Consider this: In the past two years, 23 James Beard Award semifinalists have come from Minnesota. Their names are Boemer, Brown, Malone and Roberts. Their names are Guzman, Kim, Nguyen and Yang.
When the Super Bowl came to Minneapolis earlier this year, Esquire called the city “the food world’s best kept secret.”
In an article entitled “Where to Travel in 2018,” the Wall Street Journal suggested 10 destinations to its readers. Go to Shanghai, it said. Go to Montenegro. Go also, it said, to Minneapolis.
Why Minneapolis? For its food.
The North is having a food moment. It’s a moment that looks from the outside like a discovery, but from the inside, as all discoveries do, like what has always been. Northern food was and is about four fundamental things: the constraints of northern latitudes. The blessings of fertile soil. The proximity of woods and water, and their wild yield. And the arrivals of people from somewhere else who decided to stay. But of course, it’s a little more complicated than that.
Light and Latitude
If you push a pin into the Mississippi River between Minneapolis and St. Paul, attach a string long enough to reach International Falls then make a circle with that string, that’s pretty much the place I’m talking about. Maybe there should be a little more Michigan in there, maybe a little less Iowa. But that’s close. There should be a lot of woods, a lot of water and a lot of farms. A slice of Boreal forest to the north. A slice of Great Plains to the south. It’s not quite the West to the west and not quite the Rust Belt to the east. It’s the North.
To be clear, when I say Northern food, I’m not talking about Nordic cuisine, which is a very refined, hyper-local, mostly Scandinavian vision of food in Northern climates.
Northern food, as I think of it, is not primarily restaurant food, but kitchen food, lying closer to the peasant cuisines of the major populations who have settled here. It has, like Nordic cuisine, a maritime element — in our case, the freshwater maritime culture of the Great Lakes, based on lake trout, cisco, whitefish, herring, walleye and pike — but it is primarily land-based, created by hunter-gatherer societies and farming cultures who have come here for the water, woods and soil, and stayed despite the weather.
We value what is scarce. In the North, what is scarce is sunlight.
Actually, that’s not quite true. For about four months, an endless rain of sunshine pours down with such generosity that it is easy to forget it will end.
But we spend the rest of the year trying to capture light and hold on to it.
We build fires, light candles and paint our interiors white to grab as much low-angle sun as winter will give.
We smoke pork and venison and salmon and lake trout.
We dry sausage and jerky and wild mushrooms.
We pickle cucumbers and beans and onions and turnips and beets, not to mention Northern pike and whitefish and herring.
We ferment cabbage and peppers separately (sauerkraut and hot sauce) and together (kimchi). We ferment cider and beer.
For much of history, there was no other way to eat all year long. And then gradually, those flavors born of necessity — the acidity of pickling, the tang of fermentation, the salt and soot of smoking — became signatures of Northern cuisine and part of what we craved in what we ate. They became our bacalao, our duck confit, our Parma ham: uniquely flavored delicacies with origins in humble preservation techniques.
What we thought we were preserving was food. But what we were really preserving was sunlight, captured in the cells of living things.
For three months in the North, we are royalty, spoiled by an opulence of golden light. For the rest of the year, we are misers, counting pennies of summer sunshine we have saved and stored away.
At some point when you get far enough north, there is a circumpolar sameness to the landscape and the food.
The subarctic taiga looks the same in Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia, and it always looks more like taiga than like any of the more southerly parts of any of those regions.
In the same way, cooks in Minneapolis, Milwaukee or Fargo, North Dakota, will often have to solve problems closer to the problems of Swedes, Ukrainians or Mongolians than the problems of Texans or Floridians — or even, to make an important point, the problems of the Kansans and Missourians with whom we Northerners are so often lumped under the misguided term “Midwestern.”
We don’t grow peaches here, much less oranges and lemons.
Our soil can grow almost anything. But Northern food is still limited, and to that degree defined, by what this latitude can bring to ripeness.
Soil and Fertility
St. Paul Farmers’ Market, St. Paul. August. On an airless summer day, everyone’s skin around me has a damp, satin sheen. We slide past each other in sandals and flip-flops in a two-way human current to the sound of bagpipes at one corner of the block and some folky six-string picking at the other. The flat music of mid-continent English mingles with a little Spanish, an occasional drawl and the sounds of children. All of it is accompanied by a persistent melody whose measures sometimes end on notes between notes that sing of Southeast Asia.
August is the month when the cycles of ripeness of Northern produce most thoroughly and exuberantly overlap, and the tables we walk past are heaped with an almost unbelievable profusion. A Teutonic-looking blond farm kid shucks sweet corn from the back of a panel truck. A preteen Hmong boy hands over a basket of Thai chilies to a bearded guy in cargo shorts and pockets a $5 bill. We walk past mound after mound of cauliflower, tomatoes, kohlrabi, zucchini, eggplant, carrots, broccoli, sweet peppers, cucumbers, potatoes, onions, shallots, scallions, fennel, radishes, melons, blueberries, lemongrass, Thai basil, sweet basil, mint, mustard greens, collards, kale and chard.
The soil has given this to us.
There are only four regions in the world this rich in soil: Eastern Europe, northern China, the Argentine Pampas and here, where glaciers like monumental bulldozers scraped Canada down to shield rock, pushed millennia worth of Boreal forest biomass southward and left behind a thick mattress of silt hundreds of feet thick in places that then drifted all around the North on the wind.
It’s called loess (from the German word for “loose”), and it’s full of so many kinds of mineral particles ground up as the glaciers swallowed and pulverized the geology they crossed that it’s a little like the soil version of a multivitamin. Essentially everything a plant needs to grow is available somewhere in a fistful of loess.
It means you can grow anything here that this latitude is capable of growing, which is of course a blessing but also something of a curse.
No one would opt for scarcity over abundance in theory, and yet, there is something seductive about the cuisines of the Mediterranean Basin, for instance, where the soil is rocky and thin, and water hard to find. Where you can grow a few things easily — olives, grapes, chickpeas, goats and pungent wild herbs — but most things only with great difficulty. Out of these constraints, dishes emerge of limited scope, telling intensely perfumed tales of sunshine and dry, resinous hills.
Abundance, in other words, carries with it a certain vagueness of outline, a lack of specific character. Soil that grows everything also grows, by corollary, nothing in particular. The food of the North, at least the food grown here agriculturally, does not tell the very specific tales told in Beirut, in Marseille, France, in Palermo, Italy.
The tale it tells is not one of specific flavors but of the huge swings of temperature that occur in the middle of continents, far from moderating oceans. It’s a tale of intense seasonality, and this is the season of abundance.
The abundance on the farmers’ market tables on this particular high-season Sunday sends up herbal, heat-bornescent clouds that we drift through slowly, luxuriating in our brief annual time of glut, knowing that winter’s leanness will be proportionally extreme.
We walk through the entire market once then walk back, debating about dinner, whether it should be spring rolls filled with carrots, cucumbers and mint. Or tacos filled with tomatoes, onions, jalapeños and cilantro. Or herb-roasted chicken, stuffed with fistfuls of garlic, thyme, parsley and rosemary.
Beneath our feet, under concrete and cobblestone, the ground is still Mississippi River bank: black, loose, almost garishly rich. A trove.
Happening upon it for the first time — if you know what you’re looking at, if the purpose of your life is to grow food, if you have pitted yourself against the soil of almost any other place on earth — must feel as if your life has been a question and here is the answer.
Hunters and Gatherers
I’m talking to Sean Sherman, an Oglala Lakota chef and educator who has branded himself and his business the Sioux Chef. We’re talking about acid and salt.
He is telling me how pre-contact indigenous cooks would have found acid in sumac and rose hips. And how there are marsh grasses that can pull salt from the ground and that it precipitates on their stems just above the water line.
It is difficult to stand across from him and not consider almost every commonplace reference to the food of this region — every reference to lutefisk, potatoes, cabbage, beef and pork — as a kind of mortal insult, offhandedly delivered, to the people who have lived here not for 200 years but for 3,000.
Sherman goes on to describe, with soft passion and a patience no one of my ancestry really deserves, a subtle, multivalent web of ingredients that were all here before European arrival, that are all still here now and that somehow most of us who live here don’t think of as our food.
As he talks, my imagination wanders through a cuisine based on wild rice, sunchokes, blueberries, blackberries, juneberries, chokecherries, crabapples, cattail roots, arrowhead, wild turkey, venison, shoeshoe hare, ruffed grouse, freshwater fish, morels, chanterelles, fiddleheads, ramps, juniper berries, maple syrup, wild ginger, spruce tips, cedar fronds, yarrow and amaranth, not to mention the three sacred sisters (corn, beans, squash) and salt harvested from the stems of marsh reeds.
He has published a cookbook, and he’ll be opening a restaurant evocatively located on the Mississippi River. But what he’s really doing is giving us back our true origin food. He’s letting us imagine how it might be a part of the future of Northern food and not just a part of its past.
Deer Camp, Merriman Truck Trail, Iron Mountain, Michigan. November. The cabin is made of vertical white cedar half logs from the swamp down the hill. The logs were felled by handsaws over the course of one 1930s winter then pulled out by teams of Percherons.
There are camps like this all up and down the Merriman Truck Trail and scattered across the Upper Peninsula and around the Great Lakes, built by stubborn loggers and iron miners — Swedes, Finlanders and Cornish — who went to work with hot meat pies called pasties in their pockets for lunch and for warmth, who gathered in cabins they called camps to drink whiskey and tell stories, to fish for brook trout and hunt whitetail deer.
The interior is half-lit by hanging propane lanterns, and a half dozen of us sit around an oilcloth-covered table. The conversation is vulgar and roughly affectionate. Outside, three deer hang from a two-by-four that is still unsentimentally called what it has always been called: the meat pole.
We are not an impressive-looking group. We are ordinary in our careers and ambitions. We don’t spend time together most of the rest of the year. But everyone understands on some level that this is not just a weekend away with the boys. This is one of the last vestiges of the village hog killing, a harvest-time coming together that acknowledges the lean months ahead and acknowledges, more symbolically than in the 1930s perhaps, that the only way to survive a Northern winter is to be part of a community.
Intermittently through the day, we have heard the cracks of .30-30s and the booms of .30-06s. But they have all quieted now as the hunters have sifted back through the woods toward the pale light of camp windows.
On a platter in the middle of the table are two slender tenderloins, seared on a hot grill, and slices of heart, unrolled and soaked in water before being sautéed briefly in butter and salted. The heart is my favorite cut. It is tender for such a powerful muscle, and it tastes of iron and blood and survival.
Somewhere, I’m Not Saying Where, Western Wisconsin. September. Brook trout need the coldest, cleanest water of any of the trout that now grow here.
They also happen to be the only ones that have been here from the very beginning. Browns and rainbows are 19th century immigrants brought from Europe and the American West, and for whatever reason, they can stand a little more civilization than brookies.
Because cold water is usually remote water — up near the first spring-fed trickles of streams that later join forces with each other, before joining forces with Lake Superior or the Mississippi — brook trout fishing is, almost by definition, beautiful fishing. Brook trout refuse to grow in ugly places.
I’m thinking this as I stand in the barely knee-deep current of a tiny ribbon of water in western Wisconsin, water that, sometime after it passes me, will make up part of an enormous muddy plume emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.
The stream is maybe as wide as a sidewalk, overgrown with prairie grasses and lined with treacherous wild angelica, making it almost impossible to land a cast. None of which matters in the least, because the adjacent prairie is an explosion of goldenrod and coneflowers, and the trout are just beginning to eat as if winter really is on its way, and I’m pretty sure I will catch something before the end of the day, and if I do it will be my dinner, sweetly pink-fleshed and clean-tasting, and if I don’t, I will after all have spent the day like this.
The North is a place where water, including the Father of Waters, begins. Not the middle of nowhere, but, in some sense, the center of everything. I could drive a few hours north and stand in water that was headed for the St. Lawrence Seaway by way of Lake Superior. I could drive a few hours west and stand in water that was headed up the Red River, bound for the Arctic Ocean by way of Hudson Bay.
We are a land of three watersheds, and we reserve the best of them for ourselves, where their waters are young and remote and cold and clear.
Culture and Community
Strasburg, North Dakota. October. Gary Grad has black hair, cropped short with short bangs, and close-set eyes. He has a trim waist, a broad chest and the arms of a high-school football player, which he is. His last name is pronounced “Grahd.”
It’s 1990, and Grad is in the school secretary’s office on the phone with his grandmother, Magdalena Silvernagel, part of a German Catholic Silvernagel clan so vast that one branch of the family has changed its name to Silbernagel to try to keep everyone straight.
Grandma Silvernagel spends summers near her farm then moves in with Grad and his family for the cold-weather months. He is calling her because he has thought of what he wants for dinner.
“Knoephla soup,” he says, and then, prompted by his teammates, he wonders aloud whether she might also make some of her white rolls before practice.
The answer, as always, is yes. And so his football team will eat warm white rolls in the locker room this afternoon, and after practice, he will walk through the back door of his house into a steamy kitchen filled with the lingering smells of carrots, celery, onions and stock, and he will go to the stove, where a thick chicken and potato soup with dumplings sits in a pot, its surface shimmering with butterfat, waiting for the grandson who ordered it earlier in the day.
Port Edwards, Wisconsin. September. Yia Vang comes home from his first day of eighth grade. His mother sets out a snack of just-made sticky rice and a bowl of hot pepper sauce, made by grinding Thai chilies with Hmong cilantro, garlic, fish sauce and tomatoes in a mortar.
A pot full of chicken and bones has begun to simmer on the stove, scented with lemongrass, garlic and ginger. It will be served over rice with sautéed mustard greens and more chili sauce.
Vang resignedly scoops up a bright clump of the sauce with a warm hunk of sticky rice, talking about his day and dreaming of McNuggets and fries.
Years later, chef Yia Vang will serve this same dish to sold-out Twin Cities crowds at his pop-up restaurant, Union Kitchen.
Upton 43, Minneapolis. June. In the basement kitchen of his restaurant, Chef Erick Harcey stands in front of two six-foot-long walnut appetizer boards balanced precariously on a prep counter. Today he is welcoming maybe the most famous Nordic chef in the world, Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken restaurant in Åre, Sweden.
Harcey is wearing a black XXL Motörhead “Everything Louder than Everything Else” t-shirt, and there is a tattoo of a meat cleaver on his massive right forearm. His fingers shake slightly as he balances a finely shaved wafer of truffle on a slice of cured salmon wrapped around rich, airy egg butter.
His grandparents ran Kaffe Stuga in the Minnesota hamlet of Harris. His grandfather before he died told Harcey he should stop cooking like other people and should cook from his soul, from his heritage. And so he created a menu for his restaurant that opened its heart to the humblest and most taken-for-granted Northern ingredients — among them kohlrabi, beets, turnips, carrots, greens, spruce tips, whitefish, pork chops and eggs — then glorified them with technique. In the process, he created a new vision of what 21st century Northern food could look like at its most refined.
And now here he is, cooking for Magnus Nilsson.
Upstairs, Nilsson sits at a chef’s table, long-haired, scruffy-bearded, surrounded by a small entourage. He too is wearing a black t-shirt.
It takes two servers to carry the appetizer board upstairs to the dining room, and before Harcey launches into his tableside presentation, he pauses to adjust his camo Bass Pro Shops cap with a familiar nervous tic: “So here you have whitefish rillettes encased in dill, Gouda croquettes on lingonberry sauce,
salmon-wrapped egg butter with shaved truffle, pickled lamb heart, smoked herring tacos with tortillas made of thinly sliced kohlrabi held together by a clothespin…”
Both chefs recognize, without having to say anything, that they are looking at something that is exactly like and entirely unlike a traditional smorgasbord.
After lunch, they go fishing on a central Minnesota lake that Nilsson says looks disorientingly like Sweden, and together they catch a few pretty nice bass.
Polk Street NE, Minneapolis. July. Five of us sit around a fire pit in a Northeast Minneapolis backyard. One of us is the chef of a high-end eatery who trained in New York City. One of us is a hunter, cook and author of a nose-to-tail venison cookbook, just back from a successful chanterelle hunt in his home state of Wisconsin. One of us is a mixologist experimenting with ingredients he finds close at hand, like rhubarb cordials, snap pea–infused gin and carbonated basil water. One of us is the editor of a beer-centric magazine, who has recently seen an explosion of craft brewing in the very neighborhood where we sit. One of us — myself — is a food writer carrying on a simultaneous love affair with his cultural home in the Great Lakes North and his spiritual home in Mediterranean France.
We are telling Boundary Waters camp stories, stories about good dogs and stories about Twin Cities restaurants that have come and gone. We’re halfway through 125 raw oysters and some eight-hour pork shoulder with Caribbean mojo sauce prepared by the chef. We’re drinking some of the editor’s favorite Minnesota beer, some gin that the mixologist has infused with the shells of our discarded oysters, and some French wine from the food writer.
There are hunters, foragers and anglers among us, and there is talk of game and wild food and freshwater fish. There is a love of lakes and streams and woods.
There is a quiet sophistication to the topics that make their way around our circle. We are passionate nerds talking deep into corners of the food world that don’t get visited often.
We have spent all day outside, in that nearly compulsive way that Northerners celebrate the very few weeks of sunshine we are granted each year.
We are not eating lutefisk or potatoes or beef or bratwurst or cabbage. Our palates, like those throughout the region, have reached well beyond the bland scarcity diet of the 19th century Northern Europeans who gave our region its unfortunate culinary reputation among those who don’t actually live here.
The food we’re eating today, the food we generally think of as our own, requires both a major urban center and a proximity to wilderness. We need our cities to keep us looking outward, toward the regeneration that comes from new influences, new cultures and new ingredients. But we need our woods and waters to keep us looking inward, to reground us in our own peculiar, non-coastal form of sanity, to return us to the landscapes and ancestral wild foods that are the true basis of our regional cuisine and to remind us that, for most of the history of our species, who we were was where we lived, and where we lived was what we ate.
It should be said that all of us present have gone somewhere else for a part of our lives and come back. The North is a place people come to unwillingly then leave unwillingly, if they leave at all.
If we are experiencing a food moment, it’s not because of the prairie kitsch, the dimwitted Elmer Fudd congeniality, that is often ascribed to us nationally (and that, to our shame, we sometimes ascribe to ourselves locally). We don’t actually spend much time anymore eating Jell-O in Lutheran church basements or wrapped in plaid flannel or talking like characters from the film Fargo. We are experiencing a food moment for the more or less straightforward reason that we have a food community as enlightened and creatively hungry as any on either coast, with members who spend a lot of time together making and talking about food and who will outwork anybody anywhere in a generous, productive, middle-of-the-country spirit that says, When my neighbor wins, I win.
Today and Tomorrow
Northern food is glacial till.
Northern food is what can grow between the 42nd and 49th parallels.
Northern food is who has come here and stayed: Anishinaabe, Lakota, Northern and Central European, African American, Somali, Latino, Hmong, Southeast Asian.
My children’s comfort food is pasta and pizza. But it’s also spring rolls, sushi, tacos, tamales, salsa, hummus and tandoori chicken.
The next generation will grow up on all of that, plus who knows? Korean kimchi and gochujang? Ethiopian roast goat and injera bread? Moroccan couscous and harira soup?
Alex Roberts of Alma, one of the Twin Cities’ foundational chefs, says that as food cultures move from scarcity to abundance, they also gravitate toward stronger flavors.
So it’s natural that Southeast Asian and Central and South American food cultures are considered less and less someone else’s food and more and more our food, not just because the people who have come from those regions have swiftly become an integral part of the overall culture but because, with abundance, all of us have begun to crave food like that.
James Beard winner Gavin Kaysen’s Spoon and Stable, named a global dining destination, sells out of late-night Ramen every Saturday.
Eddie Wu’s most popular breakfast dish at Cook St. Paul is eggs Benedict with Korean short ribs.
James Beard semifinalist Jorge Guzman plans to incorporate more of his native Yucatán into his next Twin Cities eatery.
Yia Vang has created the Minnesota Hmong hotdish using braised pork, Northern Thai curry and tater tots.
James Beard semifinalist Thomas Boemer is experimenting with yakitori-style snapping turtle.
James Beard semifinalist Ann Kim’s Young Joni finds itself among the most admired restaurants in the country. Its most-served pizza is Korean barbecue.
James Beard semifinalist Christina Nguyen is serving Southeast Asian street food in Northeast Minneapolis.
Right now, this is what the future of Northern food looks like. It looks more flavorful, more inventive, more open to the world. It looks, on the surface, like a departure.
But winter still comes early here. The soil is a primeval gift. Morels start showing up in May. And people come from other places and consent to stay.
This is the future.
This is how it has always been.
This is the story we are writing, in the alphabet of climate, of soil, of landscape, of people. Let’s tell it well.