Schumacher's At The Fair
1701 Carnes Ave., State Fairgrounds
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.
"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.)
For Schumacher's famous sauerkraut, 100 five-gallon pails of raw kraut will be cooked with a special combination of flour, sugar, brown sugar, caraway seeds, spices, and chicken stock until caramel-tinged and savory. The kraut will be served in the various sausage and pork-loin "feasts," or in the famous Reubens, made with house-made Russian dressing, hand-cut local corned beef, and Schumacher's own sourdough pumpernickel ($6.50). Supplies of Czech sausage are laid in: They're made once a year, just for the fair, at Forster's butcher shop according to Schumacher's top-secret recipe, handed down from earlier owners of the hotel. (You get extra style points if you order the sausage by its native name, jiternice, pronounced, I've read, "etherneetsee.") Stock for chicken gravy was being put up; pork loins were being seasoned, to be cooked 80 at a time in special German-made rotisseries.
If you want to know why I haven't yet mentioned Schumacher's famous kolaches, those eggy, tender, stuffed Czech sweet rolls, you best pour yourself a drink before proceeding to the next sentence. They are gone. John says that all the Czech grandmas who used to supply him with his treats have hung up their aprons, and he was faced this year with the quandary of whether to serve lesser kolaches or no kolaches. Whoa! Things are getting kind of hectic. So let this be a lesson to you: You cannot walk past everything you always love at the fair and assume it will be there next year, as it always has been. Things change. Even at the fair.
As things will, some get worse, and some get better, in different places. One place they are getting better is in Minnesota wines, and Schumacher's is the only place at the fair to sample them. Schumacher's this year is pouring 100 percent Minnesota-grown wines four local wineries: Alexis Bailly Vineyard, WineHaven, Saint Croix Vineyards, and Northern Vineyards. Last year was particularly brutal for winemaking in Minnesota: No snow cover in the winter and a cold, wet spring followed by a cold summer with frost in some areas in August meant vine yields were merely half what winemakers had planned for. In fact, it was so bad that Minnesota's leading winemaker, Nan Bailly, found that 2004 left most of her vineyard permanently scarred. So after harvest this year, she's pulling out the majority of her vines, to be replaced with new, experimental varieties. (If you're an Alexis Bailly fan, now is the time to stock up. After the 2005 vintage, supply may be extremely limited for a year, or five, until the new grapes get established.)
That said, what did survive 2004 was of very good quality. I tried a few of the wines that will be on offer this year at Schumacher's, and was impressed. Alexis Bailly's 2004 Country Red is a peppery and dusky cloud of smoke enveloping a nicely balanced acidic body, and as it opens up in the glass it offers a striking French barnyard sort of nose. It reminded me of a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and I'd recommend that any French Rhône lovers out there in search of an everyday bargain (it usually retails around $10 or $11) give it a shot. Bailly's 2004 Seyval Blanc, which will also be poured at the fair, has something in common with a French Sauvignon Blanc, with a lot of acid and lemon strength supporting a pear-and-cedar-smoke nose; it seems like an ideal wine to pair with one of Schumacher's rich feasts of finely ground Czech sausage and dumplings.
I don't personally have the palate for WineHaven's honey wine. To me, the honey and alcohol together make it taste like a lovely dessert sauce, half-cooked. But anyone with a deep interest in European food history should find it interesting. WineHaven will also have a Maréchal Foch, a medium-bodied red wine, at Schumacher's, as well as their popular raspberry wine, which you can have at the State Fair either straight up or over ice with sparkling water as a lightly alcoholic summer refresher.
Northern Vineyards will have a few of their wines at Schumacher's, including their Yellow Moccasin, a white wine made of the Cayuga grape that marries a sherried, smoldering quality to a sweet but still acidic core. Saint Croix Vineyards will have their Maréchal Foch (this French hybrid is one of the most widely planted varieties in Minnesota) as well as their Frontenac Rosé at the fair.
Intrigued by the idea of 100 percent Minnesota-grown wine? Well, Paul Quast, one of the owners of Saint Croix Vineyards, says that now is the time to cash in your pension and buy land for vineyards down around Canon Falls. "There are places you'd think you're really in some little German valley on a tributary of the Mosel," Quast told me. Interested? No? You say you think there are easier ways to get into the State Fair, including simply paying your $9 at the gate?
That may be so, but perhaps you better keep this news of the next big thing from the ears of local 12-year-olds: There's a strong argument to be made that the true taste of the fair is that of entrepreneurial dreams seasoned liberally with Minnesota agriculture. And while in 2005 that taste is for potato dumplings and local wine, in 30 years it will be whatever the current crop of impressionable 4-H'ers are inspired by.
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