'Tis a Gift to be Simple

Smokin' duck: Laura Wemeier displays free-range poultry raised on her family farm, Bar Five
Bill Kelley

When I'm not basting the homestead with goose fat, what I mostly like to do is cower in terror at the specter of the evolving Economy of Emotional Grift, as embodied most conveniently by Restoration Hardware's 1955 Pocket Handwarmer. Seen it? Oh, it's a doozie. It's one of the preferred stocking stuffers at Restoration Hardware, and if you glance at the retailer's website you'll see it, a chrome doodad meant to be traded between people who don't know the first thing about one another, so that impressionable teens can turn "lighter fluid" into a "pocket furnace" while "snowboarding," and impressionable grandparents can feel like they're transmitting something quaint from a childhood they likely never had, full of handwarmers and paper routes, without the bother of actually articulating anything they're trying to say.

Remember the Old Economy? I mean, the really old one, when, say, Jane made something for X, then sold it to a store for 2X, which in turn sold it to you for 4X? Instead, Jane now finds some bit of Americana on eBay, takes it to Thailand, has it made for eight cents, then sells it to us for $93, which we are all delighted to pay because it serves as a placeholder for the emotional connection we'd like to have with the person receiving the gift, and because the object vaguely smells of connecting emotionally or intellectually with the real, actual world we live in. Because all of us want to have a happy holiday! No sensible people want to live in that sanctimonious world of "Kill your television." We want to have rich emotional connections to the people we love, or the people whom the people we love love.

Luckily, the tasteful and tasty old economy of Grift-Free Living is all around us, in unexpected places, like under Interstate 394, in temporary housing off Como Avenue, and in the local grocery store. For example, did you know that the Minneapolis Farmer's Market is going now through Christmas, and if you go there you can have delightful conversations, stock up on stocking stuffers, stick money directly into the pockets of local farmers, and walk away with a kick-ass whole smoked duck for $9? This is all true.

I went to the Minneapolis Farmer's Market last Saturday, and it was nothing but fascinating and yielding of tasty treats. I had long known about the St. Paul Winter Market (; every Saturday in December from 9:00 a.m.-noon; January 4, 18th, February 1st and 15th, March 1, 15th, and 29th, and every Saturday in April), a great place to get all sorts of gifty things like chocolates, honey, and candles, as well as the fresh eggs, chickens, milk, and other sorts of products that say Northern Heartland in Winter. But the Minneapolis market was a revelation to me, an all-male bastion of meat, jerky, summer sausage, meat, smoked meat, more meat, and some cheese. As such, it seemed like the perfect place to shop for dads. Because everyone knows that shopping for dads is one of the enduring puzzles of all time. And whereas men are customarily offered piles of things that no one could possibly want--you've seen the department store displays, pyramids of ties in plastic-front boxes, page-a-day golf jokes, chocolates wrapped in foil to resemble cigars or fishing lures--here are piles of beef sticks, bison jerky, a dozen varieties of salami, and all sorts of things that are actually desirable and will tend to fall much more on the side of surprising and delighting than gathering dust and capturing annoyance.

For instance, did you know that Dan Tapio makes 72 kinds--72! No kidding!--of buffalo jerky? They're all named after the first buffalo he ever got, a large fellow named Joseph Jumping Thunder, and so he calls these Thunder Sticks. They come in flavors like Thai spice, lime coconut, North African, nuclear meltdown, and uff-da, which is made with jalapeños. I only got to try the plain mesquite flavor, but it was moist, chewy, tender, and really very good in every way. At $5.50 for a 4-ounce package, it was delicious, but once farmer Dan Tapio told me a half-hour's worth of anecdotes about buffalo farming, I was thoroughly enchanted. For instance, did you know bison can predict the weather? They stop eating before a big storm moves in, and hunker down and stop moving. Unlike cows, who need vast amounts of food every day, bison eat like the dickens in October and November and just get to hanging in till spring, subsistence-wise, for the super-cold months. But then, when a warm front is moving in, they just get to racing, playing, and jumping around, and use their energy pell-mell in anticipation of the coming good times. When you talk to Minnesota bison farmers, you immediately stop feeling the isolation of the 'Dales and start feeling like you live in a place, with characters.  

At the next table was Stephen Fischer, who was minding the Eichten Cheese and Pure Nature Meats area. From there I got some remarkably good bison summer sausage, all garlicky and nicely rough-hewn bison liverwurst (light and very German-tasting, graced with a lilt of nutmeg), and Eichten's 5-year aged cheddar ($12.49 a pound)--easily the best aged Minnesota cheese I've ever had, and I've had them all. It's sharp, focused, and strong, and the extreme age means that small crystals have started to form. Frankly, I would love to see this stuff in about two more years; it gives every indication of following the same path towards greatness that the noblest aged Goudas do. Also, for your gift-giving pleasure, get this: If you live in the metro and make any kind of largish purchase from one or both of the two Eichten-related websites, someone will deliver your gifts to your door. What says Christmas more than a bison T-bone?

Maybe a regular T-bone, from an unusual breed of cow? Dave Jertson of Rancher's Choice is down at the Minneapolis Farmer's Market too, selling hormone- and antibiotic-free Piedmontese beef, which he explains has one-third to one-half the fat of traditional beef. Read all about it on the Rancher's Choice website, where you can also place special orders, like $85 for a sample box of almost 20 pounds of various steaks and things, or, you know, for that special someone, a $900 half beef. That includes some 160 pounds of hamburger meat, as well as much, much more. I tried some Piedmontese cotto salami, and it was great. There are more interesting things going on right now with native charcuterie in the hinterlands than in the urban areas, if you ask this critic.

And fascinating things going on with duck. My pick of the market was a delicious, truly marvelous smoked duck that I got at the Bar Five poultry table. Bar Five is a free-range poultry farm with an on-site processing plant. It's been operated by family farmers for six generations; it's currently run by the Wemeier family, and they sell ducks, geese, chickens, capons, turkeys, rabbits, and eggs. I got a three-pound smoked duck for $9--nine dollars!--and the thing was truly amazing. It had the bright red color and buttery, intact exterior fat that long, low-heat smoking imparts, as well as the rich flavor you get from such a process. I simply carved the thing up and heated it in a low oven, putting the fattiest pieces at the top of the warming dish. It was easily among the top 10 dishes I've had in the state this year: Lush, irony, salty. It was more like duck ham or duck bacon than mere duck. There are chefs around the state right now battling with their own levels of skill, their suppliers, and state health inspectors, trying to get anywhere near this quality of duck. And it's just sitting at the farmer's market, for $9 a duck.

Or near there. Bar Five's prices for smoked poultry run from $2.59 a pound for chickens or turkeys to $3.09 for ducks and $3.59 for geese. But if you are in the mood for some final-scene-from-A Christmas Carol-style gift giving, call those Wemeiers: They threw some yellow cellophane and wrapped a big bow around one of their smoked birds to show how fancy they could look as gifts, and darn if I didn't suddenly feel like I was in the fanciest market in Paris, in a Fauchon or something, so old-world, rough-hewn, and splashily wealthy did that thing look.

Meanwhile, if you're not quite ready to make the leap to giving whole smoked ducks, some 30 local food artisans have banded together to put together a temporary fair. Laurie McCann, owner and proprietor of that local treasure Golden Fig, put it together. Golden Fig makes artisanal flavored vinegars and spice mixes, and lately has started selling pre-spiced brine kits through some Lunds grocery stores. The fair will feature local shortbread cookie bakers, candle makers, maple-syrup crafters, sausage artisans, organic dog-biscuit makers, et cetera. Personally, I always tend to avoid these things because of a deep and abiding fear of hand-painted jars with bunnies on them, but McCann says not to worry: "There is serious punishment for anything 'crafty' trying to make its way through our door," she says, "so be assured there will not be a knitted Kleenex box cover within miles!"

Well, and probably not much in the elusive snowboarding-teen category. But I think we all know that snowboarding teens don't want anything except one another, and certain intoxicating substances. And they aren't really my concern. All I really wanted to do this holiday was point out the creeping and increasing Economy of Emotional Grift and the screaming sense of disconnection and misery attached to it, and think about how to circumvent it. At least a little. And the more I think about it, the more I believe that the key to enjoying these holidays is to identify the battles before you find yourself bleeding out in them, and to provision well--emotionally, intellectually, and with plenty of duck fat.  

Minneapolis Farmer's Market, 312 East Lyndale Ave. N Minneapolis, 612.333.1718, Saturdays, December 7th, 14th and 21st, January 4th and 18th, February 1st and 15th, March 1st, 15th, and 29th, and April 5th and 12th, 10:00 a.m.-noon. Christmas trees are available daily from around 8:00 a.m. to noon through December 24th

Bar Five Poultry Products
Arlington, MN, 507.964.5612

Joseph Jumping Thunder Minnesota Bison Farms
Delano, MN

Rancher's Choice
Clear Lake, WI
612.710.7922; 715.263.2425

Eichten's Hidden Acres Cheese and Bison Farm
Center City, MN

Minnesota Artisans Market
Through December 21st, 11:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.
2115 Como Ave., Minneapolis


Directions to the Minnesota Artisans Fair, near the corner of Como and 22nd avenues: From Highway 280, exit at Como Ave. and go west to 2115 Como Ave. From Interstate 35W, exit at East Hennepin Ave., and go east to 22nd Ave., then south to 2115 Como Ave.

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