Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Discovering the artisans

I made the trip home on Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. As is becoming typical with my trips, I have been making efforts to hit some of the back roads and go off the beaten track a little bit. I am learning that you can have some truly rich experiences by doing so, ones that might not be possible if you stick to the main roads.

After a leisurely drive down the North Shore, I stopped for lunch at a place called Gordy's Hi-Hat in Cloquet, MN. It is a local, seasonal burger joint that has been in business since 1960. Located on Minnesota Highway 33 and just across the bridge on the north side of the St. Louis River, they do catch some traffic heading to the Iron Range. However, if you are on I-35, you have to venture off the Interstate and drive a few miles through downtown Cloquet to get to Gordy's.

It was so worth the trip.

Their menu had a variety of hamburgers to choose from. I selected the California burger with a side of fries and a diet Pepsi. The burger was truly homemade; hand-formed from fresh ground beef, topped lettuce, mayo, and a perfectly ripe, thick slice of tomato. It was juicy and delicious. The fries were an excellent contrast of crispy and creamy. Just fantastic, and it cost just a little over $5, or what you might pay at a typical fast food restaurant. But it is light years better than any fast food.

After my lunch, I got back on the Interstate and continued my journey south. For years, I had seen a billboard advertising a country store in Mahtowa that sells homemade sausages. Mahtowa? Where in the heck is that? Feeling adventurous, I decided to check it out.

Mahtowa is a very small community just a few miles west of I-35 on County Road 4 in Carlton County. I am not saying it is in the middle of nowhere, but I strongly suspected that nowhere might be just around the corner. On the western edge of town, there is an honest-to-goodness country store. TJ’s Country Store, to be more precise.

TJ's Country Store is a rarity in today's world. According to the sign out front, it started in 1977. They sell groceries, gas, and other things, but they are known for their sausage products. Their slogan is "Our Wurst Is Best," and they sell a large variety of different sausages.

I picked out one of their specialty items, some wild rice wursts, and also a ring of Swedish potato sausage. I went up to the counter to pay, and a gentleman who I presume was the owner asked me, "Have you had our sausages before?" I told him no, and that I had ventured off of the freeway just to find his store.

His eyes lit up and he got very excited, telling me all about the wild rice wursts, which he said would be unlike anything I have ever tasted before. I even got some cooking instructions, too (low and slow, because they are made very lean). Then he said, "And the Swedish potato sausage; it's my Mom's recipe, and it's excellent!" It was obvious that he was very proud of, and passionate about, his products. And I knew before I even tasted them that they would be as good as he proclaimed. They had to be!

After these two experiences, I wondered what would prompt someone to start an independent fast food joint that was slightly off the beaten track? Why would you have a sausage shop in an out-of-the-way place like Mahtowa? Did they each have their own "Field of Dreams" moment where they said "If you build it, they will come?" And did people tell them they were crazy for trying it?

You have to admire folks like this. Perhaps they could be located in better, more easily accessible locations, but they said, "You know what? We are going to make our own hand-crafted products, we are going to do it better than the other guys, and we are going to do it our way right here in this very spot!" That takes a dream, a lot of passion, dedication, and a strong belief in what your are selling. And clearly, the customers are finding them and loving what they are making.

The dictionary defines the word "artisan" as "a skilled manual worker; a craftsperson." The etymology of this word was likely (or at least partially) derived from the Latin word "artitus," meaning "skilled in the arts," implying that there are artistic qualities involved. Most of the time when I hear the word today, it is used to describe a unique food product that is hand-crafted and not mass-produced (artisan bread, artisan cheese, etc.).

However you define it, the word "artisan" could certainly apply to the people at Gordy's Hi-Hat and TJ's Country Store. Not to sound too introspective, but they really are artists; they just use food as their medium. And these skilled workers are perfecting their hand-crafted products on the back roads of northern Minnesota.

And that is why it is fun to go off the beaten track.
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