Freedom and the Sugar Doughnut
4800 28th Ave. S., Mpls.; (612) 729-9316
Hours: 6:00 a.m.-6:00 p.m. daily
A single gold nugget supposedly has the power to drive you crazy, dazzling the soul with its promise of wealth and maddening with its implication that the mother lode might be lost or never found. But in south Minneapolis, something else can drive people to fits of gold-bug fever: One bite of a hot, heavenly, handmade Mel-O-Glaze doughnut--sizzling in its paper, warm like a living thing and sweet as childhood--sparks atavistic fires of delight and greed deep in the belly. One glance at the priceless Minnehaha Creek frontage, and folks start dreaming up schemes of kilim rugs, polished hardwoods, and three-dollar espresso drinks.
"Everyone's always telling us, 'You've got a gold mine here,'" says Paulette Bosela, daughter of longtime Mel-O-Glaze owners Ed Bosela and Frances Wood. "'You could make a million dollars.' Well, what if nobody here wants to make a million dollars?"
"Last winter we just felt like closing for two months, so we did. Nobody knows how to just live any more. We give out doughnut holes to children, and the other day a man was pointing out to his daughter: 'See how well their marketing technique works?'" She shudders. "And I'm just appalled--it's not a marketing technique. We just like children, if you can imagine such a bizarre concept. It started just because my Aunt Beth liked to give things to children."
Actually, it might have started with Wood, who hitched her life to Mel-O-Glaze when she and her husband bought the bakery where Ed had long been foreman. (Legend has it that he once told the owner, who had a penchant for dice and drink: 'One day I'm going to own this place.' 'Yeah, right, kid,' said the owner. On April Fool's Day 1961, Bosela walked in as the new proprietor and told the boss he was fired. But the old guy didn't believe him, so he stayed on as manager.) For almost four decades since, Mel-O-Glaze has been home to a collection of characters so idiosyncratic, they don't just march to the beat of a different drummer--they might inspire drummers everywhere to question established beats and received wisdom.
Wood, now 75, met Bosela in wartime San Francisco. He was a Marine; she sang in clubs at night and managed an office during the day. When they got married and moved to St. Paul (Wood's home town) in 1945, Wood saw no sense in dropping what she considered "a perfectly good last name: I am who I am, and Ed liked his name, so we each kept our own."
But in pre-Nixon Minnesota, that wasn't an easy proposition. Whenever the couple bought or sold a house, they had to do battle with banks and attorneys, and Wood says she was fired from a job because her (female) boss resented her refusal to become Mrs. Bosela. Yet she never tired of the fight: "I don't think it's stubborn. I believe if you have a set of beliefs in something and a philosophy, you stick by it." Wood delivers that line in a soft, sweet, dead-even and rock-hard voice, her grandmotherly eyes twinkling.
"Actually, here's a funny story," chimes in Ky Michaelson, one of the bakery's most devoted regulars and an employee from 1954 to 1967. "One time she got a Christmas present from one of the salesmen. It was all wrapped and addressed to Mrs. Bosela. It just sat up there on a rack for months and months, and finally I said, 'Hey, Frances, aren't you going to open your Christmas present?' She said,"--he and Paulette Bosela deliver the punch line in unison--"'That's for Mrs. Bosela, Ed's mother back in Ohio!'"
Michaelson, age 61, has been a part of the Mel-O-Glaze experience since he was a 15-year-old apprentice baker, and today he boasts a résumé like some kind of Jackie Collins novel hero: stuntman, inventor, motorcycle racer, homemaker. Michaelson is the sort of independent character who fits perfectly into the unpretentious cluster of tables and chairs at the back of Mel-O-Glaze, devouring slices of the signature brown-sugar apple pie ($1.50 a slice, $8 a pie) while spinning tales from the kitchen.
Like the time he helped bake more than 1,000 loaves of 17-cent-a-loaf bread, and a blizzard kept all the customers away. Or the day when a mixing accident had him quietly dumping buckets of flour into Minnehaha Creek. About the neighborhood houses built in the postwar boom of big plans and tight finances, when people would dig the foundation, throw up a flat, temporary roof, and live in the basement while they saved money to erect the rest of the dwelling. Oh, and the time a Mel-O-Glaze manager drove the counter girl with whom he was having an affair down to the airport to see the king of Sweden--and the two of them and the big Mel-O-Glaze truck were pictured on the front of the Minneapolis Star, and the wife came in and picked up the paper right in the front of the bakery...or was that the king of Norway? And wasn't her name Inga?
As much as Michaelson likes to reminisce, Paulette likes to rib him, in a sarcastic little-sister sort of way--"Oh, that's so Mel-O-Glaze," she'll say. Frances Wood's daughter is a hard one to read: She insists she doesn't work at Mel-O-Glaze, that she doesn't like cakes, and that she especially disdains doughnuts. "I never learned to make doughnuts, and that's the reason I stayed sane," she says. "I call baking the vicious mistress." Yet on the day I interviewed her she put in a 16-hour day, opening early to provide a birthday cake for a customer who needed it at dawn, staying till 10:00 p.m. to put the finishing touches on a box of doughnuts for a potential corporate client.
New clients have been taking quite an interest in Mel-O-Glaze lately. Blame the Krispy Kreme phenomenon: A few years ago that booming North Carolina-based chain opened a handful of New York City locations and instantly became the Next Big Thing, with magazines and TV shows falling all over themselves in praise of the spic-and-span 1930s atmosphere and hot-from-the-fryer doughnuts. People looked around for the local equivalent, and Mel-O-Glaze was the nearest match, complete with luscious, hot doughnuts, a neon sign (currently out for repair), a 23-skiddoo name and vintage quality control.
But Mel-O-Glaze is not Krispy Kreme, and never will be. Where Krispy Kreme is ostentatiously gee-whiz sparkling, Mel-O-Glaze is just carefully clean. Where Krispy Kreme plays in the upper-crust world of premium coffees, Mel-O-Glaze sells basic cups of joe for 50 cents or--hold on to your hats--a mere 20 cents for the regulars who store their mugs in the bakery. And, of course, where Krispy Kreme is a corporation bent on world domination, Mel-O-Glaze is a little family shop that dishes out exquisite doughnuts with the carelessness of a retired Olympic figure skater tricking off pirouettes on a frozen pond.
The finest of the bakery's products is also its most basic, the yeast-raised glazed doughnut (50 cents). It's best right when it emerges from the shower of white, sweet glaze, light as hot breath in a dawn chill, tender as floppy violet petals, sweet as a captured sugar bowl to a gang of preschoolers. You'll have the best luck finding one fresh from the oven on Saturday afternoons, when neighbors circle the shop like seagulls watching a fishing boat. Are they done now? Now? Now? That one's mine!
Another delight is the apple fritter ($1), a lumpy pile of dough that offers a dozen kinds of crispness along its hull. Glazed cake doughnuts (50 cents) and rectangular long johns (50 cents) are great when hot (though I think they could use a better, less artificial-tasting chocolate). Special attention should also be paid to the custard bismarcks (75 cents), since Paulette's cousin, Karl Bosela, makes the creamy-white custard from scratch.
In fact, Mel-O-Glaze makes everything from scratch, a rarity in a world where so many bakers simply add water to mix: The late Ed Bosela used to fill up a cupcake tray in 30 seconds, using his hands to flick the batter. These days, the same task takes the assistant bakers as much as 15 minutes. "He would have a fit if he saw us cutting butter just so, slice after slice, to put in the apple pies," says Paulette Bosela, remembering the days when production was ten times what it is now and no one could afford to dilly-dally.
By the 1980s Ed Bosela had given up on the durability of scratch-baking in a premixed world. But lucky for the rest of us, Frances Wood was still a stubborn sort: "It was my mother who decided Mel-O-Glaze was going to live on," recalls Paulette. "If my mother's name had not been on this building, my father would have sold it and put the money in mutual funds."
Independence of name and intent has meant freedom for Mel-O-Glaze: Freedom to sell 50-cent doughnuts in an 8-dollar-pancake world, to give out doughnut holes without strings attached, to seat customers in chairs without a whit of style, with no one--no bank, no style magazine, nobody--to interfere. Mel-O-Glaze is a doughnut shop that bucks trends, with a vengeance.
"I see all the family farms that are going down and I see all our food being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands," says Frances Wood, pausing over a broom with a steel-girded smile. "I really think we're all getting set up for big companies owning and controlling everything. Don't you?" And that's why you'll find Frances Wood, day after day, stewarding a humble little doughnut shop with a view of creek and road. "I think you just find the right thing to do, and then you do it."
ET TU, BUCA: Now that I've claimed credit for creating reservations policies at Big Bowl and Campiello, what's to stop me from congratulating myself for changing Buca? Nothing, I guess, except for a sneaking sense that I'd be wrong. I never even thought to complain about Buca's no-reservations policy--it would have been like complaining that thistles are prickly. They were just born that way. But no, shows what I know, drinking in the bar for untold hours is no longer a necessary part of the Buca experience. They've established a straight call-ahead reservations policy, so call ahead! Go wild! What are you doing the third week in December? Why not decide today? Because now you can. And while we're at it, can someone get on the thistle thing?
Buca has locations in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Eden Prairie, and Burnsville.
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