Despite my Variety colleagues handing over a prodigious amount of their section’s real estate in the Saturday paper, I wasn’t able to squeeze all of my day-of-gorging observations into my annual survey of new Minnesota State Fair foods. So here goes.
A fairly recent fair food phenomenon has vendors investing enormous amounts of capital and manpower into mega-attractions: O’Gara’s, the Minnesota Wine Experience, Famous Dave's and French Meadow Bakery & Cafe are just a few examples. This year’s entry into the bigger-is-better sweepstakes is Mancini’s al Fresco (Carnes Av. at Nelson St.), an outpost of the iconic St. Paul supper club. It’s a great-looking space, filled with the requisite historic photos and vintage fixtures, and it features a fairly lengthy (for the fair, anyway) menu.
In my new-foods rundown, I turned the spotlight on what I thought hit the highest marks on the Delicious-O-Meter, the Porketta Pork Wings ($8). I was less impressed with the stand’s signature dish, a steak sandwich ($9, pictured above). The thick-cut beef was nicely grilled, with a flavorful char and a pink-ish, fairly juicy center, and it exuded a big, beefy bite. But it was a bit on the chewy side (although let's get real, you were expecting butter knife-quality prime at $9?) and the flimsy foccacia bun was soaked in grease. It’s improved with the addition of onions and red peppers, which should be included in the price but aren’t, requiring an additional $1.
More successful is the Cicchetti, a seasoned bread cone filled with tender meatballs doused in a lively marinara sauce (or shrimp). It’s a clever Italian-American take on portable fair food, and it’s priced right: $6.
A sausage stuffed with onions and red peppers and speared on a stick ($6) left absolutely no impression, and a heaping, overpriced carb-bomb of basket of grilled garlic toast ($5, pictured above), greasy, near-flavorless and inundated in marinara, is best avoided.
Ending on a positive note, dessert is first-rate: Twelve rotating flavors of gelato ($5 and $7) from Ring Mountain Creamery Cafe in Eagan; three cheers for including this south-of-the-river gem at the fair.
One of my perennial fair favorites is the all-things-honey section of the Agriculture Horticulture Building, starting with the swell honey-nut ice cream. This year, the area’s Bee Hive shop, which features a wealth of Minnesota-made bee products, has a lovely addition: Honey-Bee Sticks (50 cents) from Mademoiselle Miel, skinny plastic straws filled with a burst of bright, sunshine-ey honey culled from a number of rooftop hives in St. Paul and Minneapolis. They’re packaged in two flavors: one is straight-up golden nectar, the other is smoked and blended with trace notes of Scotch. Another nice touch: Each purchase benefits the University of Minnesota Bee Lab.
“Where can I eat healthy at the fair?” is a question I’m often asked in late August, and my first thought always races to the Produce Exchange, the fresh-fruit outlet located on southeast side of the fairgrounds, just outside Ag-Hort. This year, for the first time, they’re slicing up ripe watermelon ($5), and it really hits the spot as ttemperatures and humidity levels climb and a person’s tolerance for fatty, deep-fried foods evaporates.
But the stand also features a selection of gorgeous, sinfully ripe peaches – warning: the juice will run down your chin, there's no stopping it – and in the next few days, co-owner Shannon Hannigan is hoping to feature those tasty, modestly-scaled Summercrisp pears (a cold weather-resistant breed developed at the University of Minnesota in the 1930s), harvested from Fairhaven Farm in South Haven, Minn.
Inside the building – you can’t miss it, it’s that gorgeous art deco-ish pavilion with the distinctive hexagonal concrete tower – is another eating-healthy destination: Minnesota Apples. The stand features crisp, just-picked fruit (right now, Paula Reds) from Pine Tree Apple Orchard in White Bear Lake, and this year they’re also hawking a fantastic applesauce: cool, barely sweet, marvelously thick and with a just-barely pink cast. It’s one of the most satisfying ways to spend $1 anywhere on the fairgrounds.
Minnesota Farmers Union (Dan Patch Av. at Cosgrove St.) has a bevy of food newbies, and I raved about two of them: the mango ice cream bar, and the affogato. Space restrictions – and, I have to admit, a lack of interest on my part -- didn’t allow me to mention two others: a vanilla version of that ice cream bar ($5.75) and a trio of fresh-baked cookies – chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and white chocolate-macadamia nut (pictured, above) – sold separately ($1) or as a trio ($2.50). I yawned off the both. The former isn’t all that different from any other vanilla ice cream at the fair (the best remains at Nitro Ice Cream, inside the Food Building), and the latter are boring, you're-not-missing-anything factory-made cut-and-bakes.
Up on what used to be called Machinery Hill, Tracy’s Idaho Taqueria (Randall Av. at Underwood St.) is serving up taco-inspired waffle fries, but it’s also preparing a deep-fried-free version by enliisting a baked potato ($8). It’s fine – the portions are notably generous -- but it’s nothing that couldn’t be had at any shopping mall food court in the 1980s.
One welcome trend that makes total sense is the rush of Minnesota-brewed craft beers flooding onto the fairgrounds; after all, shouldn't the Minnesota State Fair be a showplace for Minnesota-made products?
Instead of focusing on a new food item – which owner Tim Weiss and chef Alex Sadowsky routinely do very, very well – the team at Giggles’ Campfire Grill (Cooper St. at Lee Av.) as focused their 2013 energies on an impressive new beer garden (pictured, above), one that would not look out of place in a ritzy northern Minnesota lakeside resort. Under the heavy-timbered roof, the good-natured Gigglesians are pouring a bevy of Minnesota beers, including Brau Brothers, Finnegan’s, Flat Earth, Big Wood, Lucid and Fulton, as well as Iowa’s Millstream, Wisconsin’s Leinenkugel, Michigan’s Keeweenah and Clown Shoes from Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, over at the Ball Park Cafe (Underwood Av., between the Food Building and the Garden), co-owners and brothers Dan and David Theisen are have boosted their already impressive list of brewed-in-Minnesota craft labels, with a roster that includes Lucid, Mankato Original, Badger Hill, Lift Bridge, Excelsior, Surly, Steel Toe, Third Street, Bent Paddle and the aforementioned Indeed. It's an extremely well-edited list, one that many Twin Cities restaurants and bars would do well to emulate.
If only the fair embraced Minnesota-distilled spirits. I know I'd line up for craft cocktail shaken with Prairie Organic Vodka or Panther Distillery bourbon.
Finally, an observation. How great would it be if more fair food vendors took their design cues from Big Pepper (Liggett St. at Judson Av.) and made their stands resemble the products they serve? Think about it: A towering cookie jar for Sweet Martha’s, a gigantic bucket of fries for the Fresh French Fries stands. Calling Claes Oldenburg!
If it's Friday, it must be time for a burger.
Rick Nelson has plenty of favorites for you to choose from. Find out where he's been dining at www.startribune.com/burgerfriday.
Look for more in coming weeks. So far he has visited:
Sun Street Breads
Bread & Pickle
Gather at Walker Art Center
The Sample Room
Hurry! There's a 2 hour window NOW in downtown Minneapolis (Warehouse District, specifically) to get a free pepper plant, grown at Gardens of Eagan.
Here's the press release:
RANDOM ACT OF PEPPERS PEPPER PLANT GIVEAWAY IN DOWNTOWN MINNEAPOLIS NOW
Over 2,000 organic pepper plants will be given away in two hours in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District today (Monday, June 10).
Haberman/ Modern Storytellers for Pioneers declared last Monday as "Free Tomato Day" and gave away 1,000 organic, heirloom tomato plants. They had so much fun that they are doing it again except this time they are spicing things up and it’s going to be double the fun: more than 2,000 organic pepper plants in two hours. Gardens of Eagan and Haberman have partnered to encourage everyone to cultivate their own garden, whether it’s one pot or a whole backyard, and enjoy a homegrown bounty.
Gardens of Eagan is a certified organic farm growing plants and produce since 1972. Gardens of Eagan believes every season is an opportunity to feed people great certified organic food. Haberman is a Minneapolis-based full service marketing firm that has a number of organic food clients, as well as its own company-run garden that staffers enjoy as an employee benefit.
Monday, June 10, 11:30 a.m.
Pick your pepper at the corner of 1st Avenue North and 5th Street (outside the Kickernick Building across the street from The Loon).
Time to toot our own horn! The Taste section is a two-time finalist in the journalism competition that is held by the Association of Food Journalists. Both projects are competing in the Special Food Section category.
One is the "Taste 50" section from last year, which featured 50 people in the Twin Cities who have been noteworthy in local foods. The special project featured terrific text from Rick Nelson, stunning photos from Tom Wallace (who shot 125 photos for this single issue), amazing design by Nicole Hvidsten (who fortunately did not develop carpal tunnel from all that intricate work necessary from all those photos), with coordination from me (that would be Lee Svitak Dean). The special section included an interactive online site, too. Find it here.
The three-part series by freelancer Steve Hoffman, "A Letter From France," is also a finalist in this category. Steve eloquently wrote about olives, figs, goats and cheese as he told stories of life in a tiny village in France where he and his family spent the fall. His wife, Mary Jo, served as photographer for the series, which included a video that she and her daughter produced. Find the video here.
We've been proud of these projects from the start. But being acknowledged as finalists is extra sweet. The winners will be announced in September.
See below for the full roster of award finalists.
2013 AFJ Awards Competition List of Finalists
Finalists below are listed in alphabetical order. More than three finalists in any category indicate one or more ties.
Best Newspaper Special Food Project
“This Is Pittsburgh Food,” Bob Batz Jr., Food Editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Letters from France," Steve Hoffman, Minneapolis Star Tribune
“On Our Plate,” Nancy Stohs, Food Editor, Milwaukee Journel Sentinel
"Edge City,” Jill Silva, Food Editor, Kansas City Star
"Taste 50,” Lee Dean, Food Editor, Minneapolis Star Tribune
Best Newspaper Food Coverage, above 200,000 circulation
Boston Globe, Sheryl Julian, Food Editor
Philadelphia Daily News, Food Editor: Laurie T. Conrad
The San Francisco Chronicle, Miriam Morgan, Food Editor
The Washington Post, Joe Yonan, Food Editor
Best Newspaper Food Coverage, below 200,000 circulation
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, LA, Cheramie Sonnier, Food Editor
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bob Batz Jr., Food Editor
San Antonio Express-News, Karen Haram, Food Editor
Best Newspaper Food Feature, above 220,000 circulation
Andrea Adleman, The Washington Post, “The Psychology of Cupcakes”
Katy McLaughlin, The Wall Street Journal, “Get Your Goat On”
Greg Morago, The Houston Chronicle, “Barbecue Nerds”
Best Newspaper Food Feature, 125,000-220,000 circulation
Cindy Hoedel, The Kansas City Star, “Rabbit Revival”
Jackie Loohauis-Bennett, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “Creating More Than a Stir”
Jill Silva, The Kansas City Star, “Growing Change”
Best Newspaper Food Feature, below 125,000 circulation
Drew Lazor, Philadelphia City Paper, “Acts of Will"
Stacy Schultz, Sauce Magazine, “A Second Shot”
Katharine Shilcutt, Houston Press, “Chef Endures Cancer, Loss of Sense and Taste”
Best Non-newspaper Food Feature
Nadia Arumugam, The Atlantic, “Expired”
Todd Klimon, Washingtonian, “Everywhere at Once”
Chad Robertson, Food Arts, “Baker in the Rye”
Best Restaurant Criticism
Bobby Ampezzan, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Ian Froeb, Riverfront Times
Tejal Rao, The Village Voice
Laura Reily, Tampa Bay Times
Best Food Visual
Joaquin Herrera, The San Antonio Express-News, “S.A. Food Savvy?”
Francisco Kjolseth, Salt Lake Tribune, “Winged Salute to July 4th"
James Nielsen, The Houston Chronicle, “The Great State of Barbecue”
Richard Stokes, Reno Magazine, “Savor Summer”
Best Food Essay
Darra Goldstein, The Wall Street Journal, “A Bribe-Worthy Chicken Dish”
Todd Klimon, Washingtonian, “Champagne & Sippy Cups”
Marge Perry, Newsday, “Cupcakes That Say Love”
Best Writing on Beer, Wine and/or Spirits
Jon Bonne, San Francisco Chronicle, “Restoring a Napa Legend”
Wendy Goldman Rohm, Playboy, “The Talented Mr. K”
Jason Wilson, TableMatters.com, “When Wine Talk Gets Weird”
Best Story on Food Policy or Food Issues
Carolyn Jung, Food Arts, “Foie and Its Discontents”
Andy Mannix and Mike Mullen, City Pages, “Milk Money”
Hanna Raskin, Seattle Weekly, “Peaches and Dreams”
Best Food Column
Kellie Hynes, Sauce Magazine
Martha J. Miller, EthnoTraveler Magazine
Hanna Raskin and Dan Person, Seattle Weekly
Best Food Blog, Multiple Writers
Phoenix New Times
The Salt, NPR
Inside Scoop, San Francisco Chronicle
Best Food Multimedia Presentation
Feast magazine, Hannah Radcliff
Indy Week, D.L. Anderson and Victoria Bouloubasis
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Gretchen McKay and Steve Mellon
Best Student Writing on Food
Stephanie Parker, University of Montana writing for The Kaimin, “Investing in a
Shelby Vittek, Drexel University writing for TableMatters.com, “My Endangered Dinner”
Shelby Vittek, Drexel University writing for TableMatters.com, “Old Nordic”
On April 3, 2013, I almost died ... twice. That sounds a lot worse than it was since I did escape relatively unscathed, and I anticipate a full, if only gradual, recovery. The long and the short of it is that the footage that was shot that day has now ended up on the cutting room floor per the desire of sponsors Pop-TV and the U.S.Embassy here in Slovenia. I have hesitated communicating this to you because it was my earnest desire that the following details be viewed in a more anecdotal nature rather than be sensationalized. Consequently, my reporting for the last few days has been out of sequence. Here's what happened.
The day started off well. The weather was beautiful as we headed to Idrija. It is the home town of our sound guy and first camera Matias Mrak. He is rightfully very proud since Idrija is a beautiful city set in the picturesque foothills of the Julian Alps. Once there, we toured the old mercury mines with our guide Jana. The mines are fascinating, and they once were a leader in mercury production at one time supplying 13 percent of the world's consumption.
In between takes, I was able to drop in on a local butcher shop where they create and age all of their own salumi. They also have their own farm, and some of the fresh meats were a product of that farm.
Following the mine sequence, I was introduced to two professional Yugo rally drivers. Their cars were no ordinary Yugos. The piston cylinders had been bored out to increase the horsepower from the original 65 to 120, and they were fitted with roll bars and safety harnesses.
The idea was to take me as a passenger in one of the cars on a breakneck ride along the twisting hilly road, after which I was scheduled to receive a lesson in žlikrofi from an 83-year-old woman, who is considered to be the finest maker of these traditional tortellini-like pasta purses. Then, we were scheduled to head to Kobarid for dinner and lodging at Nebessa, which is a spectacular location set in the Alps. The next day would find us in cheese caves and at Hiša Franko, which is considered one of the finest restaurants in all of Slovenia, with the cheesemaker Valter Roš and with his wife, the acclaimed chef Ana Roš. I was scheduled to cook with Ana.
So here is where things get interesting. I was strapped into the passenger seat harness of the Yugo, given a safety helmet and instructed to hold on tight while my driver took me on an adrenaline-pounding run up the hillside. The switchbacks were plentiful and narrow as we gazed at the ravines passing us by as we ascended the hill. As the car continued its climb, the driver did not to seem to fully understand that, at one point, he was supposed to turn around and come back for a second shot. Instead he continued to barrel up the hill.
As we approached one particularly hairpin turn, he hit a patch of gravel, which caused him to lock up his brakes. We skidded to a halt on an embankment above a ravine, with the Yugo hanging precariously over the edge. Just when I thought we would be safe, the car began to tip. The dash-cam footage shows that as the car started its fall into the ravine below, I got a big smile on my face and began to laugh. I was thinking a few things.First, I was thinking, "What the hell. I might as well think of this as a carnival ride and enjoy the thrill."
Then I thought, "With all the crazy stuff I have been through in my life, this is a hell of a way to go." I had a few other thoughts that were mostly concern for my wife, who had no idea where I was or what was happening, and I just wanted to be sure that she would be okay, no matter what happened.I am sure there were several other things going through my head at the time such as what I would do once we landed. But everything happened so quickly that I am not completely certain what else I was thinking.
The car rolled hood-over-wheels about four times before resting right-side-up in about two feet of snow at the bottom of the ravine. Fortunately, my window was rolled down, so I avoided taking shattered glass to the side of my face. I had kept my eyes open the whole time, which were protected by my trusty Ray Bay Wayfarer sunglasses, but I did watch as the windshield busted out, and I fully experienced the head-over-heels visual as we tumbled down the steep embankment. If you have ever seen a movie that pictures a rolling car interior during an accident sequence, then you know what I was seeing as we headed for the bottom.
I am certain that if they had not taken the proper safety precautions by strapping me into the harness that I would have very likely been tossed from the vehicle and quite possibly lost my life. As it turned out, I only suffered a small contusion to my left knee, another to my right shin, one to my hip and a badly sprained right thumb, that has recently made gripping a knife and driving a car very difficult, not to mention securing the opening on my button-fly jeans. It has certainly made me appreciate the fact that we evolved as a species with opposable thumbs.
After checking into a triage first-aid station in the village below, I was relieved to find that my bumps and bruises appeared to be relatively minor in nature. The bigger problem, which persists as I write this, is a massive escalation in blood pressure to a dangerous and potentially life-threatening level. I was consequently taken to a hospital in Ljubljana (the capitol of Slovenia), where precautionary X-rays were taken and where I received some medication to reduce my blood pressure. (Side note: I was told that Josep Broz Tito, the much revered leader of the former Yugoslavia, died there on the seventh floor of that hospital.)
I am still undergoing treatment for my blood pressure as I fight to return it to normal and while I try to rest my thumb. The recommended course of action at that point was rest and a well-prescribed day off. Consequently, the rest of the taping for that episode was cancelled, and we resumed two days later at a different location.
On another side note, it was hard to believe how incredibly inexpensive health care is here in Slovenia. A full set of X-rays and doctor visits, including prescription drugs, did not exceed 150 euros. This is what it would cost the average private citizen not covered by insurance in Slovenia. That is certainly something to think about. I can only imagine what all of that would have cost in the U.S.
So now, with filming complete and the wrap party put to bed, I have only one last interview with Pop-TV before Mega [his wife and business partner] and I head to Paris for a week of exploring the markets and visiting with Parisian chefs. It was really hard to say goodbye to the many wonderful friends we met here while in Slovenia, but I am certain we will have the opportunity to cross paths with them again. -- Lenny Russo
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