'Tis a Gift to be Simple

Holiday treats from local farmers and food artisans

When I'm not basting the homestead with goose fat, what I mostly like to do is cower in terror at the specter of the evolving Economy of Emotional Grift, as embodied most conveniently by Restoration Hardware's 1955 Pocket Handwarmer. Seen it? Oh, it's a doozie. It's one of the preferred stocking stuffers at Restoration Hardware, and if you glance at the retailer's website you'll see it, a chrome doodad meant to be traded between people who don't know the first thing about one another, so that impressionable teens can turn "lighter fluid" into a "pocket furnace" while "snowboarding," and impressionable grandparents can feel like they're transmitting something quaint from a childhood they likely never had, full of handwarmers and paper routes, without the bother of actually articulating anything they're trying to say.

Remember the Old Economy? I mean, the really old one, when, say, Jane made something for X, then sold it to a store for 2X, which in turn sold it to you for 4X? Instead, Jane now finds some bit of Americana on eBay, takes it to Thailand, has it made for eight cents, then sells it to us for $93, which we are all delighted to pay because it serves as a placeholder for the emotional connection we'd like to have with the person receiving the gift, and because the object vaguely smells of connecting emotionally or intellectually with the real, actual world we live in. Because all of us want to have a happy holiday! No sensible people want to live in that sanctimonious world of "Kill your television." We want to have rich emotional connections to the people we love, or the people whom the people we love love.

Luckily, the tasteful and tasty old economy of Grift-Free Living is all around us, in unexpected places, like under Interstate 394, in temporary housing off Como Avenue, and in the local grocery store. For example, did you know that the Minneapolis Farmer's Market is going now through Christmas, and if you go there you can have delightful conversations, stock up on stocking stuffers, stick money directly into the pockets of local farmers, and walk away with a kick-ass whole smoked duck for $9? This is all true.

Smokin' duck: Laura Wemeier displays free-range poultry raised on her family farm, Bar Five
Bill Kelley
Smokin' duck: Laura Wemeier displays free-range poultry raised on her family farm, Bar Five

I went to the Minneapolis Farmer's Market last Saturday, and it was nothing but fascinating and yielding of tasty treats. I had long known about the St. Paul Winter Market (www.stpaulfarmersmarket.com; every Saturday in December from 9:00 a.m.-noon; January 4, 18th, February 1st and 15th, March 1, 15th, and 29th, and every Saturday in April), a great place to get all sorts of gifty things like chocolates, honey, and candles, as well as the fresh eggs, chickens, milk, and other sorts of products that say Northern Heartland in Winter. But the Minneapolis market was a revelation to me, an all-male bastion of meat, jerky, summer sausage, meat, smoked meat, more meat, and some cheese. As such, it seemed like the perfect place to shop for dads. Because everyone knows that shopping for dads is one of the enduring puzzles of all time. And whereas men are customarily offered piles of things that no one could possibly want--you've seen the department store displays, pyramids of ties in plastic-front boxes, page-a-day golf jokes, chocolates wrapped in foil to resemble cigars or fishing lures--here are piles of beef sticks, bison jerky, a dozen varieties of salami, and all sorts of things that are actually desirable and will tend to fall much more on the side of surprising and delighting than gathering dust and capturing annoyance.

For instance, did you know that Dan Tapio makes 72 kinds--72! No kidding!--of buffalo jerky? They're all named after the first buffalo he ever got, a large fellow named Joseph Jumping Thunder, and so he calls these Thunder Sticks. They come in flavors like Thai spice, lime coconut, North African, nuclear meltdown, and uff-da, which is made with jalapeños. I only got to try the plain mesquite flavor, but it was moist, chewy, tender, and really very good in every way. At $5.50 for a 4-ounce package, it was delicious, but once farmer Dan Tapio told me a half-hour's worth of anecdotes about buffalo farming, I was thoroughly enchanted. For instance, did you know bison can predict the weather? They stop eating before a big storm moves in, and hunker down and stop moving. Unlike cows, who need vast amounts of food every day, bison eat like the dickens in October and November and just get to hanging in till spring, subsistence-wise, for the super-cold months. But then, when a warm front is moving in, they just get to racing, playing, and jumping around, and use their energy pell-mell in anticipation of the coming good times. When you talk to Minnesota bison farmers, you immediately stop feeling the isolation of the 'Dales and start feeling like you live in a place, with characters.

At the next table was Stephen Fischer, who was minding the Eichten Cheese and Pure Nature Meats area. From there I got some remarkably good bison summer sausage, all garlicky and nicely rough-hewn bison liverwurst (light and very German-tasting, graced with a lilt of nutmeg), and Eichten's 5-year aged cheddar ($12.49 a pound)--easily the best aged Minnesota cheese I've ever had, and I've had them all. It's sharp, focused, and strong, and the extreme age means that small crystals have started to form. Frankly, I would love to see this stuff in about two more years; it gives every indication of following the same path towards greatness that the noblest aged Goudas do. Also, for your gift-giving pleasure, get this: If you live in the metro and make any kind of largish purchase from one or both of the two Eichten-related websites, someone will deliver your gifts to your door. What says Christmas more than a bison T-bone?

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