Stoking the fires of Northern food

The Upper Midwest is opting out of coastal culinary trends in favor of flame and smoke

Chef Camp 2016 // Photo by Adam Hester

The word “provincial” is generally not intended as a pleasantry. It revolves around the idea that there is the center of civilization (Ancient Rome, modern New York, Tokyo, London, you take your pick) and that you’re in a distant orbit around it. You’re off in the hinterlands, desperately trying to rub two sticks together to make a fire big enough to frighten off the bears.

The Upper Midwest is a province. Huff about it all you want, that’s our lot—we’ve got a few lovely cities in the midst of a lot of farmland and wilderness, and we’re generally accessible by air and seen as a way to get from point A (one coast) to point B (the other coast.) When this situation became clear in the later part of the 19th and throughout the 20th century, we reacted as provinces always do: We desperately tried to prove our worth by picking up on the trends and styles of distant, cooler, more populous cities, usually about three to five years too late and not always precisely on point.

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The tension between the capital and province is an interesting story of hidden advantage. The capital cities seem dominant. But the food is grown in the provinces. Provincial people know how to make ravishingly delicious spreads that satisfy like great restaurant meals (for a fraction of the price). And if it gets too good to ignore, it can simply be appropriated (if you’ve watched everything from porketta sandwiches to cheese to pie be claimed for the urban East Coast by the New York Times in recent years, you know the drill, as do people who grew up eating great fried chicken or pho only to encounter it, at $19 a serving, served atop a white tablecloth with much pomp and circumstance.)

We—the chefs, the purveyors, the food writers, the diners of the Upper Midwest—are meant to play a coastal game and lose. But increasingly, we are not playing the game anymore.

Instead of second and third-tier wine, we’re drinking increasingly excellent local beer and spirits. Instead of fetishizing lobster and caviar, we’re tapping into Minnesota pork, Wisconsin cheese, and Lake Superior fish. And instead of thinking that the best cooking must happen in a state-of-the-art modern kitchen, we’re getting our heads around something ancient and amazing: food slapped into a sizzling piece of cast iron suspended above the flickering flames of a wood stove or a campfire can taste like smoky, savory pieces of heaven come to Earth.

The campfire and the once fuzzy but increasingly crystallized idea of “North” are becoming our booming food culture’s guiding lights. And an awareness of a sense of place has helped to stoke the fires of a local food community that is vital like it has never been before.

Land, lake, and flame are changing the way we eat and think about food. That elemental Northern spark is powering the new Great Northern Festival. It’s in the ovens at Young Joni and Upton 43 and Fulton’s Gran Fondo bike ride and festival. It’s at the co-ops that thoughtfully weave local food into their shelves and produce sections. It’s in the DNA of the Food Building in Northeast and the upcoming Keg & Case Market. It’s at reinvented supperclubs like the Red Stag in Minneapolis and The Old Fashioned in Madison. And it’s lighting a fire at breweries and distilleries from Castle Danger to Rochester to Hallock to Moorhead and beyond.

Chef Camp 2016 // Photo by Adam Hester

That spark is also what fuels my project Chef Camp, an annual retreat / outdoor feast / laboratory that brings together some of the state’s best chefs and some of its most curious diners in a quest for the new and the old and the simply wonderful. Last year we watched chef Sarah Master create a New Orleans-style seafood boil lakeside, and chef Ryan Stechschulte make fireside flatbread back in a forest beautiful enough to be a movie set. It was a chance to see talented professionals use ancient tools to make food that felt contemporary as hell and authentic to the region.

As we all collectively figure out where the region is headed, it’s worth remembering that the ingredients of this old-is-new again cuisine vary—sometimes it’s open flames, sometimes it’s an embrace of legitimately local influences (everything from Nordic/Germanic to Southeast Asian to East African to Mexican to Native American). Sometimes it’s just a series of connections to makers and creators who are rooted in the place where they live. But the result of these factors combining is the brewing of a powerful thing: a legitimate local food culture, drawing inspiration from the woods and waters that surround us.

Related post -–— Wood-fired feasting: Lessons from Chef Camp

It’s important, as a state, that we keep camping. It’s important to haul cast iron over rocky trails, and to squat underneath tarps in the rain. It’s important to sometimes try to make a really great cup of coffee on the trail, despite all the factors suggesting that it’s a quixotic thing to attempt. It’s important to bring together the primordial beauty of places like the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area and the ridiculousness of packing in lovely, specialty ingredients made by local purveyors in order to make outdoor feasts that we can savor for a lifetime of memories.

There is a fire that burns in all of our kitchens, our home kitchens and restaurant kitchens alike. That fire is fed by physical fuel, but also by ideas: our upbringings, the recipes we pull from books or the internet, the trends and norms that we internalize, the influence of family and friends. It’s crucial in the years to come that we give the campfire a chance to fuel our hearth fires, so that we can knock loose some of the ties that chain us to the cronuts and lobster mac-and-cheeses of the world and remember what we’re doing out here: we’re living a little more peacefully, a little more thoughtfully, and (on good days, at least) a little more happily among the woods, campfire smoke, and water.

James Norton is an author of several regional books about food and one of the co-founders of Chef Camp, a three-day culinary retreat featuring five of Minnesota’s top chefs teaching classes in a wilderness environment 90 minutes north of the Twin Cities from Sept. 1–3. Tickets and more information available at chefcampmn.com.