Treat or Treat
2010 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Both Halloween and Thanksgiving are upon us, and so it is the time of year to give thanks, above all, that we are adults and can buy our own damn chocolate. I got to thinking this the other day, when I was busy mining the single American natural resource that will forever remain unexhausted: niggling childhood dissatisfactions.
For example, in my own hippie girlhood, refined sugar was strictly outlawed. This created a general atmosphere in which candy was regarded the same way British tabloids imagine Madonna and Guy Ritchie's relationship: What goes on in there? It must be heaven! Or, alternately, quite likely, hell! But anyway it is a completely restricted area and thus clearly holds the key to human happiness.
Of course, it being America in the 1970s, my brother and I still managed to get the stuff occasionally, by, for example, trading homemade macramé planters to Abbie Hoffman for Charleston Chews. By reciting bits of the Watergate tapes on street corners in exchange for Tootsie Rolls. Or, of course, by dressing in ways designed to convey support for renewable energy resources on Halloween. Oh, Halloween, when candy finally runs free, liberated from the oppressive rules of parents.
Yet every single solitary time we finally got hold of some sweet, sweet candy, adults--when they weren't telling you about the sugar-plantation-associated oppression of children in far-off lands--would try to put some kind of overarching philosophical frame on the experience. Appreciate it now, for you'll never be as carefree and happy as you are when you're a child with candy. Adult life is a vale of worry and tears. So you'd best enjoy this unpolluted innocence, because it's going downhill fast.
I believed this until three weeks ago!
When suddenly, it hit me: Wait a minute. Adults have nothing but unfettered, 365-day-a-year, 24-hour-a-day access to candy. And, more important, to chocolate. And much more important, to the really good stuff. While kids, kids are busy designing costumes so they can battle it out for 3 Musketeers bars! Suckers!
Sometimes I think we forget how good we have it because how good we have it is ubiquitous: Did you know that what is probably the most watched and celebrated artisan chocolate company in America right now is based in Minneapolis? And their chocolate and toffee is available right here, everywhere? In nearly every local Lunds, Byerly's, most of the co-ops, and most of the specialty food stores, like Turtle Bread and Surdyk's.
I am talking about B.T. McElrath, whom I first wrote about back in 1998, when the company was just two people. Just Brian McElrath, a former cook at places like the New French and Cocolezzone, working alone in a basement laboratory, and Brian's wife Christine, who worked there after working her other full-time job. Well, they worked and they worked and they worked, and then suddenly, last year, as they say, they blew up.
First, in the summer of 2001 they won the tippity-top prize at the show for the NASFT--the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, which everyone calls the Fancy Food show. This show is the most important thing that happens all year in gourmet foodstuffs. The first year they entered, Brian and Christine McElrath couldn't even afford to get a booth at the show, but they could afford the entry fee for the new-product contest, where their chocolates went head to head with 1,600 other entries. When they won, it was one of those industry-rocking, rookie-pitches-no-hitter moments that left everyone who knew about it amazed. They got on the cover of the trade show magazine, they got sales reps, they got employees who weren't obligated to show up by the whole till-death-do-us-part thing. Then, this summer, they went back to the show, and won the top prize for best confection. Now B.T. McElrath chocolates and toffees are placed in many of the most prestigious places that chocolates can be sold--in the chain Dean & DeLuca, in New York City's Zabar's, in Napa Valley's Oakville Grocery, in the West Coast coffee chain Tully's, in one of the Martha Stewart catalogs, on the pillows at the $800-a-night Salish Lodge in Washington (called the Great Northern Lodge in the television series Twin Peaks), and many other places. I think it's also safe to speculate that they're represented by the caseload in the research kitchens and focus groups of major chocolate companies. So when Cadbury launches its zinfandel-balsamic chocolate bar next year, you know where it came from.
Yes, I said zinfandel-balsamic. The McElraths have made their fortune concocting adult chocolates for adult tastes: A lavender-black-peppercorn truffle that tastes floral, sharp, and dark in the most intriguing way; a green-tea truffle with the high-tannic tang and young fruity-chocolate quality that I associate with certain Spanish wines; a cinnamon-star-anise chocolate that brings to mind eating licorice in a meadow at night. I don't fear too much that big corporations will be able to pull off chocolates this good--Brian uses small kitchen techniques that can't be, as they say, blown up. For the star-anise chocolate, he simmers whole star anise in local Hope Creamery cream; for the pillow chocolates at Salish Lodge he hand-stencils each one with a picture of a waterfall.
I don't fear replication, but I do fear locals overlooking the stuff because it is local. To me it's old news, to the other food writers it's old news, too: Yes, the McElraths make the most amazing, bedazzling, show-stopping chocolates in town, and the sky is blue and the earth is cold, and which of these facts deserves a headline? To you it might be old news, too. Or it might be impossible to imagine doing your holiday shopping at Lunds, because what then? Why not just give your secretary a box of Ritz crackers? They're in the same aisle, after all... Since the smallest box of two costs less than $4, the nine-piece assortment around $11, and the 18-piece around $23, they're inexpensive enough to factor into normal celebrations, so why do we forget about them?
We forget about Sonny's ice cream, too, and their spumoni. Ever had it? It's one of those things that I feel like I write about too much, sometimes, and too little when I find someone who hasn't had it. What their spumoni is, is four kinds of ice cream, tumbled together like dreams on a good night: The splendid vanilla (made, like all their ice cream, from local, fresh cream from a single organic farm, and some of the world's finest vanilla, which costs them hundreds of dollars a gallon), here doctored with rum; then, a ghostly and rich chocolate-cinnamon ice cream that tastes spicy and lively; green, full, nutty pistachio that tastes inexplicably like custard; and then a dark-cherry, dark-rum ice cream that's all resonant and sweet. It costs somewhere between $4 and $5 a pint, depending on the store, and it's fantastic, and in practically any other town we'd have parades to celebrate it and Sonny's Spumoni Days, and such. But do we even know it's there? I met another group of people recently who called themselves passionate about food and had spent hours on the Internet hunting for the best truffle oil, and they had never heard of it.
How tight are the circles we run in, from job to gym to home, how great the constraints on our time, that these treasures--even in our grocery stores--don't pierce our consciousness? We finally got the mobility, the taste, and the cash we needed to appreciate all this great chocolate. Let's not take it for granted because it's local, or because we're too adult and doing that adult thing of taking the myriad small treasures around us for granted, or transferring all the possibilities for pleasure to children, or any of that.
Oh well. I guess I should apologize here: This has run out of steam as a Halloween column. Maybe it's just as well, because even if you don't end up getting yourself something grown-up and chocolaty for Halloween (like maybe the Chocolate Kiss martini at the Imperial Room-- two kinds of Godiva liqueur and vodka in a chocolate-rimmed glass?), sometime before Thanksgiving we will see the debut of B.T. McElrath's ginger toffee. So you can appreciate the miracles of adulthood anytime this holiday season. I got to try this stuff pre-release: it's a dark-chocolate-robed square of brittle, real-butter toffee made with ginger and spice in such a way that you really only notice the ginger in a bit of burn and fragrance on the finish. Sophisticated stuff.
I got the advance ginger toffee by stopping by McElrath's chocolate shop, which you get to through a Maxwell Smart-style path, starting with a door that looks like it leads to an air vent, snaking through a series of underground passages, and braving more forbidding doors. At the end of this trek I found Brian, looking about as exhausted as an adult can look, surrounded by his Fancy Food show statuettes, which look like Oscars who have been pressed into food service, and forced to carry platters and wear toques. Brian said that on winning again last summer, fancy-food big shots kept coming by their booth and advising, in mock-threatening jokes, that the McElraths take care, because the heads of their food Oscars are easily snapped off. And how have things been since they got back from the show? "It's mania, it's mayhem, it's madness," says Brian. "It's like trying to push the Mississippi through a drinking straw."
And that's how it is, I thought, when you're a success, and an adult: All our lives are more and more like reined-in, and thus more quickly rushing, rivers. When they could be meandering streams dotted with bucolic chocolate islands.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.