thunderclouds threatening overhead, I can’t resist a trip to the Mill City Farmers Market, one of the Twin Cities’ largest and most popular open-air markets. As befitting its name, and Minnesota’s history as a grain-producing and grain-milling center, there are several producers selling their own locally grown wheat, corn, rye, and oats. I buy a bag of organic, coarse-grained corn grits from Sunrise Flour Mill, then another bag of Prairie Hollow Farm’s high-protein whole-wheat bread flour, milled from kulm, a rare heritage strain of wheat. Prairie Hollow’s Pam Benike tells me that she farms organically on land that has been cultivated by her family for generations. She raises a little of everything: wheat, dairy cattle, vegetables, fruits, even what you might call gourmet weeds, very popular with her restaurant clients. For $2, I get a big bag of offbeat greens, including nettles, purslane, chickweed, plantain, and lambs’ quarters. Nearby, Very Prairie is selling “prairievore” granola, excellent rhubarb ketchup, and a very state-fair-ready treat, pie on a stick.
When you can’t start planting until late April, July is still spring, and so despite the 90-degree heat, the produce on offer is mostly still green: lettuce, kale, chard, peas, lots of kohlrabi and tons of garlic scapes, plus new potatoes, beets, and carrots.
Garlic scapes, I’m told by one of the workers at Swede Lake Farms, are the curly shoots and buds of hardneck garlic, which grow best in cold climates, leaving California more prone to the mild-climate softneck types. No plums or peaches yet, but there’s plenty of rhubarb for pie, plus raspberries, strawberries, and black caps, similar to black raspberries but seedier and less sweet.
The prepared foods are eclectic: pedal-powered fruit smoothies, made by Erica of Foxy Falafel in a bike-powered blender; herring sandwiches and bacon-beer bratwursts from the Chef Shack truck; Himalayan momo dumplings across from puffy Swedish ebelskiver pancakes. Hmong families set up shop next to Mennonites and tattooed young farmers. Little kids lick ice cream cones from Sonny’s (don’t miss the black-currant sorbet) and dance to the perky tunes of Potluck and the Hot Dishes. It’s all so very Minneapolis.