Mystery of the Beef Commercial: Solved(?)

26 Aug

A generally positive review of Minnesota Lunch in the Farmington Independent may lay to rest the question of how the open-faced mashed potatoes and beef sandwich known as a beef commercial got its name.

Some restauranteurs, including my parents, called them “commercials,” but the authors of “Minnesota Lunch” can’t seem to figure out why and spend lots of time debating. I’ll settle the argument:

My father told me that our restaurant called them commercials because it was a favorite order from traveling salesmen, “commercial people.”

And my father wasn’t even a food writer. So there.

Sassy, but fascinating. I guess I’ll call it “sassinating.”

Duluth Universal’s New Sandwich Book of All Nations

28 May

I’m a sucker for antique cookbooks, and this whole Minnesota Lunch project has, I’ll admit, stirred a curiosity on my part of the old-school sandwiches of yesteryear.

So, lo and behold: While poking around a shop in St. Paul, I stumbled across a sandwich cookbook put out in 1942 by the Duluth Universal Flour company.

Written by “Frederic H. Girnau, Culinary Expert” and purporting to share “400 New Ways of Making Delicious Sandwiches,” the Sandwich Book of All Nations takes a nominally international approach to its material. I say “nominal,” because in most cases, the relationship between the sandwich and the supposed nation of origin is not merely thin but actually preposterous (see the “Chinese Oriental” sandwich below, for starters.)

Still, a lot of the sandwiches looked relatively tasty, many were provocatively bizarre, and the whole book is a delightful time capsule of received gastronomic wisdom from 60 years ago.

Here are a few of my favorites from among the 400 recipes provided, with commentary:

Chinese Oriental Sandwich

Mash four bananas; add one-half cup of maraschino cherries, two tablespoonfuls of honey, and two tablespoonfuls of sweet thick cream. Mix and spread on thin slices of lightly buttered white bread, cover with another slice, and garnish top with a cherry.

COMMENTARY: Ah, Chinese cuisine. Well known the world ’round for its liberal use of bananas, maraschino cherries and dairy products. Also: this sandwich is more absurd than a fluffernutter, and that’s saying quite a bit.

English Fig and Roll

Split twelve figs, scrape out the soft portion and rub this to a paste; butter thin slices of fresh white or brown bread, remove the crust, spread on the fig paste and roll the bread carefully; press for a moment, then roll it on a piece of tissue paper, pressing the ends as you would an old-fashioned motto, or it may be tied with a baby ribbon of any color.

COMMENTARY: I quite liked this recipe for its roll-up technique; we’re all pretty well sick of wraps, but the idea of rolling white bread into a tube of tastiness is a pretty interesting one. I could actually see adapting this.

Wisconsin Tomato Jelly Sandwich

One cupful of boil and strained tomatoes, seasoned with salt, pepper, paprika and a little tabasco sauce. Dissolve quarter box of gelatine in one-half cup of water, add to the tomatoes, and mix thoroughly. Cool in forms that will slice in shape of sandwiches to be used. Place between thin slices of lightly buttered white bread.

COMMENTARY: Nothing says “The Badger State” like gelatinous tomatoes. Seriously, though, this sandwich is just crazy.

Italian Banana Sandwich

Place peeled bananas, sliced across, between thin slices of buttered brown bread from which the crusts have been trimmed. Place in the oven and leave until bread is toasted and you will have delicious and nourishing hot sandwiches. Very good for invalids.

COMMENTARY: “Invalid” is a word few of us have probably heard in quite some time, and for good reason. Also: are hot bananas actually supremely nourishing for those on the mend? Not clear.

French Violet Sandwich

Cover the butter with violets over night; slice white bread thin and spread with the butter; put slices together and  cover with the petals of the violets.

COMMENTARY: This sandwich is filled with nothing but butter and tiny purple flowers. Charming and strange.

Dairy Sandwich

On thin slices of Swiss cheese, spread fresh butter and put the two slices together.

COMMENTARY: Uh-oh, somebody let Salvador Dalí make lunch, and he used the cheese… as bread!

Bummers Custard Sandwich

Take a cake of Roquefort cheese and divide in third; moisten one third with brandy, another third with olive oil, and the other third with Worcestershire sauce. Mix all together and place between split water biscuits toasted. Good for a stag lunch.

COMMENTARY: Is a “stag lunch” an archaic event wherein everybody arrives at the meal totally high? Did people ever really consume brandy, olive oil, and Worcestershire sauce-soaked cheese between toasted crackers as a meal? And what, exactly, are bummers? And how does this relate to custard? This recipe raises far more questions than it answers.

We Made METRO’s May 2011 Cultural Survival Kit

26 May

A great recurring feature in METRO picked up on Minnesota Lunch.

Minnesota Lunch and Chef Brent Pilrain on KARE11

23 May

Had a great appearance with Eric Perkins on KARE11 this Saturday — you can see Chef Brent Pilrain above (left), about to demonstrate Roma Restaurant’s meatloaf sandwich from the book. I’m the dude in the tie there in the center. You can watch the video here.

Star Tribune Review

12 May

Here’s Beth Dooley, writing in the Star Tribune:

“…A new book about our state’s sandwiches, ‘Minnesota Lunch,’ is sure to please. Rich in facts and regional flavor, the collection from James Norton and the Heavy Table website team reflects the same insatiable curiosity and shoe-leather reporting as their online magazine.”

It’s a great review — both in terms of being positive, and in terms of being well-written and getting the book. Worth a read.

Isthmus Review

28 Apr

Very nice review of Minnesota Lunch by Linda Falkenstein in The Isthmus, the excellent alt weekly of Madison, WI. Here’s the lede:

What a difference a state makes. Frankly, you’d suppose that what folks eat in Minnesota is not all that different from what we Cheeseheads chow down on, come noontime. But with Minnesota Lunch: From Pasties to Banh Mi (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $19.95), editor James Norton has put a stamp, an identity, on what Minnesotans eat for lunch and come up with a nice volume of regional food history to boot.

Minnesota Lunch on KARE11, Heavy Table

10 Apr

There’s a terrific write-up about Minnesota Lunch over on The Heavy Table by John Garland: you can read it here. Author James Norton also appeared on KARE11 to talk about the book and the booming local restaurant scene.

Minnesota Lunch Media Appearances: Podcast, TV

23 Mar

Author James Norton appeared on The Well Fed Guide of Life last night, a podcast that was taped over a hearty meatloaf sandwich (and more) at Cheeky Monkey Deli in St. Paul. Give it a listen!

He’s also slated to appear on KARE11 this Sunday (Mar. 27) at 10pm, after America’s Next Great Restaurant.

Outtakes from the Fried Walleye Sandwich

20 Mar

Katie Cannon / Minnesota Lunch

The following Minnesota Lunch outtake comes from contributing author Susan Pagani:

While working on the Fried Walleye Sandwich, we met a lot of folks who were under the impression that slot limits were killing tourism, inhibiting visiting fishermen who would otherwise bring their boats and their money to the state during the walleye season.

In the course of our research, we discovered that slot limits have improved the walleye population – at least on the lakes we looked at – and that in 2010 the state’s walleye fishing licenses went up. Good news for all, though how it will affect tourism remains to be seen.

In the end, it seemed like old wounds and misconceptions prevail where there is a lack of new information. In the book we talk about the extraordinary rehabilitation of the Red Lake walleye population through a partnership of the Red Lake band of Ojibwe and the DNR, and also how walleye fishermen are beginning to take a fly fishermen’s approach to the sport – the thrill of the catch, not the trophy.

Below is a section on Mille Lacs lake that did not make the book – it is both humorous and demonstrative of the issues above.

Katie Cannon / Minnesota Lunch

We had heard about Mille Lacs before — it is, after all, the site of Garrison, MN, the legendary “Walleye Capital of the World.” It is also the home of the Blue Goose Inn, a bar and fish house that has been around since the 1940s, when its smoky back rooms allegedly hosted poker-playing mobsters and angling gangsters.

The original building burned down 20 years ago but the owners rebuilt, and the website had an appealing sentimentality about it that made the drive seem worthwhile. So, even though the lake was still frozen and the walleye season had ended, we called the Blue Goose and made an appointment to interview the owner. But when we got to the restaurant, a surprising thing happened: the bartender told us that the owner and manager had literally just run, yes bolted, out the back door. Gangsters indeed!

Katie Cannon / Minnesota Lunch

We had a walleye sandwich and chatted up a couple, who was on their way up North with 200 gallons of sap, which they planned to boil down to maple syrup. They shared memories of sticking their empties in the ceiling of the old Goose, and dancing the night away. “It was a neighborhood bar,” said Linda Zahler, “You could walk in and always know somebody. They might have been up from the cities just like you were, but it was the kind of place everybody came.”

Thomas Sax told us that he had once loved fishing for walleye so much that, in 1979, he and his first wife spent their honeymoon fishing for walleye. “There’s this creek that runs into Mille Lacs over by Wahkon. I was fishing there in the shallows and I hooked into a 9- or 10-pound walleye. It’s been a long time, but it had to be 29 inches.”

He too loved a walleye fried in Shore Lunch and served on a hoagie with some tartar sauce, tomato and lettuce — and a cold beverage.

They were a nostalgic pair, jolly in their own way, yet embittered about the state of walleye fishing and, like Hansen, the limits. “Since they started netting the fish, people refer to it as the dead sea,” said Zahler, “When I used to come here in the 70s, you would never go home without a 5-pound walleye and a couple of 4 or 5 pounders, now you fight all day just to catch a fish — and then you have to throw it back.”

Katie Cannon / Minnesota Lunch

“I just feel that if they would put back the fish we put back, if they would abide by the slot limit like we do, that would bring the population back up and help all of us — it would certainly help the economy.”

This seemed to be a common misperception. “They” in this case is the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe, which because of an 1837 treaty with the state of Minnesota retains fishing and hunting rights, including being able to use gill nets on Lake Mille Lacs for non-commercial fishing.

According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which regulates the Mille Lacs walleye fishery along with tribal biologists, the eight Ojibwe bands subject to the treaty are allotted 132,000 pounds of walleye this year; the state may keep 411,000 pounds. “In the last few years, we’ve seen numbers fairly typical to what you would have seen 15-20 years ago,” said Mike Napp. “We try to keep the regulations consistent from year to year, including the slot limits, because it helps out the resorts and sportsman — they need to know what size and how many they can catch for planning.”

Katie Cannon / Minnesota Lunch

So, for the time being, he doesn’t see the slot limits changing. Napp also clarified that the gill nets the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe use are designed to catch fish within the slot limit, and that band members fishing on a rod are subject to the slot limit.

The Iron Range Pasties and Porketta Tour in Photos

10 Mar

One of the best parts of working on Minnesota Lunch was touring around parts of the state that we hadn’t spent much time in. The Iron Range — home to the absolutely delicious porketta and the hearty, versatile pasty, was a terrific trip. What follows are a series of photos (shot by Becca Dilley) from that trip.

Author James Norton (you can probably ID him) struggles to keep up with the church basement pasty squad at Wesley United Methodist in Hibbing, MN.

Porketta being made at Fraboni's, in Hibbing. It's a beautiful, low-tech, traditional process.

Fraboni's porketta is on the menu at Zimmy's in Hibbing. One of the best sandwiches of my life.

Author Aaron Brown ("Overburden") joined us for lunch at Zimmy's to talk about the Range.

Tom Forti from the Sunrise Deli in Hibbing. A font of local knowledge and good food.

Scene-setting sign from Pasties Plus in Grand Rapids, MN.

Homemade porketta served by Sue and Dennis Doeden in Bemidji, MN (here we've crossed out of the Range and into Lake Country.)

The Doedens introduced us to Turtle River Pasties, newfangled gourmet spins on the classic dish. Here's a breakfast pasty.

Here's the smoked beef briscuit that goes into the standard Turtle River pasty.

More buttery delicious pasties at Turtle River Pasties.

Pasties made the cut for the quilt at the Grace United Methodist church in Pequot Lakes.