Sugar Head


Dennis Cass
Head Case

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.

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.

"Brain experiments have to be so simple," Dennis shrugs. "They put you in a box with fruit juice, and see what part of the brain lights up." This Rustica cake, he says, is untestable, because it's so complex and because it's so personal that someone who's grown up in a culture without egg custard or chocolate mousse wouldn't have the same brain experience with one of these cakes as someone who was a pastry chef, or was homesick for Tuscany, or once read a Dear John letter over chocolate. "This is no SuperMom's bear claw," he concludes.

Dennis has done a fair amount of thinking about Rustica pastries—he blogs from Rustica occasionally (, and has even written some magazine stories from one of the small tables here. He has done even more thinking about what you can learn from studying the brain, and what you can't: "The brain is a moving target," he says now. He went in seeking the secret of the self in the brain, but discovered that while brain scientists can tell you that you, and all other mammals, like sugar, they can't tell you why, or whether you'll choose soup or salad. Or whether you're doomed to repeat the mistakes of your parents.

Unfortunately, Dennis's parents made more mistakes than most: Both were drug addicts, and his stepfather Bill, whom he lived with from toddlerhood, was severely mentally ill. As it happened, the time period Dennis was researching the book coincided with the late-stage pregnancy and first years of life of his son, and the book turned into a perfect storm of what happens when your biggest ambitions meet your deepest fears on the edge of science's understanding of humankind.

"There is a reason scientists don't study themselves," he writes on page 158. "It's too painful. When applied to the self, the brain is just too depressing. In all my research I only encountered one piece (one piece!) of unequivocally good news: lactating mice would rather breast-feed their young than take cocaine."

In this book, a man's sum is revealed to have little to do with his parts, the secret of life is almost glimpsed, and there are visits to the State Fair, road trips to Iowa, stepfathers fleeing psychiatrists at a full sprint, lots of Minneapolis color, and a happy, but not forced or saccharine ending. There's also a lot of brain research, facts, and experiments, many of which will be presented via comedy-spiked slideshow, in the presence of beer and wine, at the Bryant-Lake Bowl Tuesday, April 17, at 6:30 (doors at 5:30; admission $5) as part of the Bell Museum's Café Scientifique series.

Head Case is a very Minneapolis sort of book—it's wry and ironic; it demonstrates the beautiful, noble Midwestern folly of working harder, not smarter; and it's remarkably comfortable with human limitations and ascribing failure to oneself. I feel there's something uniquely eccentric and live-and-let-live about Minneapolis intellectual life—is it our recovery culture? A Lutheran substructure that pins our value to our good works, and thus leaves a lot of leeway for trying new approaches to doing said good works? "The audience for this book is anyone who enjoys watching someone flail around at a task that is impossible," explains Dennis, summoning every Vikings fan, broomball player, walleye fisher, rock musician, and parent in the state.

Speaking of parenting, Dennis and I put down our Rustica forks and headed to Liberty Custard, another of his favorite Minneapolis haunts and the place he recently blew his son's mind with the concept of the hot fudge sundae. "At first he just didn't believe it—I told Owen about the hot chocolate sauce, how it would go on the ice cream but not melt it. He just didn't believe it. Flat out. No, they don't go together. He was arguing with me about it. No, they don't, they won't, they can't. I got him a small vanilla cone, and a hot fudge sundae for myself. He had a bite, and was just leaning out of his chair practically horizontally to get at the sundae. I consume my weight in sugar every week," he explains.

"One time I was picking up Owen from daycare, and we had some big evening planned or something, so I said: 'Owen, do you know what I'm thinking about?' There was a long pause while he thought about it. 'Brownies?'"

So now you know how restaurant critics really live. Please know that if he had been thinking of brownies, they would have been local Minneapolis Upper Crust bake-at-home brownies. Also, much of Head Case was written at the Edina library, fueled by three daily Caribou Coffee eggnog lattes. Yet he is as skinny as an Olsen twin. Other Dennis Cass favorites? When this real-life restaurant critic eats on his own dime, he mostly eats at: Jasmine Deli, the Bandbox Diner, the Bryant-Lake Bowl, the Birchwood Café, Little Szechuan, Gigi's Café, Pizza Nea, Broder's, Taqueria La Hacienda, Manny's Steakhouse, and La Belle Vie.

It's all a long way from Liquor Lyle's, where Dennis and I met in the mid-'90s to gobble free chicken wings and cheese during happy hour and, once the beer kicked in, sketch grand writing plans. If I remember correctly, only a few of those plans involved collecting compliments from Salman Rushdie; the rest were about trying to find writing voices that were entirely ours, about our vows to die trying. The verdict's still out on me, but Dennis now has bragging rights to prove that he really did almost go down with the ship. That he came out the other side in love with Minneapolis pastries, Minneapolis frozen custard, and a certain Minneapolis family seems like a good lesson for any of us. Set out to capture the secrets of the universe, and the universe may try to rip you limb from limb. If it does, there's still cake.

Rustica Bakery, 816 W. 46th St., Minneapolis, 612.822.1119;

Liberty Frozen Custard, 5401 Nicollet Ave. S., Minneapolis, 612.823.8700;

Bryant-Lake Bowl, 810 W. Lake St., Minneapolis, 612.825.3737;