Morning hasn't yet broken, and my buddy Bob Seabern and I are packing our bags and a large cooler for the road trip ahead. No, there aren't any beers in the cooler — it's empty. Bob has invited me along on a very special mission: a meticulously planned Minnesota road trip in search of meat.
From prizewinning Cheddar/ranch brats to summer sausage infused with honey and maple syrup, from double-smoked bacon to jalapeño cheese sticks, we will trek to the state's most renowned, family-owned and tradition-rich meat markets.
(Since publishing, a number of readers have written to share their favorite can't-miss meat markets in Minnesota. For a list of reader-submitted recommendations, click here.)
Making bacon in Pierz
A little more than 90 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, the massive St. Joseph's Church stands guard over the hamlet of Pierz like a silent sentinel. Cruising into the south end of town, you can't miss Sue's Drive-In, a staple stop for summer cabin commuters for more than 50 years. Owner Sue Sand's burgers (and onion rings) are tantalizing, but she readily admits she would never serve a burger or bacon that was not sourced from the famed Thielen Meats a few blocks down Main Street.
Sure, our quest is to explore Thielen's, but it can't hurt to sample their products in a Sue's cheeseburger on the way, right? Well worth the delay — it is delish! The drive-in is open April through September.
On a Friday, Thielen's is buzzing with a half-dozen employees helping customers and preparing meats behind the glass. Phil Thielen started the business in 1926 and today it is run by his grandson Keith and great-grandsons Matt, Andy and Joe. Phil developed the secret bacon recipe that relies on pork belly curing in their 6- by 12-foot smokehouse. The New York Times wrote about Thielen's special double-smoked bacon in 2002, and it played a starring role on "The Martha Stewart Show." That media attention boosted bacon production fivefold to more than 9,000 pounds a week.
The publicity doesn't sway us, though; we give the bacon a passing grade and discover instead that Thielen's turkey sticks and free-range chicken are can't-miss (1-877-377-6256).
Nicollet, Minn., is about as sleepy as it gets. There are 1,100 souls in town on a good day and more bars than stop signs. The streets are barren, with a hodgepodge of brick and clapboard businesses crowding a bit too close to the roadway. And there is one solitary kid playing in the town park next to Schmidt's Meat Market.
The market's steep triangular facade looks like a Bavarian ski chalet. When you walk inside beneath the German "Willkommen" sign, you're surprised to pop into a hubbub of activity: a half-dozen customers shopping long meat counters attended by a like number of crisply aproned employees. Behind them you can see through a glass partition to the meat production and cutting operation. Schmidt's employs 50 full- and part-time workers in this small town.
Bob is methodical and efficient as he works his way along the counter. He orders the smoked bacon, then steaks, then chicken breasts and finally Schmidt's champion Wisconsin-style summer sausage made with Cheddar, cranberries, honey and maple syrup. I stumble along behind, trying to keep pace, and grab the summer sausage and a pound of smoked bacon. Schmidt's has won awards for its dill pickle brats and raspberry chipotle bacon, but those will wait for another day. According to Bob, the difference here is the breadth of unique products and the surreal medley of savory smells (1-507-232-3438).
In Hibbing, bestseller or bust
Leo Fraboni brought his special porketta recipe to Hibbing from Italy in the '60s. Fraboni Sausage Company's porketta roast is a hand-tied boneless pork shoulder sculpted with their own fresh fennel herb and a bevy of secret seasonings. The roast is so moist and tender out of the oven that it falls apart onto the plate.
The popularity of Fraboni's porketta and porketta sausage has been spurred by word of mouth on the Iron Range and by Minnesota State Fair awards. The good news is that you don't need to make the road trip to Hibbing to get your porketta or sausages. Fraboni's burgeoning wholesale division supplies northern Minnesota and metro grocers, or you can simply order their products at frabonis.com and have them brought to your door.
When I talked to plant manager Don Johnson, he also recommended the Italian sausage or potato sausage, but quickly asserted: "If it's not a bestseller, I don't make it" (1-218-263-8991).
Braunschweiger to jerky
McDonald's Meats of Clear Lake has been in the family for 105 years. Conveniently located off Hwy. 10 on the way to St. Cloud, McDonald's is billed as "The Jerky Stop." An indication of the shop's talents was highlighted when manager Jennifer Dierkes set her sights on improving its Braunschweiger sausage. This is a meat variety that sent my siblings running for the exits during my childhood. Dierkes refined its recipe so well that McDonald's won a Best in Show award from the Minnesota Meat Processors Association. My golf buddy Jim Swanson endorses McDonald's beef sticks and summer sausage — both have won gold medals from the German Butchers Association. When the weather is nice, don't miss the Thursday-through-Sunday grilling events out in front of the store (1-320-743-2311).
Mouthwatering in Miltona
Located in west-central Minnesota about 20 minutes from Alexandria, Miltona Custom Meats & Sausage is a hidden treasure popularized by hunters and cabin-goers. While its bacon scooped the Grand Champion prize at last year's State Fair, my contacts have given me strict instructions to seek out more exotic fare. I opt for the wild rice sausage, onion brats and jalapeño cheese sticks. My mouth is watering already (1-218-943-2681).
Back at home after a long day of stalking meats, we unload our bounty with a sense of satisfaction and anticipation. Soon our grills will be stoked, the air wafting with the delectable smells of sausages and other meats mastered and refined by Minnesota families for more than a century.
Tony Randgaard is retired after more than 20 years in marketing with United and Northwest airlines. His cold-case mystery novel "Unpremeditated: A Murderous Caribbean Travelogue" is available on Amazon.