J.D. Hovland studies the dessert menu at Mercury Dining Room and Rail in downtown Minneapolis.
Although it’s his first time ordering from it, he can surmise an awful lot about each of the four items. How the flourless chocolate cake is probably a standing menu item because of its popularity with gluten-free diners. How the carrot cake is likely dense (since it’s served, unusually, with ice cream) and very sweet (because it’s paired with bitter walnuts as opposed to sweeter pecans).
He considers the lemon tart, which, he expects, comes with fresh raspberries. “It always does,” he says.
You get to know a lot about restaurant desserts when you order one every day.
By the time he was analyzing the desserts at Mercury, Hovland had been ordering sweets for 27 days straight. He was almost finished with the latest food conquest of his own design, a monthly marathon of themed eating he called Desserts of December. Five days later, he would move on to the next month’s project: January of Dumplings.
Hovland, 42, is a completist.
The software engineer from Mounds View is always trying to do all of something, all at once.
Eight years ago, he rode his motorcycle more than 18,000 miles in one trip to all of the state capitols reachable on land (that’s 49). And then flew to Hawaii for good measure. In 2014, he began cooking his way through cookbooks cover to cover, as was done in the movie and book “Julie & Julia.” He also spent a whole year making stuffed cookies.
“I like to do things nobody’s done that I’d like to hear about someone doing,” Hovland said over a BLT and fries — the appetizer, if you will, for the real reason he is out to lunch.
No matter how complicated or involved, he commits to each task until he masters it.
“What’s the point of doing something if you don’t learn how to do it well?” he said.
Hovland’s monthly food challenges originated in summer 2017. He and some friends were hanging out, discussing food. They also got to talking about their impatience for the next “Game of Thrones” book, which had been delayed. It was slated to be called “The Winds of Winter.” (It’s still not out, by the way.)
A self-described “huge fan of chicken wings and puns,” Hovland just came out with it: Wings of Winter.
“I should eat wings every day this winter,” he told his buddies. Their reply: “No, you shouldn’t.”
But Hovland was already formulating a plan “to combat the boredom of winter” by eating a daily dose of wings and documenting each one on Instagram at instagram.com/jdhovland.
The rules were simple: wings, every day, for an entire season. He launched it Dec. 1 and followed through till March 21, even continuing during a trip to Japan, where he sampled lots of yakitori. For almost four months, he had Buffalo wings, barbecue wings, Thai noodle-stuffed wings and more.
He got scientific with it, deciding to weigh each order in an attempt to quantify something that’s otherwise completely subjective: the best wings in town. (“It was weird to walk into a restaurant with a scale,” he admitted. He abandoned that effort in his subsequent food projects.)
When the season ended, he realized there was no best, just different. But he did have a favorite: the Korean fried chicken wings with gochujang butter at the now shuttered Rabbit Hole at Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis.
After that feat was done, he took a couple of months off, and then he was back at it. This time: Salads of Summer.
“I hated it,” he said.
Wings were much more interesting to him, between the many cultural interpretations he came across in Twin Cities area restaurants and their humble origins.
“Wings, they’re a food of struggle,” he said. “There’s this other part of the animal — what should we do with it? Whereas salad is a food of plenty. Our ancestors and our culture didn’t have salad historically, except seasonally. But now, I can order a salad in the middle of winter in Minnesota. That’s not normal.”
After that leafy and loathsome summer of 2018, Hovland decided to nix the seasons and limit himself to the parameters of a month. He launched his new version of eating all the you-name-it with Noodles of November. Like wings, it stretched his culinary horizons. He walked into a Somali restaurant for the first time when he learned that Italian colonialism had left its mark on Somali menus in the form of spaghetti.
“I try to showcase that different cultures have similar components of a meal,” he said.
Chef Adam Eaton of Saint Dinette in St. Paul and Meyvn in Minneapolis comes across social media foodies all the time, including Hovland. But Hovland’s catalog-like posts are unique, Eaton said.
“I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said with a laugh.
But, he said, there can be real value to what people like Hovland are doing online, at least to chefs and restaurateurs.
Instagram “is a way of getting your work out there to people who normally wouldn’t be able to see it,” Eaton said. “It’s kind of like an invitation to your restaurant, and J.D. does a really good job of getting the word out to people. When he goes to 30 restaurants every month, people see that. People want what he eats.”
Too much of a good thing?
Hovland wasn’t always a foodie.
“I grew up on boxed and canned food,” he said. His first memorable meal out was as a high schooler, at the now-closed El Meson in south Minneapolis. “I fell in love,” he said.
But it wasn’t until he heard about Travail, the bombastic Robbinsdale tasting menu playground, that he became restaurant obsessive. He went to Travail for a special dinner paying homage to the famed California chef Thomas Keller and never looked back.
Even before his Wings of Winter project, Hovland ate out most days each week, despite a passion for cooking. “I’m a software engineer and I don’t have a family,” he said. “It adds up, but I’m not hurting.”
He’s aware the calories can also add up. He does a cardio workout nearly every day, and he balances his project foods with the rest of his diet. Last year during Wings of Winter, he lost almost 40 pounds, and has lost another 40 since then.
Dining out so much, he’s learned some things about the way Minnesotans eat. “We like big portions,” he said. “And we like comfort more than adventure.” He’s seen a lot of pork chops and meatloaf on menus.
He’s also become quite discerning. “I thought I loved dessert, but it’s tough having it every day,” he said. “It’s like when you hear some word over and over again, it becomes nonsense.”
The last bite
Back at Mercury, he’s still deciding what to order for today’s installment of Desserts of December.
Each month, he tries to indulge in a mix of things, from the high-end (Fhima’s foie butterscotch tartlet) to the populist (an oatmeal raisin cookie from Max’s Cafe in downtown Minneapolis).
But, by now, he’s bored with gluten-free chocolate cake. Cheesecake is “not really super original,” he says. And he just had carrot cake a few days prior. So that leaves only one option. “I’m gonna do the lemon tart,” he tells the server.
A yellow wedge arrives on a round, white plate, dusted with a little powdered sugar and topped with a cloud of whipped cream. Hovland was wrong; there are no berries.
He holds up his cellphone in one hand and a little battery-operated light in the other and takes a photo of the shiny lemon curd. He turns the plate to make sure he gets a shot of the crust, too. He brings the plate up to his nose and sniffs. Then, he digs his fork in and takes a bite.
“The crust isn’t as flaky as I thought it would be. There’s some residual mouthfeel. The presentation of this — meh. If they’d thrown in a sprig of mint or a raspberry or two” — he pulls a piece of crust off and bends it up and down with his fingers. He tries it again. “It’s not awe-inspiring,” he says.
Later, he posts one of his photos to Instagram with a mildly stinging critique. “I’m not sure if I’ve become very selective in my dessert preferences,” he writes, “but it’s likely.”
Hovland puts his fork down and leaves most of the tart on the barren plate. While his self-imposed rules require him try one dessert a day, they don’t say anything about finishing it.