To Market, To Market

Farm-fresh find: Lori Callister's corn-fed chickens are a gourmand's fantasy

Farm-fresh find: Lori Callister's corn-fed chickens are a gourmand's fantasy

Farm in the Market (in the Midtown Global Market)
920 E. Lake St., Suite 129, Minneapolis

When I called my friend to tell him that the chicken I had roasted the night before was probably the best chicken I've had in my life, he told me he wasn't at all surprised. "I was ready to eat that bad boy as sashimi right there," he said.

Not that I'm advocating you try chicken sashimi, but if you did, I know the one you should sample: the fresh wonder at Farm in the Market, the butcher shop in the new Global Midtown Market, the complex on the ground floor of the old Sears building on Lake Street and Chicago Avenue.

Fresh chicken? Who cares, you say, every grocery store from here to Timbuktu has fresh chicken. Wrong. I don't mean fresh as in not rotten, I mean fresh as in never frozen, and certainly never frozen the way they do in big processing plants, by dunking the chickens in water-filled chilling tanks, adding sodden water-weight to every bird. And never almost frozen and called "air-chilled." And let me rephrase that: By fresh, I don't mean processed in Alabama, Pennsylvania, or what have you, almost-frozen, driven through states and states worth of sun-baked traffic, unloaded into a warehouse, let sit for a bit, repacked onto a truck, driven through more traffic, unloaded into a store's loading dock, let sit for a bit more, and finally set onto shelves when the older chicken finally clears out. Which is what fresh, never-frozen chicken usually means. No, I mean fresh. Really fresh.

How fresh? This fresh: Raised by a farmer whose face you can see in sunny, nearby West Concord, Minnesota, on food raised by that farmer, in sunny, nearby West Concord, Minnesota, processed in a small, on-farm processing plant, in, you guessed it. But that's not all! Not any processing plant, but a small processing plant that meets all state and federal regulations, and one that, in fact, has a state inspector on hand during processing, a state inspector that checks out every single chicken.

Still, that's not all! This chicken is then, once inspected, packaged either in pieces, or, if whole, bagged with its neck, giblets, and liver, just like it should be, and brought by the farmer right up through our very own beloved local traffic, and put in a refrigerator case—a refrigerator case that is open till 8:00 at night, and right through your what-to-make-for-dinner early-evening panic. That's a lot of italics? Sugar, it's all I can do not to run this story in type the size of fists raised victoriously in the air: Fresh chicken!

(If you're the kind of reader who reads this space for down-and-dirty burrito recommendations: Los Ocampo. Taqueria Los Ocampo is kitty corner from the Farm in the Market area in the new Midtown Global Market, and I'll run something longer on it and some of my other picks for the enormous, truly impressive group of small food businesses soon. Now go and play.)

What is the big freaking deal? If you have to ask, you're not a cook. Roasted chicken is, if not the defining dish, then one of the defining dishes that dreamy, obsessive, hearth-oriented cooks consider. People have all kinds of tricks: putting 20 cloves of garlic inside the cavity, trussing, not trussing, cooking at a smoke-generating 500 degrees, scissoring down the backbone and weighting with a brick, brining, sugar-and-salt brining—you name it. Many restaurant critics, including myself, will often order the simplest chicken dish on a restaurant's menu if we have doubts about a chef's true ability; you can curry this and foam that, but you can't fake chicken.

And the one quality that trumps all others when it comes to chicken is freshness. That's why so many of our best chefs note, on their menus, the local farm their chicken comes from. In fact, here's a true story: I once knew a man in St. Paul who used to wait in restaurant parking lots holding fistfuls of cash hoping to intercept the fresh chicken guy. Have I impressed upon you the magnitude of the issue of fresh chicken? These parking lot shenanigans used to go on in the days when there were no, no, no fresh, local, carefully raised chickens available for the home cook.

More recently there was one viable option: You could get yourself to the St. Paul Farmers' Market to the Callister Farm booth and see Lori Callister. But what if you were a lazy, no-good lie-about who was out late the night before testing some other chef's chicken dishes? Sadly, there was no fresh chicken for you. Until now. Because we are lucky people in a beneficent world, Alan and Lori Callister partnered with Dean and Judy Schwake, of Big Woods Bison farm, in Nerstrand, and are now selling fresh chickens every day from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m., right where night owls can get them, in the middle of the city!

And not just fresh chickens—fresh eggs, labeled with their packing date, eggs so fresh they stand up in the pan like little globes, practically. And fresh pork from Pastures A'Plenty, grass-pastured pork that tastes sweet, floral, pure, and on some level almost meat-candy-like. When we grilled it, my co-griller noted, "If this is what all pork tasted like, no one would eat anything else." There's also fresh milk, from beloved Cedar Summit Dairy, and when I've bought it here it's much fresher than I've found it at my local co-op. There's also fresh lamb from a few local farms including Hill and Vale and Promised Land, and, of course, fresh bison. There is even fresh steak—not an attribute I've ever really longed for in steak, but when I tried a grass-pastured T-bone from Larry and Martha Gochnaur's farm in Kenyon, Minnesota, a T-bone that was processed just a scant three days before I ate it, I found the steak to be as floral and complexly flavored as a good Bordeaux wine, and also incredibly tender.

The Farm in the Market section of the Global Market also has a number of artisanal Minnesota farm offerings, like Pastureland Co-op butter and cheese, and jams, jellies, maple syrups, honeys, and such. But the farm-direct meat counter is what really sends me: Finally, we all have the capability of cooking just like the fancy restaurants do, with farm of origin attached to every cutlet, chop, and liver.

How did we get so lucky? It all started because traditional farming is such a bad deal for farmers, naturally. It was an especially bad deal in the 1990s, when various tragedies beset family farmers, including the way the hog market crashed three times, and so farmers who wanted to be in it for the long haul had to start re-imagining their relationship to farming. "I call our group the graduating class of the Southeast Minnesota Sustainable Farming Association," Lori Callister told me when I interviewed her for this story, recalling a group of farmers and producers, then organized by the Land Stewardship Project, who got together in the 1990s to network, discuss nontraditional farming methods, and figure out how to survive.

Most of the farmers in the group came up with the same idea: selling direct to the consumer, albeit by different routes. The Callisters and Schwakes started at farmers' markets, both eventually ending up at the St. Paul one, whereas the Minars, the folks behind Cedar Summit Dairy, decided to invest in dairy infrastructure and get into stores. Other farmers targeted big consumers, like restaurants. All the farms grew, and the Callisters and Schwakes began to feel that there was a next level they could take their farms to, a level that didn't involve a winter income based on standing outside in the arctic cold at the St. Paul winter farmers' market. (That's when you actually have to keep the engines going to keep fresh chicken from freezing.)

It turned out that by the time the people who developed the Midtown Global Market, the Neighborhood Development Corporation, came calling, Lori Callister already had a business plan in mind—a business plan that involved, in typical farmer fashion, working an extra thousand hours a week. In addition to growing their own feed, collecting eggs, raising and processing chickens (on Mondays and Wednesdays, so the freshest chickens are available Tuesdays and Thursdays), and selling at the farmers' markets (the Callisters sell both at St. Paul and at the new Mill City Market down by the new Guthrie), Lori Callister and Judy Schwake now also take turns working at the Farm in the Market store until closing time and then driving back to their farms, which they don't reach till 10:00 or 10:30 at night. When I found this out, my glee at fresh chickens was slightly tempered: Farm-fresh food for me means farm-fresh exhaustion for some. But then I remembered how good everything tastes, and I perked up again.

That chicken was food for a king: pale, tender, meadow-wind flesh and skin as delicious as sheets of bacon, dotted at key junctures with the yellow pockets of fat I associate with richer poultry like duck. With these available at $2.47 a pound for a whole bird, I am forevermore going to be a nightmare when it comes to reviewing local chefs' chicken dishes—they are going to have to do back-flips to surpass this.

The chicken came with additional benefits, and I don't just mean the giblets and neck, perfect for making stock or at least enhancing the store-bought kind. I mean the kind of benefits that come from talking to farmers and having your understanding of the world expanded. For instance, Callister told me that while they used to let their Cornish Cross chickens roam freely in pasture day and night, they now keep them in barns at night, because they were losing so many chickens to coyotes, raccoons, possums, dogs, skunks, and owls. Yes, owls.

Get this. Chickens have a "crop," a place where they store their feed and let it pre-digest a bit before it moves into the gizzard, for grinding, and then through the rest of their digestive tract. But owls find the corn-based feed that the Callister Cornish Cross eat so delicious that they would fly into the flock and slice off lots of chicken heads at exactly the right place to get in there and eat the crop. I found this anecdote both terrifying—those poor chickens! those poor Callisters!—and also deeply satisfying. See? City-slicker food obsessives aren't the only ones who think these farm-fresh chickens are fit for sashimi.