Sugar Head

When Minneapolis restaurant critic Dennis Cass sets out to explore his own brain, the truth (almost) kills

Dennis Cass
Head Case
HarperCollins

Is it a conflict of interest for me to write about Dennis Cass? Perhaps; we go way back, and he is old-school City Pages, a regular writer for the paper in the '90s. Yet I kind of feel that if anyone should write about him, it should be the paper to which he owes his very happiness in life—his wife, Liz, found him through a City Pages "I Saw You" ad. Without the ad, without City Pages, there would have been no wedded bliss, no happy south Minneapolis home, no adorable baby named Owen to pull him back from the brink of madness, and his new book, Head Case: How I Almost Lost My Mind Trying to Understand My Brain, would have been titled Head Case: Dennis Go Bye-Bye.

Richard Fleischman

Location Info

Map

Liberty Frozen Custard

5401 Nicollet Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55419

Category: Restaurant > Cafe

Region: Southwest Minneapolis

Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater

810 W. Lake St.
Minneapolis, MN 55408

Category: Movie Theaters

Region: Uptown/ Eat Street

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Seriously, things got bad for Dennis (I've known him too long to call him "Cass"). For instance, in the course of trying to understand his brain, and find out whether we make the goo between our ears or it makes us, he:

  • Started experimenting on himself with prescription ADD drugs.
  • Used members of the University of Minnesota Neuroscience Club as lab rats at the Mall of America, until those lab rats took over and mocked the experiment.
  • Was subjected to batteries of electric shocks in Manhattan.
  • Turned his kitchen into a bizarre nighttime stress lab, with ice baths.
  • Came this close to telling his wife, when she was in labor with their child, that while the pain felt physical, technically it was all taking place in her mind.

Thankfully, he pulled back on that last one. And, not to spoil the ending, but he eventually didn't go crazy, and returned from the bleeding edge of brain science with the answer to one of the questions that has bedeviled restaurant critics since time immemorial. Namely: Why does pretty good food at a dive seem so impressive, when a pretty good meal at a four-star place seems like such a rip-off?

Dennis has been a restaurant critic for Minnesota Monthly on and off for the last ten years, so he has no small investment in the answer to that particular restaurant-going conundrum. The answer? Anticipation and managing expectations is itself one of the brain's major tasks, Dennis told me when we sat down over cake at one of his favorite south Minneapolis spots, Rustica. If, say, you were living on a savannah, and a mountain to one side held tasty berries, and a mountain to the other side held poisonous snakes, it would be in your best interest to constantly hold expectations about tasty berries versus poisonous snakes. Furthermore, if the poisonous-snake mountain suddenly became full of tasty bacon, it would be in your best interest to suddenly be flooded with disproportionate joy, so that you remembered to work the bacon mountain into your routine.

Or something like that. I don't really understand the brain. Happily, no one does, because the brain is beyond beyond complicated, and one of the reasons Dennis wanted to meet at Rustica was to illustrate that fact. We took forks to a gorgeous little four-inch cherry frangipane cake ($4.25), in the spirit of scientific inquiry. The cake works on the brain in ways known and unknown, he explained. First, there was the pure sugar. Sugar lights up the brain, Dennis told me. "Did I ever tell you the Halloween candy story?" he asked. No.

"Okay. Owen was about a year and a half old. He had never tasted candy, and we had a big glass bowl of it on the table for trick-or-treaters; he had been walking past it all day. We thought, you know, it's Halloween, let him try it. We gave him one piece and—he takes one bite, one bite, and while that one bite is in his mouth he starts chanting, More, more, more! and clawing for the bowl. He's grabbing as many handfuls as he can, and stuffing them in his mouth with the wrappers still on, and scattering the rest around the room—it's a complete frenzy. So I'm trying to keep him from choking, keep the bowl from breaking, his little arms are everywhere, we get him slightly contained, and then realize: He doesn't know how to eat candy, so he's got a whole mini candy bar in his mouth, in its wrapper, sideways, and you can actually read the words 'Almond Joy' between his little teeth. So: You don't need to go to sugar camp to understand sugar, you are born understanding sugar."

But this cake, said Dennis, gesturing at the frangipane beauty with its moist almond heart, its craggy, crisp lid, its liquor-soaked cherries—this required training, education, culture, and personal historical context, a whole world of other brain engagements that science was nowhere near understanding. Take also the chocolate mousse cake ($14), which was light as clouds, creamy, duskily floral, and fragrant with the potent perfume of layers of chocolate; or the subtle torta di riso ($4.50), eggy, weighty, and pure as a hymn: They each fulfill expectations and meet anticipation, intellectual, physical, and otherwise. They provide the basic incentives of sugar, fat, and food, but they also do so much more.

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