Stick-Free

The only place you'll find Schumacher's famous Czech-German cuisine today is twixt the mighty Midway and Ye Old Mill

Schumacher's At The Fair
1701 Carnes Ave., State Fairgrounds
651.643.6027
Schumacher's at the Fair

 

Untold gallons of ink were spilled this year when plans were unveiled to convert New York's famed Plaza Hotel to condos, but little has been said about the exact same story unspooling in our own backyard: Schumacher's Hotel, the ornate, woodwork-saturated tribute to stagecoach stopover luxury, which operated continuously in New Prague (under different names) since 1898, closed three months ago, and is now headed toward its own condo-conversion. The alternative was to watch it get sliced and diced into pieces small enough for the antiques market, says owner John Schumacher, who made the decision to close after 30 years of running his little jewel on the prairie.

The hotel is gone, but the food lives on at the fair: John and Kathleen Schumacher
Raoul Benavides
The hotel is gone, but the food lives on at the fair: John and Kathleen Schumacher

"When we announced we were closing the hotel, we got 27,000 phone calls from well-wishers," Schumacher told me recently. "We had all kinds of parties of six, eight, and ten that would come down here dressed all in black, and have closing wakes. But life goes on. Your goals change, and your life does, but you can still keep in touch with everyone at the State Fair."

That's right. Today the only place on earth to get John and Kathleen Schumacher's famed Czech-German cuisine is at the Schumachers' stand-alone restaurant at the fair. It's John's 31st year there. Yes, I said 31 years: John started with 10 feet of counter in the food building when he was 27, scoring a last-minute spot as a replacement for a dropout; he's been there ever since.

However, his involvement with the fair goes back even further. John was a lifelong 4-H'er, getting his start when he was just a kid on a farm in Wheaton, Minnesota. He worked his way up the pyramid, going to the Junior Livestock Fair in South St. Paul three times. Then, when he was 12, he hit the big leagues and was invited to the State Fair to give a demonstration on cattle-feeder systems. "For my trip my father gave me $5," says Schumacher. "As a farm kid in the late '50s, that was more money than I had ever seen in my life. In five minutes I had spent more than half of it. Literally, in just minutes, on rides in the Midway, trying to win teddy bears, doing the kind of stuff a 12-year-old alone will do, I spent $3. So then I was in a pickle. I was living in the dorm there, and $2 to my name. But I figured out that I could get hot dogs at Peter's Wieners, in the food building, for 10 cents. Cokes for a dime. That's all I lived on from then on: Hot dogs in the morning, hot dogs for dinner, and Cokes. But it was then and there I resolved I was going to have something myself one day in the Minnesota State Fair."

It took a few years, of course. First he went to Dunwoody to attend their baking program and then spent four years submerged in the North Atlantic, working as a cook on nuclear submarines.

"That all started because I saw Run Silent, Run Deep on television," says Schumacher. What's it like to cook on a submarine? They serve four meals a day for the two shifts, Schumacher told me, "6:00 and 12:00, 6:00 and 12:00. You're submerged between 90 and 100 days, and it wasn't real regimented like in other branches of the military. When I was there, everyone ate together family-style; we passed platters. There was a lot of camaraderie." How small were the kitchens? "I was on one that had a galley about the size of a kitchen table. If you had to open the oven you had to back out of the galley." The freezers and coolers were bigger than the kitchen, so they could accommodate supplies for 80 men for three months; even with that, though, when the voyage began there wasn't enough room for the potatoes and onions, which were kept in the showers.

After the navy, John Schumacher headed to the East Coast's famed Culinary Institute of America and afterward came back to Minnesota, where he bought his New Prague hotel and restaurant and began the next three decades of his life, supplying all of us, fair-trompers and world leaders alike, with kolaches, sausage, and dumplings. (Which world leaders? Name one who came through the fair or New Prague and they've certainly eaten Schumacher's food, as former Czech president Alexander Dubcek and Minnesota legends Sen. Paul Wellstone and Gov. Rudy Perpich did.)

I spoke to John Schumacher in the days right before the fair, when his whole building at the great Minnesota get-together was given over to cooks whipping up his rib-sticking classics. For the dumplings, Minnesota-grown potatoes must be cooked, mashed, cooled, mixed with flour and various top-secret seasonings, and blended into the basic dumpling mixture, after which the dough is hand-scooped and hand-rolled into dumpling shapes: 7,000 of these will be frozen until needed for service, either to fill out groaning feast platters, or solo, in the dumplings and chicken gravy, for $2.75. (Schumacher always keeps his dime-by-dime childhood at the fair in mind and offers some affordable options, like roast dark-meat chicken quarters for $3.50.)

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