Food and Culture: The Amazing Story of Minnesota’s Thriving Food Co-ops

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As some of you know, I’m in the middle of my annual visit to Minnesota. I’m spending ten days with family and friends, and mostly with my 89-year-old mother. Although I’m on vacation, I can’t help noting the status of Minnesota’s food culture.  Two years ago, in my first blog post, I wrote about the notorious food-on-a-stick at the Minnesota State Fair. I didn’t visit the fair this year, but I did check out something which gives me a lot of hope, and that is Minnesota’s vigorous food co-op movement.

Co-ops (short for co-operatives) were brought to Minnesota by northern European immigrants in the 19th Century and thrived well into the 20th. Co-ops are businesses owned by their customers, who buy shares and either receive a discount on purchases or a percentage of the profits, and are usually governed by an elected board of directors. Fifty or sixty years ago, it wasn’t unusual for small Minnesota towns to have a co-op gas station, creamery, grocery store, even a general merchandise store. As those co-ops declined, a new style of co-op, inspired by the alternative culture movement, sprang up all around the country, really, but these new co-ops seem to have endured especially well in Minnesota.

Needing to shop for dinner, my mom and I headed to the new and nearby St. Peter Food Co-op. St. Peter is a college town of fewer than 10,000 people deep in Minnesota farm country, but this market is one any sophisticated urban neighborhood would be happy to claim. I was thrilled to see how roomy, well-stocked and beautiful a store it is.

The St. Peter Food Co-op first opened as an all-volunteer, storefront business in July of 1979. It expanded about ten years later, survived a horrendous tornado which hit the town in 1998 and moved into its present site this past April. The co-op raised $900,000 in new and renewed memberships and received a loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to finance the more than $3 million it took to buy and renovate a sixty-year-old auto dealership into a stylish natural foods supermarket. Although the store sells a wide range of goods, they feature local and organic foods as much as possible and have some 500 items in bulk. I was impressed to see an attractive deli, salad bar, in-house bakery, and inside and outdoor seating.  In short, I wish this store were in my neighborhood!

What is perhaps more impressive is that this is just one of more than forty food co-ops in Minnesota, ranging from the Wedge in Minneapolis which operates its own organic farm (and where I used to shop), to the Countryside Co-op in tiny Hackensack (population 313) in north central Minnesota. I’m heartened to see that this healthy food movement is not confined to hip, urban enclaves, but is spread throughout the state. As depressed as I sometimes get about the state of America’s food and health, I am immensely cheered to see how people here in Minnesota are working to create healthy soil, nourishing food and meaningful work. To everyone involved in this movement, I say a hearty thank-you and best wishes for a bright future!

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Photos–Top: Locally-grown, mostly organic produce. Above: The St. Peter Food Co-op faces Minnesota Avenue in downtown St. Peter (more photos after the jump).

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Travel: My Father’s Color Images of Southern California in the 1940’s

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Even though I’ve lived in a real place called “California” for half my life, the California of my imagination continues to have a strong hold. I remember as a boy in the 1950’s watching televised coverage of the New Year’s Day Rose Bowl Parade from sunny California, while the temperature outside our Minnesota farmhouse was a frigid 10 degrees below zero. And then there were the colored slides my father would show of life in California where he and my mother lived in the early 1940’s. In my childhood imagination it was an exotic place, warm and alluring. Not surprisingly, I came out to investigate as soon as I finished college, and to live, a few years later.

Those colored slide images fascinate me still.  They show a life long gone, and a place just barely recognizable. In the early forties, California had no freeways, and only eight million inhabitants. And yet, it was not a time of innocence. World War II loomed, and then transformed California forever. Spanish architecture, movie studios, cars, oranges and beaches figure prominently in the California of our imagination and in these photos. These images were shot by my father, Ed Alinder, on 35 mm Kodachrome film in Southern California in 1940-44, and on a visit in 1947. Many more photos, after the jump.

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Photos–Top: Downtown Los Angeles. The L.A. area had an extensive streetcar network before it was ripped out in the 1950’s. Above: Venice beach in 1947, gymnasts and volleyball players outnumber body builders. (Click on any photo to see an enlarged version)

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Travel: Celebrating The Stinging Nettle In The French Village of La Haye-de-Routot

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Editor’s Note:  Annette and Robert Bonnell, my friends and correspondents in France, love to visit the various food and cultural festivals put on by villages and towns throughout rural France.  Here is their latest report:

Every April the Norman village of La Haye-de-Routot comes alive for one weekend with its nettle festival.  Located three quarters of the way from Paris to the coastal town of Le Havre, the village draws several thousand visitors to Orties Folies (“Nettle Madness”), the annual celebration of this prickly plant.

Annette and I discovered culinary nettles a few years ago when we ordered a nettle pizza in Berkeley.  It was great.  So when we learned that the nettle festival was taking place around the time we would be in Paris, we decided to go.  This involved taking the 45-minute train trip to Vernon, near Monet’s Giverny gardens, and then renting a car for the additional hour to drive to La Haye-de-Routot. Continue reading

On the French Atlantic Coast: Not All “Old Salts” Are Old!

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My friend and correspondent in France, Robert Bonnell, visits salt harvesting areas on the French Atlantic Coast frequently and reports that artisanal salt harvesting is still very much alive.  He wrote about salt from Guérande and the Île de Ré here, and below he describes harvesting in another nearby area.  It is good to know that a younger generation is learning a craft so vital to our well being. Robert’s report:

“The saunier (salt harvester) in the poster, Yohan-Paul Eveno, mentioned that there were only three active sauniers nowadays in the salt marshes near the town of Les Sables d’Olonne, although there used to be a lot more.  It appears that the profession never completely died out, though, and one of the three is now in his eighties and has been a saunier all his life.  Yohan-Paul learned the tricks of the trade from the old salt, if that’s what we can call him.  He knows that in Guérande the profession is called “paludier”, but insists that everywhere else in France it’s “saunier”.  For the record, Les Sables d’Olonne is down the coast from Guérande, and up the coast from the Ile de Ré, both of which we’ve described before.”

Restaurants: Will Iron Chef Morimoto Be A Winner In Downtown Napa?

Sushi and salad chefs at work during the lunch rush.

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve probably noticed that our food and especially our restaurants are more and more influenced by what we see on TV and view on line. Celebrity chefs are everywhere: starring in TV shows, writing cookbooks, opening restaurants, blogging, shilling lines of prepared food. While the whole media circus aspect of the food business doesn’t interest me much, I admit I was curious when I heard that Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto was opening a flagship restaurant just a few miles up the road in Napa.  I promised myself that I would check it out, and planned to until I looked at the menu where appetizers at dinner run from $15-20, and entrees begin at $23 and top out at $80 for an Australian wagyu beef steak. For $110 you’ll get an omakase tasting menu. A little rich for my blood. However, I noticed that at lunch you can now order a four-part set menu for $25. That I could do, and so with my friends Bob and Frank, I entered the world of superstar chefdom… (more after the jump)

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The $25 set lunch menu. Clockwise from top left: vegetable tempura, miso soup (or salad), 5 or 6 pieces of sushi, a protein-based entree (tofu, fish, chicken beef or pork).

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Travel: A Sunny Thanksgiving at Auberge du Soliel in the Napa Valley

The view from our table at Auberge du Soliel, looking southwest across the Napa Valley.

I hope your Thanksgiving is turning out to be as memorable as mine. A combination of made-to-order weather,  peaceful wine country setting, wonderful food and great friends made for a nearly-perfect day. As you know, I’m a bit fussy (sometimes even cranky) about what I eat. While I have strong vegan/vegetarian leanings, I am open to eating widely–if the food is of exceptional quality. I’m a rice and veggies kind of guy, but on special occasions I like to drop my guard, have a glass of wine and just enjoy. All of which brings me to Auberge du Soliel, an inn and restaurant perched on a hill with an expansive view of the Napa Valley. In a relaxed mood today at Auberge, and because it was Thanksgiving after all, I couldn’t resist the Willie Bird turkey. Accompanied by an intense oyster stuffing, mashed potatoes and cranberry “jus,” it was a contemporary, but satisfying take on Thanksgiving (I can’t help but be amused at the trendy menu use of the word “jus”–it is French for juice, as in jus d’orange, [orange juice], but more and more in the U.S. it seems to mean any kind of light sauce). For me, the meal began with wild shrimp, went on to an arugula and radicchio salad, and ended with a pumpkin custard which tasted very much like a light pumpkin pie. Having worked in a number of restaurant kitchens, I appreciate the demanding work which goes on behind the scenes, and I salute everyone who cooks on a holiday so that others may enjoy.

I suppose I should end on a serious note, perhaps with a reminder that Thanksgiving isn’t only about food, but is about experiencing gratitude for life and the abundance many of us take for granted. However, I’m not going there.  As readers of MacroChef, I’m pretty sure you’ve already done that, that and so much more.  But do stay out of the stores tomorrow, and thanks for reading MacroChef as we move into our second year! Happy Thanksgiving!

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I think it's tacky to interrupt a meal to take photos, but I did snap a quick pic of the dessert which we all ordered: pumpkin custard with ginger molasses cake, candied pepitas, and chantilly cream. (More photos after the jump...)

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Travel: Visiting a Pumpkin Festival in France’s Loire Valley

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615 varieties of pumpkins and squash are on display, with perhaps 50 available to purchase at the Pumpkin Festival at Saint-Rémy-la-Varenne, France.

Alas, I’ve yet to visit, but France’s Loire Valley is legendary for its physical beauty, historic cities and villages and for 300 or more Chateaux. It is also, apparently, a rich and diverse agricultural region, the abundance of which is celebrated with festivals in the various villages and towns. My friend and correspondent, Robert Bonnell, lives in the midst of the Loire Valley and recently visited the Pumpkin Festival at Saint-Rémy-la-Varenne.  As Robert explains, pumpkins and squash are New World imports, and as such are relative Johnny-come-latelies in the context of traditional French cuisine.  Robert reports:

“Every year during the third weekend in October, a festival called the Hortomnales takes place on the grounds of the former Priory of Saint-Rémy-la-Varenne, France.  “Hortomnales” is a made-up French word meant to signify horticulture and autumnal.  It’s easier to think of it as the Pumpkin Festival, since squash of all sorts is its primary emphasis.

Donkeys will carry purchases (or your small children) back to your car. Marie-Odile chats with the donkeys, we're not sure of the donkeys' names! (More photos after the jump.)

arie

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Travel: Exploring Minnesota Food at St. Paul’s Famed Farmer’s Market

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On the day before Halloween, an array of pumpkins and squash.

I’ve just returned from a ten-day stay with family and friends in Minnesota, and I plan to write several posts about what’s happening in the gopher state, where I spent 25 years of my life. Yesterday, my friend Roger Haase took me on a tour of St. Paul’s justifiably famed downtown Farmer’s Market which dates back 150 years. In its present location at 290 East 5th Street since 1982, the market has 167 stalls and operates on weekends year around, with a smaller winter market open December through April. Because everything must be grown or made in Minnesota and nearby Wisconsin, the market is a good gauge of what Minnesotans are growing and eating.  I almost always feel uplifted when I visit a Farmer’s Market, and yesterday was no exception.  It’s invigorating to be in the company of people who work so hard to produce beautiful food. You don’t get rich doing this sort of work, so you know that they value something else. Minnesota’s once meat-and-potatoes cuisine has in the past few decades been enlivened by immigrants from many countries, but most notably Viet Nam, Mexico, Somalia, and by Hmong people from Southeast Asia, who, as truck farmers, play a large role in the market. It must be said also, that because of global warming, or for whatever reason, Minnesota’s climate is now not as harsh and unforgiving as I remember it to be.  Frankly, I was surprised to find as wide a variety of locally-grown produce (even tomatoes) so late in the season. See more photos of what I found at the market after the jump.

Lovely root vegetables, carrots, parsnips, turnips, beets, onions, you would expect to find this time of year....

Asian produce grown by Hmong immigrants is a relatively new addition to Minnesota cuisine.

Creative marketing was much in evidence, a basket of gourds and Indian corn.

Wisconsin cranberries. Tell me honestly, did you even imagine that they grew cranberries in Wisconsin? More photos of the market, after the jump...

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Travel: On a Hot Day, There’s Nothing Like a Ferry on San Francisco Bay

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Vallejo Baylink Ferry, one of the 300-passenger, high-speed catamarans which cruise to San Francisco in 55 minutes.

 

Right on schedule in the Bay Area, we’re having Indian Summer, some of our hottest days of the year. It was 85º F today in San Francisco–and most of you know how rare that is. On glorious days like this I can think of few better places to be than on the water.  And since I don’t own a boat, taking a ferry is how I make that happen.  I  think the best ferry on the bay is the Baylink Ferry between Vallejo and San Francisco because  at 55 minutes it is by far the longest time you will spend on the water.  Oh, and by the way, I live in Vallejo.  But even if you don’t live in Vallejo, this is something you should know about.

You can leave your car at home because a number of bus routes in Napa and Solano counties stop at our Ferry Terminal and on the San Francisco side, the Ferry Building is only two blocks from the Embarcadero BART and Muni stations and an easy Muni connection (or even walk) from the Caltrain Station at Fourth and Townsend.  There are a dozen ferries each way on week days and eight on weekends. For a foodie like me, a stop at the Ferry Building is always warranted (this time it was a quick, but completely satisfying lunch at Mijita).  Bicycles are welcome on board, and there’s even a full bar. If Vallejo’s not your destination of choice, there’s also ferry service to Sauasalito, Larkspur, Angel Island, Alameda, and Jack London Square in Oakland. I take the ferry as often as I can and find it a totally civilized way to travel–driving is just barbaric by comparison!  See more photos of the ferry trip my friend Adele and I made today from Vallejo to S.F., after the jump.

 

Our destination: San Francisco's Ferry Building, as seen from the water.

 

 

Our ultimate destination: Mijita for lunch, one of dozens of possibilities in the Ferry Building (vegetarian taco, strawberry aqua fresca, fish taco).

 

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French Meadows: You’re Never too Young or too Old to Come to Summer Camp

Lunch at French Meadows Summer Camp, Paul Schmitt, author of this post, is the dude in the straw hat. (photo by Gerard Lum)

Every summer for decades, folks have been gathering for ten days in the clean air of the Sierras to enjoy nature, each other’s company, to learn useful skills for a happy life and to eat delicious, simple, organic, vegetarian food, cooked in recent years by Susanne Jensen and Packy Conway.  This year’s camp takes place from July 17-26th. Regular camper, Paul Schmitt tells us why he loves this camp and why he attends every year:

Summer has arrived. and with it, a host of kids camps. for this. that. AND the other.

me, i’m going to camp too. macrobiotic summer camp. in the mountains. all ages. pine trees. worth marveling at. boulders, appropriately taken for granite. a cold stream, often heard, not seen. and people. all kinds of people. hanging out. eating. cooking. walking. talking. oh, the talking. candor. in the clear mountain air. think of it. Continue reading