Bizarre Foods in Minnesota
Proving once again that the most bizarre foods and adventures are usually found right in your own back yard, I give you my whirlwind tour of my adopted home state, Minnesota. I could have shot an entire show in one day in the Twin Cities alone actually. Tongue tacos on Lake Street at Pineda Tacqueria, fish maw and spicy pig intestines at my favorite Chinese restaurant (Shuang Cheng, Little Szechuan and The Teahouse all rock these dishes), homemade head cheese at Kramarczuk’s. I could go on and on. But instead I took my father-in-law’s advice. He has insisted for years that I should check out the White Earth Re-Discovery Center and do some wild rice harvesting, so we did. The Center is where tribal elders pass on traditional skills to a generation that is removed from ancestral tribal life. The White Earth people believe that the Great Spirit brought them from the North Eastern United States to the North Western corner of our state to a place where the elders told me “the food will come from the water”. Zizania Palustris is a plant native to the Upper Midwest lakes region. It’s actually not rice, but a water-grass seed that is highly prized around the world for its singular nutty flavor. I spent the morning on the lake gliding in a canoe through the delicate shoots, knocking the seeds into the floor of the canoe while my partner poled us along. Some things to keep in mind: the shoots can be ripped out simply by tugging on them, many a lake has been stripped of its value by ignorant boaters and the act of knocking the seeds with long wooden sticks is purposely sloppy allowing much of the harvest to fall back into the lake for reseeding the rice bed. We cured the rice by letting it air dry, parched it over an open fire in a cast iron kettle by stirring it with a wooden paddle letting the stray grasses and outermost ‘skin’ harmlessly burn away. The raw rice takes on a smoky quality. The rest of the rice is jigged, or threshed, by dancing on the seeds until the skin separates completely and can be winnowed away by tossing the rice in the air, allowing the lighter than air chaff to simply blow away. We ate griddled yearling deer, the baked bannock bread and the rice were a real treat, and yes we ate all of the deer, the heart, and the liver, all of it. The strangest thing we ate that day was the sucker-head soup, a bland potage made with a repulsive lake fish renowned for its fatty and cartilaginous body. The heads are the prized resident of each diners bowl, you chew, you suck, you spit out bones. No one said this job was easy.
The Minnesota State Fair offers up an environment that is rich with some of the world’s strangest foods, and for me some delicious irony. The foods that I long for the most in between trips overseas are either being judged in the 4H animal buildings or born up at the Miracle of Birth complex. In Madrid, Casa Botin has built a world famous 300 year old reputation on roasting baby pigs, if I were running things there would be baby pigs, lambs and chicks coming out of wood burning ovens instead of sitting under heat lamps waiting for the unwashed hordes to snap their picture. Sounds tastier than a candy bar on a stick don’t you think? I settled for an afternoon sharing corn dogs with my pal Marjorie Johnson, and sampling the good (wild game brats at Giggles, deep fried smelt), the bad (cola cheesecake, ostrich on a stick, spaghetti and meatballs on a stick) and the ugly (deep fried Spam nuggets). I have to say there seems to be a disturbing trend over the last 5 years or so to incorporate new foods to the Fair menu simply because someone can put it on a stick. Sloppy Joe on a stick was one of the worst foods I have ever eaten. Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.
I have lived in Minnesota for 16 years, and have never tried lutefisk, and since it is an iconic food for those of us who get easily bored with everyday fare, I thought it high time I saw how the stuff was made. I stopped by Ingebrestsen’s on Lake Street to see who they get their stuff from, sampled some lamb jerky, some blood sausage, some creamed cod roe and armed with a few insights I ventured out to the Olsen Fish Company factory to see how perfectly good dried cod is ruined by well intentioned Norwegians the world over. Well not really the world over since more lutefisk in consumed here than in Norway. At Olsen’s they process more of the stuff than any other merchant on the planet, and they do the lion’s share of their business at Christmas time. I have taken cod in about a half dozen countries and followed it through the salting and drying process and it was odd to see trucks unloading that same product onto the Olsen’s back door, but there it was. The fish is re-hydrated in water and then in a water and lye solution, then finally with water again to rid the fish of the caustic acid. As the fish is exposed to the acid, its protein makeup changes and it not only swells and plumps to resemble its waterborne form but it changes its consistency, taking on its famous jelly like texture.
I wanted to try lutefisk in its territory, which meant traveling to Cyrus, to the Cozy Cafe, a neighborhood diner that doubles as a senior center and puts on phenomenal suppers on weekends in the fall, with lutefisk as the star of the show. There are only about 200 residents in Cyrus, but about 400 turned out for the meal on the night we were there, and we stuffed ourselves on potato dumplings, Swedish meatballs, and all those amazing Norwegian sweets handmade by dozens of farm country grandmas. The lutefisk is poached, then served with butter or cream sauce, paired with plenty of rutabagas and potatoes, nary a fresh herb in sight and the food we ate at the Cozy Cafe has not changed much in the 150 years since Scandinavians ventured to the upper Midwest thanks to the states Homestead Acts of the mid nineteenth century. I can tell you that the stuff is way more palatable than its reputation suggests, but the slimy jello-ish texture is frightful when it’s in your mouth. Anyone looking to enjoy great home cooked fare and take in a real slice of small town life should head to the Cozy Cafe and visit with Jean Anderson.
We ate wild boar balls and all, at Lenny Russo’s renowned Heartland restaurant, hunted for ruffed grouse with Shawn Perich on the shores of Lake Superior, headed out on the lake with Harley Tofte and netted herring for a shore lunch, and attended a meat raffle at a local bar. You get the picture… this is one of the shows that I most proud of. There’s no place like home.