Smoke and No Mirrors: The effort and integrity behind Northern Waters Smokehaus

Goedt displays a selection of Northern Waters smoked fish // Photo by Wing Ta

Goedt displays a selection of Northern Waters smoked fish // Photo by Wing Ta

I spent a couple decades in real estate, where I saw every kind of sales pitch, from the clumsiest—delivered by a transparently thirsty postgraduate sweating through the armpits of his big-boy sport coat—to the most sophisticatedly smooth.

One thing I learned is that we are all selling something almost all of the time, even if it’s just the image of ourselves we want the world to buy. It made me receptive to sales pitches as something more valuable and human than just a guy wondering what it will take to get me into this Toyota today.

The other thing I learned is that there is an integrity to a great sales pitch that transcends mere commerce, and rises up into a realm that can look a little bit like teaching, or at its very best, maybe even a kind of preaching.

I’m sitting at a folding table in the utilitarian upstairs office of Northern Waters Smokehaus—looking out over Duluth’s Canal Park in the foreground and Lake Superior in the background, and working my way through a bison pastrami sandwich called a Pastrami Mommy. I’m also getting the sense, as I listen to Eric Goerdt talk about his restaurant-slash-love child, that I may be in the presence of one of those masterful acts of persuasion that can only be accomplished by someone who isn’t really trying to sell you anything, but is rather trying to impart a particular vision of the world.

In Eric Goerdt’s vision, we live in a world where it is possible for a tiny deli counter, with next to no seating, in a mixed-use warehouse building in Duluth, to sell enough carefully made, world-class salumi, smoked fish, and cured meats each year to reliably employ 43 Minnesotans on an ongoing basis. All it takes is virtue.

What that virtue consists of, in Eric’s case, is a relentlessly cheerful insistence that employees be treated well, so that they are content in their jobs, so that, in turn, they stay around long enough to become knowledgeable, so that they will take informed and attentive care of their customers. As a result, those customers keep coming back, because they never get a single hint from the other side of the counter of rote, fast-food sullenness.

What that virtue also consists of is the hard, unglamorous, expensive, unautomated, traditional techniques of smoking and curing meat and fish that always work when you learn to do them well, but that never get easier, no matter how good you get.

Goerdt calls it “slow fast food.”

His vision is a simple one, in the same way that a long marriage is simple if you commit to waking up every morning for 50 or 60 years, regardless of your mood, with a fundamental respect for your spouse lodged somewhere unshakeable in your heart.

A simple formula. Difficult to execute. Often abandoned.

“Let’s go downstairs and take a look at production,” says Goerdt, when I’ve swallowed the last of my Pastrami Mommy and licked some mustard from my thumb.

A graphing machine is used to gauge the internal temperature of the smokers and serves as a record for the USDA if an inspection is necessary // Photo by Wing Ta

A graphing machine is used to gauge the internal temperature of the smokers and serves as a record for the USDA if an inspection is necessary // Photo by Wing Ta

He has a frank and vaguely military correctness about him, possibly acquired during his time in the Coast Guard. He also has the trim build and tight skin of someone who probably spends a lot of time outdoors in hiking boots or waders, and he trips lightly down the basement steps onto the tiled, bustling, slippery production floor, where at one end, plastic totes full of brining lake trout, whitefish, and salmon sit stacked next to commercial smokers with WWII-looking needles and graphs gauging the internal temperature of the fish inside. These paper graphs will offer proof to the USDA, if requested, that a minimum heat has been maintained for a minimum length of time to destroy the right kinds of bacteria.

There are, it turns out, varying schools and techniques for smoking fish.

The Anishinaabe who first fished Lake Superior on this spot would have smoked fish as a form of drying and preservation. Turning it almost into a form of jerky.

The method Goerdt uses is called kippering (think kippered herring). It’s a hot smoking method that requires a lot of oversight and precise temperature control, but yields, in his opinion, both the prettiest and the best tasting results. The fish is brined first in a highly saturated salt solution, then dried so that a kind of tacky skin, called a pellicle, forms on the fish, sealing in moisture and creating a receptive surface for smoke particles to cling to.

Fish at Northern Waters Smokehaus being brined in a highly saturated salt solution // Photo by Wing Ta

Fish at Northern Waters Smokehaus being brined in a highly saturated salt solution // Photo by Wing Ta

The kippering process begins at 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and gradually climbs to 175 degrees over several hours, as air circulates in a precise pattern throughout the smoker, drawing hickory smoke up along the interior walls, and then down across the racks of fish in the middle, before it is exhausted out of the building. The fish is cooked, but not baked. Left with a lightly smoky crust, and a very moist interior.

This slow, steady rise in temperature does two things. It doesn’t dry out the fish as much as traditional block-house smoking. And it leaves behind a beautiful, consistently colored bark, preventing (in most cases) the coagulation that you see on the surface of most smoked fish—those white globules that look like fat but are actually proteins that burst through the surface when the meat is heated too fast or too unevenly. 

It’s a little like the difference between the clarity of a closely watched chicken stock that has just barely burbled over a gentle Sunday afternoon, versus the muddy gruel that results from letting the stock spend time at a rolling boil.

I have learned all of the above in a matter of seven or so minutes, spent at Eric’s side, as he has verbally walked me through the process, interrupting himself regularly to answer questions, or more often—that classic sign of a good boss—to ask questions himself, of the team of workers circulating through the space around us. 

Eric Goedt of Northern Waters Smokehaus // Photo by Wing Ta

Their movement is the orderly chaos of an ant’s nest—a lot of work getting done in a small space by a team of workers who all know their individual jobs, and who know where their jobs fit into the larger communal picture.

I realize I have now watched Eric look completely comfortable on three different floors of the building in three different parts of the business—the main floor restaurant and deli, the third floor office, and the basement production room—and I have watched his team at all three levels interact with him and with each other in the same spirit of comfortable and happy purpose.

But he is maybe just a little bit more comfortable down here, among the marine smells of fresh fish, and the earth smells of pork and spices and herbs, and the ancient campfire smell of hickory smoke, in a noisy room that might be the galley of one of the ships he used to inspect in his Coast Guard days.

He’s happiest here, I sense, because this is where his inner nerd is given free range.

We walk past a stainless steel table where a cow intestine, threaded onto a hand-cranked sausage stuffer, is slowly inflating, like an enormous water balloon. Eric explains that this will be the salami they use for sandwiches, but he’s not able to stop himself there. See, they use this larger gauge salami for sandwiches, because the greater volume means the mold that develops on the exterior has access to a lower percentage of the interior meat than thinner salamis. And what that means, see, is that the exterior mold layer consumes less malic acid during the curing process, and the finished salami has more acidity—a tart taste that holds up better when paired with other flavors, as, for instance, in a sandwich.

Above: The salami meat blend prior to being put in the casings. Below: A Northern Waters Smokehaus employee wrapping and packaging the salami for drying // Photos by Wing Ta

Above: The salami meat blend prior to being put in the casings. Below: A Northern Waters Smokehaus employee wrapping and packaging the salami for drying // Photos by Wing Ta

Above: The salami meat blend prior to being put in the casings. Below: A Northern Waters Smokehaus employee wrapping and packaging the salami for drying // Photos by Wing Ta

His face as he talks is sort of illuminated. He has that look. That down-the-rabbit-hole look of someone talking himself way down deep into his craft. He’s the fly fisherman talking Catskill dry patterns. The hunter around the camp table arguing for the .243 Winchester over the .257 Roberts. The bread baker talking ash content and proofing time.

Scratch the surface of a bad sales pitch, and you get defensiveness, and hedging, and repeated scripts that try, and fail, to stand in for knowledge. Scratch the surface of a great sales pitch, and eventually you reach a point where the seller, and what is being sold, are effectively inseparable. In this case, what Eric is selling is a vision of integrity that appears entirely wrapped up in his own view of himself as an artisan. His product, and the business that transfers it to his customers, are both, in the end, an extension of himself. There is a oneness to the whole operation that has been evident on every floor, all day long.

Before heading upstairs, we spend a few minutes in the inner sanctum—a fluorescent-lit, windowless cell, where ropes of salami links, ghostly white with penicillin mold, hang in rows, slowly curing. There is saucisson sec, and fennel-scented Italian salumi, and chorizo, and some of that fat cow-cased salami that will eventually earn its place on the whimsical sandwich menu above our heads. We talk about mold, and pH, and spice mixes, and the bacterial microclimate that has established itself in this room over the years, and that might not be the same in any other room in Duluth. We talk about the power of tradition, and the power of knowing how to vary from tradition, once you’ve spent time mastering it.

Racks of various meats hang in the curing room until they are fully cured and ready for consumption // Photo by Wing Ta

Racks of various meats hang in the curing room until they are fully cured and ready for consumption // Photo by Wing Ta

The curing room is a very old-fashioned place, at the heart of a very old-fashioned kind of business. An Old World kind of business, and a very Minnesotan kind too, if you think of Minnesota as, for example, the place where the food cooperative movement was started.

We leave the room reluctantly—its bacterial microclimate and its hauntingly pretty skeins of salumi. We’ve come to some sort of understanding in there. That this matters, all this effort and integrity and nerdy science and artful respect for tradition.

Later he will finally sell me a few actual products, after a whole day of selling me everything but. And that evening, back in the Twin Cities, I will unwrap a whole bronze-scaled smoked cisco, that is so tender-fleshed, it might have been poached instead of smoked. And then I will pull out a very old wood-handled knife and slice half of a fragrant, peppery saucisson sec into almost translucent rounds. Around the table, our family will grab slices of meat and fish with our fingers, and tear coarse hunks of bread from a country boule, and spread them with butter, and we will raise glasses of spicy Rhône wine in a generally northerly direction, and we will call that dinner.

 

Recipe for Smoked Lake Trout Vera Cruz

A selection of smoked fish available at Northern Water Smokehaus // Photo by Wing Ta

A selection of smoked fish available at Northern Water Smokehaus // Photo by Wing Ta

Ingredients

1 pound smoked lake trout, flaked
1 pound fresh pasta, like pappardelle
cup olive oil
2 onions, finely diced
10 garlic cloves, sliced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon marjoram
1 teaspoon oregano
4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup white wine
15 ounces crushed tomatoes
20 green olives
6 ounces pickled jalapenos, sliced
2 tablespoons capers
cup parsley, chopped,
Reserve a pinch for garnish

Directions

Sweat the onions and then add garlic, cooking for 3 minutes. Add dry spices, saute until fragrant, and deglaze the pan with wine. Stir in crushed tomatoes, bring to a simmer, reduce heat, and cook for 15 minutes. Add olives, jalapenos, capers, and parsley, and simmer for 15 more minutes. Remove bay leaves and reserve sauce.

Cook pasta until al dente. Toss each serving with a portion of lake trout and a couple large spoonfuls of sauce, to taste. Garnish with reserved parsley.