When bone-chilling, spit-freezing winter starts on Halloween and continues til Easter, as it often does in the northern reaches of the Upper Midwest, who could blame Minnesotans for going a little crazy when summer comes? Hibernating like bears (if bears had hockey, beer, and NPR) for six months of the year, Minnesotans follow their Scandinavian forebearers and swim, run, dance, bike, party, picnic, dine, and promenade like mad during their precious summer months, soaking up day after sunny, scorching day and basking through bath-warm twilights that linger long past dinnertime.
According to my 11-year-old niece, who has lived in a suburb of Minneapolis since 2006, "everyone" has a cabin on a lake, or at least a townhouse or condo-share with lake-splashing, dock-sunning privileges. Still, it seems like plenty of people have stuck around during this Fourth of July week in the Twin Cities, where I've been having a long-overdue family visit with my sister Amy and my nephew and nieces. I pick up a copy of Minnesota Monthly magazine at the Linden Hills Co-Op, a kind of miniaturized Berkeley Bowl of the prairie, where we go to pump our own Minnesota maple syrup out of a tall stainless-steel vat and pick up a few glass bottles of Cedar Summit's organic, pastured milk. Not surprisingly, the magazine's cover story is a round-up of the best in local foods, 146 of them, in fact, from Kalona sour cream and Birch Berry Wild Rice to Surly's Darkness Stout, along with dozens of other pickles, relishes, jams, butters, chocolates, yogurt, breads, syrups, meats, and beers chosen by longtime Minneapolis writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl. Elsewhere in the magazine, local NPR personality and Splendid Table host Lynne Rossetto Kasper writes with pride that in her opinion, only California can compete with Minnesota when it comes to making and supporting high-quality, locally-sourced and -inspired food and drink.
My nephew, age 13, is a big fan of the octopus and frogs' legs at the tiny, quirky, molecular-gastronomy-influenced Travail Kitchen and Amusements, run by the kind of mustachioed, nose-ringed cool kids you'd see behind the bar at Alembic or in the kitchen at Nopa. Alas, it must be that all the cool kids have cabins, too, because Travail has shut down for the entire month of July, presumably for some lakeside R&R. (The fact that the un-air-conditioned restaurant is mostly a counter facing an open kitchen may have also encouraged a summertime shutdown.)
So my sister and I head to the more traditional Meritage (rhymes with heritage) in St. Paul, a spacious French brasserie with a white-tiled oyster bar (still a bit of a novelty in a city ringed with lakes but far, far away from any salt water) on one side and a crepe cart out front. We take a table on the sidewalk, the better to listen to the live music drifting over from a nearby plaza, where couples in everything from cowboy boots to flip-flops are dipping and two-stepping to Kevin Anthony and the Twin City Playboys, part of the Ordway Summer Dance series.