The Fort Knox of Meat

Forster's
4285 Deerwood Lane N., Plymouth;
(612) 559-5775
Hours: Monday-Friday 9:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m; Saturday 9:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Closing at 2:00 p.m. December 24, and 5:00 p.m. December 28-30. Closed Christmas Day and January 1-3.

 

Tom Forster gave me a paper hat and a butcher's coat, led me to his smokehouse, and shouldered open the door. It was a week before Christmas, and the place was packed to the rafters. Chains of hams drooped from the ceiling like obscene bunches of grapes, brown and pink and dripping with maple sugar. Lining the walls were shelves and shelves of smoked birds: Turkeys, brown as cigars and big as jack-o'-lanterns. Chickens, orderly as bowling shoes. Pheasants, as pretty as little loaves of bread.

"My God," I gasped, looking at what was easily a thousand Twin Citizens' Christmas feasts, "there must be $100,000 worth of meat in there." "Double it," said Forster, drawing the door closed with a wink. As we wandered through the rest of his backrooms--past the six beef sides dry-aging on hooks, past the drum where pork loins were tumbling in a brown-sugar solution on their path toward becoming double-wide Canadian bacon--it dawned on me that I had entered the Fort Knox of meat.

I also realized that this vault of victuals couldn't be any better hidden than it is, disguised in plain sight. When drawings curators at museums need to move, say, a Renaissance pencil sketch they will often tuck it between the pages of a magazine they can carry around unobtrusively. In the same spirit, what better spot for the Twin Cities' greatest concentration of gourmet meats than a nondescript concrete-block building off a low-profile side street in the middle of a generic suburban housing development?

Tom Forster would just as soon his shop still sat in the center of the Forster family farm, as it did from 1947 to 1987. That's when the city of Plymouth exercised its power of eminent domain and initiated the first part of a four-phase development that has chewed up most of the family land and will displace the butcher shop by October 2001.

"I talk to the old-timers all the time," says Forster. "They'll say: 'Ah, they just beat that corn field to hell. It had a real good yield before they ruined it with a lot of houses.'" The house where Ronald and Dewetta Forster raised their two sons now serves as base of operations for Cynthia Forster--granddaughter of Ronald and Dewetta, daughter of Tom, and president and CEO of Forster's.

Of course, without the sort of prosperity that fills up cornfields with SUVs and farmhouses with CEOs, Forster père and fils would not be the highbrow-meat powerhouse they are today, shipping specialty products to dozens of upscale local eateries--restaurants, yes, but also country clubs, gourmet groceries, and even other butcher shops. Forster's is where chefs turn when they need something special, like the Danish specialty of skin-on pork roasts; whole raw Hudson Valley foie gras; hangar steaks (each week Forster's sells 400 to 500 of the rich steaks cut from inside the organ cavity); breast-on butterflied crown roasts of veal or pork; Cajun tasso, a handmade version of the vibrantly spiced pork; sausage casings, smoked pheasant, butterflied pork loins; goat, piglets, capons, even elk.

Elk, which some know by the Shawnee name "wapiti," scents the wood-dust-filled air the day I'm at Forster's: "Smell that?" asks Tom Forster with a sly eyebrow raise. "We have 800 pounds of elk roasting off right now." For whom? I demand. But he won't say, knowing that some people pay the rent passing off Forster's skills and products as their own. Just remember: The ambitious individual cooks who make the pilgrimage up his driveway are only the tip of the iceberg.

And what a meaty iceberg it is. Cynthia Forster took a course at the Culinary Institute of America a few years ago, and she is responsible for the dozens of regional sausages (priced from $2.89 to $4.89 a pound) Forster's has on hand at any given moment. Varieties include German specialties like Mettwurst and Bockwurst, blood sausage made with pearl barley, and light, buttery Weisswurst made with veal, pork, onions, chives, spices, cream, and eggs; Cajun sausages like andouille and chaurice; Swedish potato sausage; chorizo; British bangers; Irish cabbage sausage; French chipolata and boudin blanc; Armenian lamb sausage made with fresh mint; several Italian sausages, including a Tuscan one made with mozzarella; and American classics like maple syrup-sweetened breakfast links, pork-wild-rice-jalapeño sausage, beer bratwurst, and even a coarse-ground fresh bologna.

I came home from Forster's with a big bag of you-guessed-it, and from my own sample kitchen I can now happily report that it's no wonder local restaurants rely on the place. The breakfast links ($2.69/lb.) were easily the best I've ever had, offering a beautifully delicate texture with just the right hint of mild white pepper. Thick-cut, brown-sugar-cured bacon ($3.99/lb.) was textbook-perfect, holding the ideal balance of meat and fat to cook up into addictive little planks. Herb-and-garlic-crusted smoked pork chops ($5.19/lb.) were tender and sweet, not oversmoked and dry as is so often the case.

A couple of strip steaks ($8.79/lb.) were perfectly chewy and beefy, full of the big, rich, winey taste that only dry-aging creates. I liked the bangers--feisty little links with a backbone of pork and veal and the zip of sourdough crumbs and lemon--and the Moroccan lamb and mint sausage, nicely herbal and mild. And while the bologna tasted to me more like a summer sausage, the mere concept of filling my sandwich with hand-made lunch meat was thrilling, making me feel like some kind of suburban pioneer.

One thing I didn't try was Forster's famous whole roast pigs, dozens and dozens of which are about to go flying out the door for Asian New Year celebrations. They'll be either gutted and ready to roast, or roasted and set up Carmen Miranda-style, with an apple in their mouths and a festive pineapple hat.

If the thought of a pig roast grosses you out, you'll also be happy to know that Forster's is the only local supplier of pork spines, pork hearts, sheep and cow eyeballs, and other animal parts needed for medical research by schools, hospitals, and medical-product companies. Pig spines, for example, are used for surgical practice, but they are usually destroyed in the butchering process. Since Forster's gets much of its meat directly from the Glencoe processing plant run by Tom's brother Phillip, they can direct that the spines be preserved. In fact, to hear Tom Forster tell it, the whole reason there are so many medical-product companies in the western suburbs is because of his shop's ability to provide the mountains of hearts needed to create a product like, say, the pacemaker.

So picture them--thousands of people who have had their lives changed, without knowing it, by a little butcher shop in the middle of a housing development. A man sitting in a restaurant on Cathedral Hill, eating a chicken sausage while his pacemaker keeps time in his chest. A woman in a three-bedroom house in Plymouth, breakfasting on bangers while recovering from disk surgery. I ran the image by Forster and he didn't say a word, just smiled and nodded, his bright blue eyes narrowing under his baseball cap. Outside, Phase Four was getting under way with men clearing the last of the Forster family trees.

Directions (from Minneapolis or St. Paul): Take I-394 west to Highway 169; follow 169 north to County Road 9; take 9 west to the second stoplight; turn left on Zachary Lane; turn right on Old Rockford Road; turn right on Deerwood Lane. Foster's parking lot is at the top of the hill.

 

TABLEHOPPING

DINE EARLY, OFTEN: I once thought it was adequate to celebrate the millennium at a single restaurant, but on further consideration I realize that we all must go to at least three dinners that night--if they serve them, we must come! If you already have reservations motivated by my hectoring of the last two weeks, why not add more? Think about an early or late meal at Aquavit: The $80 prix fixe is for those wanting to dine between 5:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. and features four full courses and two minor ones including a smoked salmon cone, foie gras ganache, and an entrée option of pastrami roasted duck with 50-year-aged balsamic vinegar. The $150 prix fixe seats between 8:00 and 10:30 p.m., includes entertainment by jazz vocalist Kim Fragodt, and allows you to choose an oyster roll with champagne foam for a starter. Both dinners conclude with a "millennium trio" of triple chocolate terrine, chocolate won ton, and chocolate ganache. Aquavit is in the IDS Center at 80 S. Eighth St., Minneapolis; (612) 343-3333.

For those who'd like to head for dinner after a couple of rounds at Golf Mountain, both the Napa Valley Grille and California Cafe have put together some pretty plush spreads. The California, which to my enormous sadness is no longer headed by chef Steve Vranian, is serving a three-course, $65 meal between 7:00 and 10:30 p.m., and they're offering what may well be the Twin Cities' only lobster mashed potatoes that night. California is at the Mall of America, Third Floor South, near Macy's; (612) 854-2233.

Napa Valley Grille is serving a $125 prix-fixe that is available from 5:00 to 10:30 p.m. and includes a glass of champagne and a gift box of millennium chocolates. What's most remarkable here is the inclusion of the most expensive beef on earth, Japanese Kobe beef, from cows that receive massages and acupuncture and generally lead a life of beer and skittles--or at least sake and shiatsu. To the best of my knowledge, there's never been Kobe beef on a Twin Cities menu before. The Grille is also at the Megamall, second level, West Market; (612) 858-9934.

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