Mike Phillips looks tired. That’s because he is tired.
Mike is the quiet Twin Cities institution who over the years has given us Chet’s Taverna, The Craftsman Restaurant, and, though we have yet to prove ourselves entirely worthy, Red Table Meat Company.
Yes, he gets up for work at 5am most days, but that’s not really what I’m talking about. Physically, in fact, he projects a contained sort of alertness, with the knotty build of someone whom a lot of biking has carved down to mostly muscle, bone, and sinew. You wouldn’t want to make sausage out of him.
What I’m talking about is that pale smudge of bluish darkness under his eyes, and a slight immobility to his mouth when he talks that looks as if he is holding back some kind of sadness, and how he sometimes looks off, in a way that people do when they have been engaged in a long struggle.
Mike’s is the tiredness of someone fighting the good fight, against bad odds, who is not at all sure he’s going to win.
A small group of us has just biked a stretch of Mississippi shoreline in St. Paul, over dirt trail and river bottom mud, through clouds of June mosquitoes and a tangible haze of post-rainstorm humidity. We have arrived, sweat-glazed and bug-bit, in a grassy clearing just barely sweetened by the hint of a breeze.
And like weary bikers, hikers, trekkers, travelers, just-friends, and more-than-friends throughout the western world, we have arranged ourselves in a loose circle, set out a torn loaf of crusty bread, a wedge of cheese, and a bottle or two of something fermented, and then unfolded a clasp knife, and begun slicing thin rounds from a rumpled, white-powdered length of salami.
We’re just a little more fortunate than usual this time, because the two salamis in front of us are a Chet’s and a Chuck Fred from Red Table, and because the guy sitting on his heels in the middle of the circle, slicing and talking about the meat, is the guy who made it.
The meal is a kind of universal shorthand for civilization.
Laid out almost anywhere—from a blanket on a beach, to a picnic table in a park, to a flat rock beside the evening’s campsite—a collation of cheese, bread, and salami somehow alters everything around it. What was foreground just a minute ago, is now backdrop. What was wild, random, enervating, or chaotic now has a center of focus. A pause in the day has been declared. For a short while, right here, people are going to gather and eat.
It reminds me of that moment, late in the afternoon, about four days into the over-scheduled tour of European capitals, with your leaden legs thudding through their eighth hour of city pavement, cathedral flagstone, and museum marble, when you happen past the window of a little charcuterie, or salumeria, and not 10 minutes later you are sitting, miraculously, on a park bench in the shade, with a rustic meal as good as you could find anywhere in the world laid out next to you on an informal platter of white butcher paper.
The reason that meal is so good is not merely that you are grateful to be sitting, nor that you find yourself among the trappings of a rustic kind of old-world gentility. The reason that meal is so good, to a great and crucial extent, is that four artisans with a near-lifetime of experience in their field, probably including an early apprenticeship with a master, put all of their craftsmanship into each of those deceptively humble items on your bench. A baker, a cheesemaker, a vintner, and a butcher teamed up to make your meal for you, and they were not just very good at what they did, but they were part of a food system that insisted that such things be available, at that level of quality, all the way from street corners in world capitals down to storefronts in tiny rural villages. It is an inefficient system based on old, slow techniques that produce reliably excellent products, which we, in America, largely lack, due to the fact that, for the most part, we don’t insist on them.
For all the rightfully celebratory talk about an American food revival taking place in family kitchens, and backyard organic gardens, and farmers markets, and the restaurants of chefs who care, ours is still overwhelmingly a corporate food system, not an artisanal one, focused primarily on efficiency, cost, and productivity, not on taste and flavor, and based on a factory model, not the model of a polyculture family farm. That sounds like a political statement, but it isn’t.
It’s simply the truth about this particular moment, which some of us celebrate, some of us accept, some of us lament, and some of us fight.
Mike Phillips has been fighting in this corner of the food world for a long time, and these days Red Table is his weapon of choice.
What he’s fighting against, in the broadest terms, is commodification. All those little cut corners. All those little concessions to price and speed that leave us with watery meat covered up by too much salt and spice, with animals moved so quickly through the system that waste and cruelty become inherent, with the human cogs in this great machine asked to do a little too much work, at a little too much personal risk, for a little too little money.
What then, you might ask, is he fighting for?
Well… here. Take a look at this slice of Chuck Fred. Yes, of course it’s a beautiful dark garnet red, and it’s so densely marbled that there’s almost as much fat as pork. But have you noticed something else? It’s been sitting on the cutting board for the better part of an hour, as we’ve talked and poured—an hour in some pretty steamy midsummer sun—and yet it hasn’t gone soft. The fat hasn’t started to sweat. If you pick it up, there’s no residue left on your fingers.
That’s because the fat is supersaturated, and it got that way because the farmer who raised the pig, at Mike’s insistence, fed the animal on pasture and then finished it expensively with barley, field peas, and small grains, which made for this high quality fat that won’t melt at ambient temperature.
And more than that. Notice how everyone keeps reaching for more salami? That’s not just because it tastes good. Even a bad salami tastes good for the first few slices. But very soon, a bad salami will surfeit your taste buds with too much salt and spice and acidity. It’s relatively easy to add a ton of salt to a salami in order to make sure it doesn’t go bad. It is not at all easy to figure out just how much fermentation will lower the pH to a level that resists bad bacteria, and also adds a pleasing fermented tang to the final taste, yet remains a background effect, not a primary flavor. Mike spends a lot of hours figuring out exactly this, and as a result, the taste of his salami is deliberately subtle and mellow, and more about the excellent pork at its origin, than about the seasoning talents of the charcutier. You can eat it throughout a meal, as we’ve just done. It’s a sign of well-made charcuterie.
And then there’s the name. Chuck Fred isn’t just a whimsical sort of anti-elitist brand name aimed at unpretentious meat fanciers. It was the alias of a good friend named Tom Taylor, a Minneapolis activist, artist, chef, community organizer, and brother-in-arms back when Mike Phillips was voting the straight socialist worker’s party ticket and playing punk rock. Chuck Fred salami—like other Red Table products with local references—is simultaneously a call back to ancient French, Italian, and Spanish methods of preserving meat, and a way of saying that Minnesota, in the European vein, can make charcuterie that is at once unmistakably regional and world-class.
Tom Taylor, aka Chuck Fred, died in 2012, of esophageal cancer. A plate of Mike’s charcuterie was his final request, on what would turn out to be his death bed, and when it arrived, he was too far gone to eat it. Instead, the platter turned into the meal that everyone ate at the funeral. Chuck Fred salami is lightly smoked as a kind of defiant middle finger extended to the cigarettes that killed its namesake. It is, in some ways, just a very good salami. It is in another way, an attempt by a craftsman to tell his friend’s story in the language of his craft—to commemorate Tom Taylor with the best thing that Mike Phillips knows how to make.
All that, as far as I can tell, is what Mike is fighting for. And why he is tired.
But in the same way that cynicism is usually just the flipside of idealism, and the two often coexist in the same person, Mike’s inclination to fight—his young man’s punk rock anger still there beneath the surface of the middle-aged man’s wry stoicism—has a flipside. You can see it when he talks about his mentor, François Vecchio, or about his friend Chuck Fred, or about his team at Red Table, or about a particularly ecstatic taste of a perfectly made slice of salumi. The flipside of Mike’s righteous anger—the fuel for his fighting, against all those odds—might be summarized by a word like love.