Hold the Cream of Mushroom Soup

MINNEAPOLIS —Talk food with older midwesterners and they’ll go on about beer-boiled bratwurst and hotdish, a typically leaden casserole that embodies Minnesota home cookin’. But from Bismarck to St. Paul to Madison, this style of traditional honky soul food was, until recently, headed for the endangered species list. Although you could still find it at small-town supper clubs and lodge restaurants in the area, regional northwoods cooking was being squeezed out by Applebee’s-esque chains on the lower end, and white-tablecloth restaurants doing sushi, French, and Californian on the high end. And northwoods food never really caught on anywhere else.

“When I worked at the French Laundry, it was often commented that Minnesota was flyover land,” says David Vlach, executive chef at the Town Talk Diner in Minneapolis.

Not anymore. Vlach is one of a growing number of upper midwestern chefs who are embracing and reviving fusty old favorites. Walleye and perch, venison, bratwurst, wild rice, and sweet corn are all getting a makeover at new restaurants catering to a sophisticated, younger audience. The name of the game is fresh, local ingredients and new, sometimes ironic presentations. Call it the birth of northwoods chic.

Northwoods Eats 101

Bratwurst–-A traditional German sausage that has come to dominate summer grilling in the upper Midwest, particularly Wisconsin. Spicier, tougher, and heartier than a hot dog, it’s typically served with a bit of mustard and relish.

Cheese–-Cheese is a kind of secular religion in the upper Midwest, particularly in Wisconsin, where the influence of Swiss settlers has had a particularly dramatic impact. The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers “cheese master” certificates in specific varieties of cheese to cheesemakers who use specialized artisanal methods.

Fish boil-–The Door County, Wisconsin, equivalent of the fish fry (see below). Rather than battering and frying the lake fish, the cooks simply cut them into small chunks and boil them in salted water with red potatoes. The boiling itself is a spectacle that climaxes when the fish oils rise to the top of the pot-–a bit of kerosene is added to the flames, and the rise in heat causes a dramatic surging boil-over that flows over the side of the pot and indicates that the fish is ready to serve.

Fish fry–-A Friday-night tradition most prevalent in the Milwaukee area of Wisconsin, the fish fry is a meal that typically features battered and fried fish, coleslaw, tartar sauce, french fries, and lemon slices. Very often “all you can eat,” and usually accompanied by copious amounts of beer.

Hotdish–-The Minnesotan equivalent of casserole, typically containing a lot of meat and starch. Wild-rice chicken hotdish is a traditional favorite. Cream of mushroom soup is the classic thickener, and is often known as “the Lutheran binder.”

Lefse–-A traditional Scandinavian flatbread made from potatoes and flour, typically presented in rolled-up tubes, and sometimes served with cinnamon–-or lutefisk (see below).

Lutefisk–-Notably absent from the menus of any of the new northwoods-chic restaurants, lutefisk is a Scandinavian dish of codfish cured with lye. Typically not even its proponents will claim it’s good eats, but it does represent an earthy connection to the mother culture.

Venison–-Deer hunting is a way of life in the upper Midwest, and venison appears in freezers and menus throughout the region.

At the Town Talk Diner, which opened this past February, groups of 20- and 30-somethings sit cheek by jowl at the old-fashioned counter or shout over the din in the modern dining room. Diners can sample “frickles,” fried pickle chips that are a nod to Minnesota State Fair food, and sushi-inspired lefse rolls. These are Scandinavian potato and flour pancakes rolled up with hot smoked salmon, avocado, and cucumber, served with a yogurt-mint sauce. For drinks, there are forties of malt liquor —presented with classic champagne service (ice bucket, little fancy glasses). All the beers come from Milwaukee’s Miller Brewing Company.

“It’s about being playful,” says Vlach. “It goes to Miller High Life —you know, the champagne of beers.” Vlach left the French Laundry to open the Town Talk because he missed the down-to-earth sensibility of his home state. He wanted the food to be really, really good but the atmosphere to be unstuffy. “One of the things I love about this place is that someone can get halibut and a great glass of wine while the person next to them at the counter is having a hot dog and Schlitz,” says Vlach.

Hell’s Kitchen, another Minneapolis restaurant, which opened in 2002, is famous for its wild-rice porridge served on its breakfast menu. The dish is an old regional recipe, but this particular version was created after chef Mitch Omer read a trapper’s journal from the 1800s that depicted Cree Indians eating something similar. Omer’s contains locally grown cranberries, dried blueberries, roasted hazelnuts, warm maple syrup, and cream. He buys the hand-parched wild rice from a local Native American tribe.

The roots of northwoods cooking can be traced back to the German, Polish, Czech, and Swiss immigrants who peopled southern Wisconsin, and the Scandinavian immigrants who settled in Minnesota and North Dakota during the decade before World War I. Their culinary traditions were, in turn, informed by those of the local Native Americans, who cooked the freshwater fish found in the upper Midwest’s copious freshwater lakes, deer that roamed its woods, and wild rice and cranberries growing in its marshy bogs.

Wisconsin is “a great place to live, and it does have a great culinary tradition, and the indigenous cuisine has been kind of put on the back burner for however many years,” says Daniel Momont, co-owner of The Old Fashioned in Madison, Wisconsin.

The Old Fashioned serves traditional Sheboygan double brat (two sausages on a hard roll), fried walleye, and artisanal Wisconsin cheese plates. It’s been open less than a year, but on weeknights, crowds spill out its doors into nearby Capitol Square. “I think people are deciding it’s cool to be from Wisconsin,” says Momont.

The cuisine at the Pirogue Grille in Bismarck, North Dakota, is good old meat and potatoes, but the meat is house-made venison sausages, and the potatoes are mashed local reds from the nearby Red River Valley, garnished with caramelized Vidalia onions.

“There are places in Bismarck that showcase sushi on Mondays, but last time I checked, we were at least 1,800 miles from either coast,” says chef Stuart Tracy. “I could do it, and I could do a bang-up job, but why?”

Photograph by Michael Stern from Roadfood.com, courtesy of Hell’s Kitchen