Minnesota State Fair

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The crowd at the last sunday of the 2016 Minnesota State Fair

One of the last celebrations of the Minnesota summer and its quick and exorable transformation into fall, and winter, the Minnesota State Fair, also called “the Great Minnesota Get Together,” and I’m sure a lot of other self-aggrandising nicknames. Lindsay and I spent the last Sunday of the venerable Minnesota tradition enjoying its treats and braving the crowds. It was surprising that I had avoided the fair for the last decade or so, and so I really enjoyed getting to rediscover it with a newcomer to our strange state. After moving here, Lindsay found herself enchanted by many aspects of the Fair and attends faithfully each year, and I was eager to experience it again with her.  I was definitely not disappointed by my return!

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So much honey…

A lot had changed, and a lot had stayed the same, since my last visit. As our local media is dutiful to report, there were a lot of delicious, if not exactly healthy sounding, new culinary innovations being hawked throughout the Fair, some delectable and some, not so much. In any case, we had to track a few of the most promising sounding ones down, and as we explored twisting grounds of the fair, weaving through the throngs, we encountered some of the weird and wonderful quirks that make our state a little bit different. By all accounts, this was the largest attendance ever for the Minnesota State Fair, an event not known for a small turnout.

We started out with some breakfast near the in the Blue Barn in the new West End Market, a welcome transformation of what I found the chintzy old “Heritage Square.” Nothing says breakfast like a cup of beer, so I started off with that, a Caramel Apple Pi beer, which was the closest one could get to drinking a caramel apple pie, along with some fried french toast. The important artifacts remain, the cabin and the windmill, and there’s still plenty of taxidermied animal carcasses to take home (if you must).

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Saying hi- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Heading over to the livestock, always a popular attraction at the fair, we wandered through the goat and sheep barn, echoing with bleats, munching, and that goaty smell. Even better, Lindsay and I were enchanted by the rows and rows of Lindsay’s favorite creature, rabbits. There were so many, of so many different hues, sizes, fur types, and ear shapes, but all adorable. Some stood up, inspecting their surroundings with concern, if not interest, while others simply took it easy on their furry little bellies. Of course, some were winners and some were losers to the farm kids who raised them to show at the Fair, but they were all great to us city kids. The baby animals of the Miracle of Birth barn, with calves born just hours before and was also an interesting stop.

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newborn calf- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Hungry for lunch and other refreshments, we walked towards the Agriculture Building, but not before grabbing some fried croissants from the French Meadow and floating through the Old Mill, the oldest surviving attraction at the Fair. The Mill, a rickety contraption that propels brightly dyed water and boats of visitors through a cramped, dark, damp maze, past pastel murals of gnome villages, is what is known as a “tunnel of love.” The place is so old, as you creak through the maze, attempting to find the lips of your loved one in the darkness, you can think of Garrison Keillor doing the same years before. Sorry!   

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Dahlia- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Finding our way to the Agriculture-Horticulture Building, I again subjected Lindsay to a slew of beers courtesy of the Land of 10,000 Beers, the Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild exhibit. With a sampler of four different local beers by theme, Lindsay and I picked out a couple, the sweeter beers and the “Cicerone’s Choice.” By the time we were done with them, we were both a little overly indulged. What better time than to tour lovely displays of Christmas trees, rows of precisely arranged jars of honey, and tables covered with dahlias of every color. Of course, the iconic seed art was worth checking out, too.

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wow, that’s a lot of cookies!

 

After drinking a few more State Fair themed beers, I needed something to soak it all up, and Sweet Martha’s Cookie Jar definitely had enough. I had never heard of this stand before, but judging by all of the fairgoers dragging around piles of chocolate chip cookies throughout the fair, it was a popular place. I was enticed to get the giant bucket option, a tub overflowing with cookies that we snacked on as we rode the SkyGlider over the busy crowds, marveling at weird agricultural vehicles of Machinery Hill and all of the stuff that somehow ended up on the roofs of the nearby buildings. By the time we escaped from the dangling cable cars, the sun was setting and our feet were burning. It was time to escape the Fair and make our way home. I would definitely recommend taking advantage of one of the bus shuttle services that bring people to the fair (there was one a short walk from our home), as the fair only seems to be getting more crowded and parking more difficult to come by. It was nice not to have to worry about that as we stumbled back and boarded our shuttle to return home, to relax and try to massage our feet back to life.

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Happy times on the SkyGlider

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Vintage Buses and Beer

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The bus travels through downtown Minneapolis

Over the past year or so, the Hennepin History Museum has been trying to raise its profile in the community with a series of evening Night at the Museum events featuring different themes and topics. After our romantic cookie exchange at the museum last year, Lindsay and I have attended some of them, which have always been interesting and full of fun activities and little known facts about local history. We toyed with the idea of robots, learned about bees, saw how the history of pets and bicycles affected the local culture. As I said in previous reports, the Hennepin History Museum is a hidden gem of Twin Cities museums, and each visit has been a treat.

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Interior of the vintage bus (before crowd fills it up)

This summer, the museum hosted, along with another local institution, the Minnesota Transportation Museum, a historical Vintage Bus Brewery tour of Minneapolis. Bringing together three of my interests, local history, public transportation, and beer, it was definitely a blast! One of the highlights of the summer, Lindsay and I boarded the 1950s era GMC Transit buses which served Metro Transit for some years during the ‘50s and ‘60s to be whisked around to several local breweries, all the while listening to interesting facts about the history of the area. Maybe it’s just me, but I find the history of the region’s public transportation fascinating- we were riding in the bus that replaced the streetcar lines across the Twin Cities in a shady bit of corporate grift. The bright colors and lines of the old city bus attracted the attention of passersby as it rumbled through town. The preservation of the vintage bus was immaculate, with its period advertisements and creaking seats, it was like traveling back in time.

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enjoying a beer at Boom Island Brewing

 

Our first stop was at Boom Island Brewing, close to the river. A Belgian-style brewery in North Minneapolis, Boom Island’s beers are earthy and powerful, with enough variety to please just about any beer connoisseur. I had not been there before, but it would definitely be one I’d like to visit again. I particularly liked the Brimstone Trippel and the Cuvee de Boom. While we were visiting, the brewery was hosting a Bayou Blowout Crayfish boil, which was a nice place for me to get my seafood fix along with a beer. Some crayfish fettuccine is just the thing I didn’t know I was craving before setting out!  

Reboarding the bus, the crowd a bit more in our cups than before, we trundled off to our next destination, a stroll across the Stone Arch Bridge. Along the way, we passed through Nicollet Island, our interpreter having to raise his voice a little to be heard over the reveling. Crossing the river, we strolled around the park, walking off some of the beer we already imbibed. St. Anthony Falls, the reason the city was here in the first place, was roaring, the wet weather making it more than twice as full as it would be that time of year on average. The river-scented mist billowing off of the falls dampened us as we watched it flow from the bridge. I also took the opportunity, like so many others on the tour, to capture a few new pokemon on the newly exploding Pokemon Go app. Yep, it was just like being on an actual bus! As for the app, well, that can be an entirely different conversation best saved for another entry.

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View of St. Anthony Falls from the Stone Arch Bridge- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Our last stop was Day Block Brewery, one of my favorite breweries in Minneapolis, a venue that, in addition to its great beers, offers some intriguing craft cocktails for Lindsay as well! After enjoying a few more libations, and a fairly delicious pretzel to help absorb the booze a bit, we got back on the bus and returned to the Hennepin History Museum. While there are no more tours being offered this year, I’m looking forward to trying out one of the vintage bus history tours of St. Paul breweries next year, and I’d definitely recommend it!

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Preparing to board, outside of Day Block

Camping in the Metro

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Canoeing the St. Croix- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Throughout the summer, Lindsay and I took advantage of our year long Minnesota State Park sticker, as can be seen during our voyages outstate, but there are plenty of Minnesota State Parks within a short drive from Minneapolis and St. Paul. Two of the nearby state parks we took lovely, relaxing weekend camping trips to over the summer were William O’Brien State Park and Wild River State Park. Each are situated just along the border with Wisconsin, along the scenic St. Croix, probably my favorite river in Minnesota, and offer plenty of hiking trails through mixed deciduous and conifer forests, prairies, and swampy lowlands. We wandered along some of them, plodding through the green, buggy summer woods and fields of these wonderful natural areas, encountering ghost towns and the occasional squirrel or deer. As I mentioned in a previous blog, though, even wearing plenty of insect repellent, it proved too much for us- the mosquitoes were particularly horrible at Wild River, hideous clouds that beat even those we encountered earlier in the year at Bear Head Lake. We had to run back to our campsite in terror! We were also horrified to find a deer tick on Lindsay at William O’Brien, but were quickly able to remove it thanks to the tick removing devices sold at the park.

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William O’Brian State Park

On the whole, though, our favorite times were the pleasant hours of grilling veggie dogs, making s’mores, and reading next to the campfires I managed to start (I guess those years of Boy Scouts were good for something), watching the sun set and the stars come out as fireflies flitted in the woods.

William O’Brien is, in particular, a very popular park for campers from the Twin Cities, especially due to its proximity to the charming tourist town of Stillwater, a place where one can find no shortage of antique stores, bookstores, boutiques, and other high end shopping. I could not help but drag poor Lindsay to yet another brewery, Maple Island Brewing, during our afternoon in Stillwater. We shared plenty of tasty brews, even finding a few that she didn’t think were too bad! I particularly enjoyed the Cup of Joe Freakshow, a dark, roasty oatmeal coffee stout. Also, Stillwater has plenty of places to get candy, from the Twin Cities’ standard, Candyland to the local Tremblay’s Sweet Shop, which contained the most peanut brittle I’ve ever seen outside of Christmas. Because of all of these attractions nearby, most summer weekends at William O’Brien are pretty well booked, so it’s a good idea to take a look at sites early through the online booking system. This allows you to have a better choice of sites, so that you can avoid the one right next to the bathroom but also make sure its not all the way on the other side of the camping area!

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On the river- Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Up the road a bit at Interstate State Park in Taylors Falls, we went on a canoeing adventure down the St. Croix. Renting a large canoe from Taylors Falls Canoes and Kayaking for a reasonable rate, it was a lovely afternoon for a river voyage. Along with a small fleet of other renters, we floated down the mostly unpeopled river, occasionally paddling. I was bit a rusty in my canoe steering (or maybe I never really developed that skill at all), but the current and river were not too demanding. After a few hours of listening to the wind, and the waves thump up against the sides of our canoe, we reached our destination, a park on the Minnesota side across from Osceola, Wisconsin. From there, we waited for a rental bus to return us to Taylors Falls.

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Franconia Sculpture Park

Just outside of Taylors Falls, we encountered one of the Twin Cities weird, hidden gems, one I had never been to before (though I had heard things), the Franconia Sculpture Park. Wow! The sunny fields and shady woods of the expansive grounds were packed with strange and monumental works of art from artists all over the world. Founded just twenty years ago (just twenty years!?), judging by the dates the works were installed, they are always growing. Lindsay and I were not prepared for just how huge the place was, and just how many bizarre, innovative sculptures were tucked away all over the place. It would definitely warrant another visit, I think! The place is open 365 days a year, so I’m intrigued by the idea of checking it out during the winter!

Heading Past the Edge of the Prairie

 

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A stormy day on the prairie, Pipestone National Monument

In July, Lindsay and I went south, driving down to the prairies and farmland of southwestern Minnesota. It was a much different landscape than our trip to the Iron Range and the North Shore, and I was struck by the great range of terrain to be found throughout the state. We began by heading into some familiar territory for me, spending the first night in Mankato. Before getting there, though, we stopped off at what is becoming a popular Minnesota attraction, Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store at Jim’s Apple Farm, known locally as the Big Yellow Barn. A completely overwhelming expanse of treats, from the local to the global; local apples, all manner of obscure and international candies and sodas (or “pop,” as we prefer around here), and much more. We escaped with a few bottles of soda, a tray of nostalgic Runts, some organic popcorn, and a selection of British candy bars. Quite a chaotic scene, there was something weird everywhere you looked, from a talking bear head guarding the immense selection of honey, to Cthulhu mints!

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Minneopa Falls

Arriving in Mankato, my old haunt, we spent some time at Minneopa State Park, visiting the majestic Minneopa Falls, which tumbles forty feet into a rugged gorge tucked away into the Minnesota flatlands. After the wet season we’ve had, the creek was still a raging torrent, sending plumes of mist into the air and making for a great, refreshing place to relax on a hot summer day. Later, we saw some of the State Park’s herd of bison, reintroduced from the population at Blue Mounds State Park as part of the DNR’s Minnesota Bison Conservation Herd. It was pretty awesome to see these iconic North American animals roaming so close to home, where they used to thrive.

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Schell’s Brewery Deer- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

The next afternoon, we stopped at the picturesque grounds of the August Schell Brewing Company in New Ulm. The second oldest family owned brewery in the United States, Schell’s Brewery is a pretty interesting place to make a stop, even if you aren’t particularly interested in beer (like Lindsay, sadly). After a lunch of a large pile of cheese and a few of Schell’s beers (hey, it was after noon) we explored the interesting museum chronicling the history of the company and the immigrant German family who started it back in 1860. The lush gardens and woods that surround the working brewery, the historic Schell family mansion, and other cool buildings  were picturesque, and inhabited by peacocks. These colorful birds, along with the company’s mascot deer, made for some surprises along the garden paths.

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A peacock- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

We continued our journey across the plains, dotted with the looming white forms of the wind power generators rotating gentle in the prairie wind, soon arriving at our next destination; the unique and ancient Jeffers Petroglyphs, another location of the Minnesota Historical Society. The petroglyphs, images carved onto an outcrop of Sioux Quartzite, date from many periods from about 7000-5000 BCE and are important to indigenous cultures across the continent up to the present.

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A turtle petroglyph- photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

It really is pretty breathtaking, these intricate carvings etched thousands of years ago on rock a billion years old, on a small ridge above miles and miles of prairie dotted with prickly pears, with constant wind buffeting and providing a welcome respite from the sun. Among the many symbolic and mythical, more concrete figures are seen among the petroglyphs as well, including the atlatl, a hunting tool predating the bow and arrow. The site offers visitors the chance to try out it on a model bison, flinging deadly spears at the effigy animal. After one husky gentleman failed to connect even once, I guess I’m probably a bit too proud to say I managed it! Again, as Historical Society members, we were able to visit the site for free. Definitely one of my favorite places in Minnesota!

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Trying out an atlatl- Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

That evening, we pulled into our final destination, the town of Pipestone, Minnesota. We had reserved a room in the historic Calumet Hotel, reputed to be haunted. In fact, as soon as we parked, we could see that the little town was one that was, apparently, obsessed with ghosts. The Pipestone County Historical Society was offering a Saturday night Historic Ghost Walk, and we arrived just in time- after a quick, uninspiring dinner at the local Pizza Ranch, we lined up for the leisurely, informative walk around town to learn about the various ghost stories that have popped up around it. Hosted by a trio of storytellers dressed in Victorian garb, the stories were generally of a gentle, comical nature and rarely very horrifying or gruesome- the worst being the wife-beating confectioner who hung himself in a dumb waiter. Creepy! The stories of the mysteries of Pipestone were also very interesting, such as the missing statue of a nude woman carved and put on display by Leon Moore, a businessman and amateur sculptor who peopled his building with many strange gargoyles. No one knows where it went!

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The Moore Block, displaying a few gargoyles and the niche that, legend has it, formerly held a sculpture of a naked woman; too much for conservative Pipestone- photo of Lindsay Cameron

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Lindsay and I at the Calumet. Photos courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

Amusingly, while we experienced no qualms with sharing with the tour the exact room in the Calumet Hotel we were staying in (I was both disappointed and relieved to find out we weren’t staying in the most haunted room, where a man died in a fire almost a century ago- not that Lindsay or I believe in ghosts), we were too embarrassed to volunteer the fact that we ate at the Pizza Ranch, which was also a haunted location! The Hotel itself was large and reasonably priced, though the room offered few frills aside from a light that flickered out mysteriously (or maybe the bulb was just old!)

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The next morning, after breakfast at a local institution, Lange’s Cafe, home of what Jane and Michael Stern of Roadfood called the best sour cream raisin pie in the world (a fact the restaurant is obviously very proud of) we visited the second National Monument in Minnesota, Pipestone National Monument. The location where the hard red rock was quarried by many different indigenous groups over the centuries to carve peace pipes and other important sacred items, the monument is another breathtaking Minnesota landscape, rich in natural and historical importance.

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Winnewissa Falls

After some atmospheric thunderstorms sweeping in across the prairie, we hiked across the quartzite cliffs, examining the quarries from which the sacred stone is mined, viewing intriguing rock formations and Winnewissa Falls, also filled the brim. The prairie flowers filled the moist but cool air with a host of wonderful smells, and the lichen covered walls flowed with water. It was a wonderful end to a wonderful trip.

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The quartzite cliffs at Pipestone National Monument

Pride Dabbler

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In the past, I’ve always been busy for some reason on Pride weekend, one of the Twin Cities biggest street festivals and among the largest one’s celebrating the GLBT community in the US. Last year was no different, in spite of living right next to Loring Park- I spent the majority of the weekend on a camping trip in Southern Minnesota. However, I got back home in time to check out the last day of the festival,  as I could hear the alluring music drifting through my windows as I unpacked from the trip. Running out across the street just before an early summer thunderstorm struck, I browsed used books, chatted with co-workers from the Hennepin County Library, grabbed some lunch, and browsed vendors selling local products.

This year, Lindsay and I visited on the Friday that began the 40th anniversary of the Pride Festival with the Pride Dabbler, the Beer Dabbler’s celebration of both Minnesota’s inclusive community and its burgeoning craft brewing scene. With a theme of “Icons,” each brewery or cidery crafted its own tribute to various advocates of bringing awareness to gender and marriage equality. It was definitely a fun time to be in such an inclusive crowd, with people enjoying the amusingly named beverages such as Gandalf the Grapefruit and the Frida Kahlo Unibrau brewed up by more than fifty breweries  from all over the state. There were so many great brews I would definitely like to try again, including Birches on the Lake’s coffee chocolate stout and boysenberry sour, and 612’s Mary Anne ginger lager. While Lindsay isn’t much of a beer fan herself, there were a few cideries offering some delicious varieties of cider as well, such as Number 12 Cider House’s Black Current.

IMG_20160624_193604Thankfully, local food trucks were on hand as well to peddle enough food to soak up all that beer. The giant pretzels from the Neu Bohemia Foodtruck proved quite popular, and one was enough for both of us to fill up. We found passersby to be quite interested in where it came from! All in all, it was exhilarating to see the diversity of the celebrations; people from all backgrounds walked about the shores of Loring Pond- I was amazed at how expansive the park seemed when filled with people- it never struck me as that huge before, but it became a maze of music, booths, and dancing, even as the evening closed on the first night of the festival. Particularly in today’s political environment, it is great to have such a vibrant celebration of diversity in our city. I’m looking forward to seeing more next summer!

 

German Culture in St. Paul

It has been a busy summer, and spending all my time going on fun adventures with my beloved fellow adventurer, I have neglected updating my blog on all the exciting things we have been up to. Over the next week, I’m hoping to get things up to date and, I hope, not let it slip so much in future.

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This June was a good time to be in St. Paul if you have any interest in Germanic and German-American culture. The descendants of the largest immigrant group in Minnesota history, as well as the Austrians and Swiss, still know how to have a good time, and those interested in learning more about it or just enjoying its vaunted cultural amenities such as beer, pastries, and dour religious art had plenty of opportunity to get a taste. With Minnesota (and the rest of the country) still struggling with anxieties regarding the influx of immigrants from around the world, it is always interesting to note how similar fears and concerns were raised by Americans to groups now comfortably part of the white American mainstream, such as the Germans. The presence of such institutions and festivities show that new cultures can preserve their customs and add to the vibrancy of the region’s social fabric. Within a couple of weeks, you could experience Deutsche Tage at the Germanic-American Institute on Summit Avenue and Germanfest at the historic Schmidt Brewery on West Seventh.

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Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

The Germanic-American Institute hosted their 2016 Deutsche Tage on the weekend of June 11th and 12th. A free event, it offers crafts, music, and other activities, though you must purchase tokens to obtain the beer and food on offer. On a lovely Saturday afternoon, the Germanic-American Institute was an ideal stroll from home, and, sipping some Paulaner beers and some chewy pretzels with cheese and mustard, we listened to the low, puffing sounds of the Oompah bands while we observed the many varieties of lederhosen donned by celebrating German-Americans. The ornate GAI building was filled with craft activities and more treats, but the real place to be was enjoying the summer weather on the Institute’s lawn. After winning another round of beers by completing a simple scavenger hunt, we went back inside the cool basement Rathskeller of GAI and watched an interesting presentation on home brewing as well.

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Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron

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The very next weekend, we went down to the sprawling complex that housed the old Schmidt Brewery, one of the large breweries founded in Minnesota by German immigrants in the nineteenth century for Germanfest. Also free to stroll, here a $7 wristband was required to purchase the alcoholic beverages. Under the inspiring stone walls of the old brewery, all sorts of vendors selling European crafts and genealogical resources. For us, the biggest attraction here was the delicious varieties of food, including delectable vegetarian spaetzle, potato pancakes, more pretzels (of course), and some wonderful parfait with rhubarb and lemon (and plenty of fluffy, rich whipped cream). Of course, there was plenty of beer on tap here, too, this time from Minnesota’s oldest surviving brewery, also founded by German immigrants, New Ulm’s Schell’s. We also attended an interesting lecture on Lutheran identity in German painting presented by a curator from the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Some very interesting discussion with a pint of froth beer!

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You should definitely check them out next year!

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The party prepares to enter…

My old friend Dave married his sweetheart Rachel on Saturday, hosting their wildly successful  wedding (including a beer drinking ceremony) at the Science Museum of Minnesota. What great environs for a wedding party! The tastefully nerdy event, complete with a dinosaur theme and Star Wars music made the museum an awesome venue for the happy day.

As the best man, it was up to me to prepare something fun for the bachelor party in February. After hearing hushed tales of the challenge and excitement by other local delvers into secrets, the groomsmen and I planned the perfect outing for the guy who tormented us through many hilariously entertaining sessions of the Tomb of Horrors back in the day. We donned our Hawaiian shirts, a nod to Dave’s trademark convention uniform, and secretly charted a go at our local room escape adventure, EscapeMSP. A “real life room escape game,” EscapeMSP is among the first places offering this fun new puzzle in the Twin Cities. Within an hour, you and your team must escape the diabolical plot set up for you by solving tough puzzles and searching for clues. This makes it a great place for groups of people with a flair for the dramatic and a desire to experience some hands on adventure.

After a celebratory round of beers at St. Paul’s wonderful Flat Earth Brewery, which Dave favored even before moving to St. Paul four years ago, we drove out into the uncharted suburbs just west of Minneapolis. After a final swig of Tomatin whisky to aid our courage and wit, we found our way to a nondescript office park, where the challenge awaited us. Behind the unassuming door of an everyday office suite, we discovered a large room furnished with a massive boardroom table, from which we signed our waivers and received our mission. EscapeMSP offers several different mission themes (including one they added within the last month) – we chose the James Bomb room. Dropped into the roles of M15 agents tasked with deactivating a bomb, we joined a few other adventure seekers and entered an adjacent room to see if we had what it took to beat the puzzle. As soon as the handcuffs came out, I think we knew things had gotten serious…

It was quite the struggle! In the end, we came so close to defusing the bomb, failing to discover only one vital clue! Next time, next time! Finishing off the evening with several more stops for food, drink, and merriment, in the end, the stag night was quite a success and I think we’ll be accompanying Dave on another go at escaping the room in the not too distant future!

 

 

 

Madison Bound

 

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Stained glass, Winona County Historical Museum

Over the next few days, I will be tackling a small backlog of adventures I missed writing about back in February. The first adventure is a fun road trip for those times when you might require a change of scenery from the Twin Cities. Over Valentine’s Day weekend, Lindsay and I crossed state borders for a little trip to Madison, Wisconsin, a fun college town that makes a nice weekend getaway from the Twin Cities. Here are a few highlights and recommendations from the trip!

Taking the scenic route down the Mississippi from St. Paul, we stopped for lunch in the sleepy but interesting college river town of Winona, Minnesota. This is the town where my grandparents lived, so I spent a lot of time here growing up, but it had been awhile since I visited so it was fun to stop again, see how things changed, and introduce Lindsay to another weird Minnesota town.

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Riverboat exhibit, Winona Historical Museum (Courtesy of Lindsay Cameron)

We had a delicious lunch at the Blue Heron Coffeehouse, one of my favorite restaurants in the state. In addition to the yummy food and friendly, laid back artsy vibe, they share a space with a used and new bookstore, The Book Shelf, which always has good finds. We then explored the recently renovated Winona County Historical Society Museum, which I’ve found to be one of the best local historical museums in Wisconsin, displaying a variety of interesting artifacts from one of the oldest cities in the state. After climbing into a reproduction steamboat and marveling at some preserved storefronts, we then took the opportunity to explore some art in the collection of Winona’s ambitious and newest museum, the Minnesota Marine Art Museum. It may seem like an unusual location for the collection, but Winona does have a historic port supplying lumber and flour for shipment down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. The Marine Art Museum explores the “historic human relationship with water,” an apt mission for a museum set on the banks of the Mississippi River. Featuring contemporary photography as well as work spanning the artistic movements from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, including such luminaries as Monet and Picasso, it is one of Minnesota’s hidden gem museums.

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Capitol District Madison being transformed into a skiing track.

Crossing the border into Wisconsin, we were in Madison by early evening, where we had a date to catch comedian and actor David Cross perform at the Orpheum Theater, located on State Street, the epicenter for entertainment in Madison. The humor of Cross, of Arrested Development fame among others things, was a great way to kick off the trip, especially when he upset the more religious portion of the audience.img_20160213_133136

Madison, the capital city of Wisconsin and home of the University of Wisconsin, is always an entertaining place to visit. Situated on an isthmus between Lake Monona and Lake Mendota, with the Capital building sitting on top of a hill, it is a compact, walkable city that seems to pack a lot into a relatively small area. We were in town during the last big cold snap in the Upper Midwest, and it came just in time for the Madison Winter Festival, though a lack of snowfall required the city to haul in a layer of snow to surround the Wisconsin State Capitol building for racing cross country skiers. With folksy fiddle music playing on the loudspeakers and a few quirky little snow sculptures, downtown Madison became a wintery wonderland.  

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Spending the weekend exploring the isthmus area over the weekend was a fun and relaxing way to brave the cold and enjoy each others’ company. Particularly with the Winter Festival going on, parking was difficult downtown, but most things are in easy walking distance of each other. At the center of Capitol Square is, of course, the Wisconsin State Capitol building, a pretty impressive edifice of state government. They offer a free and quite informative tour throughout the building, visiting the executive, legislative, and judicial branches where we marveled at the ornate interiors and fossils embedded in the stone walls. It was pretty interesting to be standing right there behind the leather upholstered chairs where the Wisconsin state legislatures make laws (rather poorly, under current administration, eh?). The tour was full of the usual list of notable “bests” that Wisconsin’s capitol building can boast (taller than the US Capitol Building, largest granite dome in the world, etc.) Some of which seem a little questionable, perhaps, but now I am looking forward to touring the Minnesota State Capitol building, to see what we can boast!

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Wisconsin State Capitol building interior (Photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron)

In addition to the Wisconsin State Capitol, we also visited the Wisconsin History Museum and its entertainingly goofy exhibit on Wisconsinites in Hollywood. The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art is also a good place to check out, which hosted several fascinating collections, including a surreal and energetic collection of 1970s prints by Wisconsin artist Warrington Colescott inspired by Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. That’s one for the reading list! The exhibit goes on until April, so if you’re in town, stop in!

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Sculpture Garden roof of Madison Contemporary Museum of Art, enjoying the snow

Strolling along State Street, we stopped in a variety of charming boutiques and shops, either just browsing or in full shopping mode. Of course, the bookstores were where we found the most to peruse. Browzers Bookshop is a maze of used books, with plenty of weird things to look at and you’ll probably get quite the deal there too! At the venerable independent feminist bookstore A Room of One’s Own, one can browse a very wide selection of new and used books. This was a very nice bookstore to spend some time hanging out and picking out a new book or two (or, hell, more).

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Some of Wisconsin’s fine beers, at the Old Fashioned

 

Of course, nothing says Wisconsin like enjoying an alcoholic beverage and we certainly had our fair share, so leaving the car behind was a wise choice. The charming, quirky, and rowdy bars of State Street and the Capital Square serve up some tasty Wisconsin beers and delicious cocktails. The Old Fashioned, a bar and restaurant specializing in Wisconsin’s food and drink specialties is a good place to start. Offering more than a hundred Wisconsin beers and a half dozen versions of the Old Fashioned, along with cheese curds, cheese plates, and many other tasty treats, it is a good place to go to be overwhelmed by choices. Just arrive early, the place is packed to gridlock by 6 on weekends. Breakfast, though, is a more relaxing time to visit. We had a perfectly decadent Wisconsin breakfast: A rich cheese plate, giant (and affordable) apple fritter, a breakfast old fashioned, and a pint of Tyrena Brewing’s Devil Made Me Do It Coffee Imperial Oatmeal Potter.  

Paul’s Club, on State Street, is another good place to stop in for a drink. Where else can you go to a bar that has a full side tree inside of it, along with a good beer and cocktail list?The Great Dane Pub is a pretty cool place to stop by in the Capital Square area as well, a brewpub that offers a nice rotating selection of brews, including the Stone of Scone scotch ale. Also come for the shuffle boards (Wisconsinites are super serious about this game).

If you find yourself famished while shopping on State Street, a nice place to stop by for very filling Laotian and Thai cuisine is at Vientiane Palace Restaurant, which has a lot of delicious food for reasonable prices, including some very tasty pad thai noodles. My eggplant dish was also very tasty. Graze is a romantic and atmospheric choice for dinner. A new restaurant specializing in farm to table cuisine, we had a very lovely meal here and I would recommend it for a fancy evening out, with nice views of the Wisconsin State Capitol and very good food. Again, the cheese plate is highly recommended, as is the oyster plate.

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Some of the collection of the National Mustard Museum (photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron)

On the way out of town, we stopped by one of Wisconsin’s many “quirky” attractions. Where else, for instance, could you visit a museum devoted entirely to a condiment? Located just outside of Madison in Middleton, Wisconsin, the National Mustard Museum is worth a stop for anyone with even a little appreciation for mustard. An exhaustive selection of gourmet mustard varities from across the world upstairs, and a tongue in cheek celebration of the history and art of mustard downstairs, it is a cool and funny place to stop to sample some tasty sauces. After picking up some mustard for upcoming gatherings, we left Madison for St. Paul. A quick stop in Osseo, Wisconsin, for some top notch pies at the Norske Nook  Restaurant and Bakery rounded out or trip (and our bellies). All in all, it was a great weekend sampler of a winter town in Wisconsin, and I am looking forward to returning.  

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Did you know Tony Shahloub was from Green Bay? Display at the Wisconsin History Museum (photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron)

 

 

St. Paul Winter Carnival

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WinterSkate, Landmark Center, downtown St. Paul (photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron)

For a few weeks in late January and early February, the dead of the Minnesota winter, St. Paul has traditionally put aside desires to stay bundled up indoors and instead head out to brave the cold and have fun. In typical St. Paul fashion, this often involves a fair amount of drinking. I speak, of course, about the St. Paul Winter Carnival, one of the world’s largest urban celebrations of the winter season. Having spent a fair bit of time in St. Paul this year with Lindsay, we were able to check out a few of the crazy events that make up the festivities of the Winter Carnival. As we enter the last week of meteorological winter, I thought I should discuss some of the adventures had this year at the Winter Carnival!

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As a child, I recall visiting downtown St. Paul with family members to view the St. Paul Winter Carnival opening parade, being vaguely disturbed by the Vulcans and awed by the transformation of Rice Park into a snow bedecked wonderland of strange, elaborate sculptures and palaces of ice. It had been a few years since I last experienced the Carnival, though, so I was excited to check out a few things with Lindsay. Sadly, I had to work during her favorite recommendation, hot chocolate and cookies at the St. Paul Hotel!

However, we were both able to attend some pretty cool events. A lot of the awesome stuff happens in Rice Park, in the heart of downtown St. Paul. Visiting one night we saw the awesomely wintery ice sculptures, only slightly damaged due to unseasonable warmth. Along with an accordion player, it made a romantic and beautiful time to visit the park. This is especially true while visiting the Wells Fargo WinterSkate, situated right under the majestic spires of the Landmark Center. They even rent skates for a few bucks.

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Ice sculptures, Rice Park (photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron)

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An unhappy cat (photo courtesy of Lindsay Cameron)

At the St. Paul RiverCentre, we visited the Saintly City Cat Show January 23rd and watched judges choose, among the many variously amiable felines, the “very best cat.” It was always amusing to watch the judges make quick and efficient judgement of the cats, some of which seemed more tolerant of it than others. Compared to the Land O’Lakes Kennel Club Dog Show at the RiverCentre a few weeks earlier, it was pretty funny to see how little the cats have do to be deemed the “very best.” Both the cat and the dog show were good places to go if you want to watch people grooming their cute pets, though.   

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Germanic Institute, during Fasching

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A man readies himself to apply a mouse trap to his tongue…

At the Winterfest Karneval, on the night of January 30th, the Germanic-American Institute hosted an interpretation of Fasching, a German version of Mardi Gras which often happens around this time of year in Germany. I had never been to the Germanic-American Institute, so it was a perfect time to check it out! The elaborate mansion was packed full of costumed attendees sipping the heady German libations, including the perennial favorite Jagermeister and watching burlesque and sideshow carnival shows from the Dangerous Fun Show. It took some Jagermeister to watch a guy snap a mouse trap on his tongue! The Euro-style dance party in the basement was also super fun!

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Snow Sculptures, Minnesota State Fairgrounds

 

On Saturday, February 6th, there was more drinking to be had at the Minnesota

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Crowd prepares for the Beer Dabbler!

State Fairgrounds at the Beer Dabbler Winter Carnival, of which I had never visited. Before the Dabbler, we stopped by the Snow Park at the Fair, where we admired the various snow sculptures produced for the snow sculpting competition, including a huge and elaborate seascape complete with whales and octopi. It reminded me of Minnesota childhood with the huge piles of snow set aside for kids to climb and shove each other down off of. By this time, we decided to follow the growing crowds to the Midway to visit the Beer Dabbler. With Lindsay as a “designated driver,” I sampled my way through dozens of breweries from across the country with the complimentary tasting glass. Along with the craft beers and ciders being offered, a wide variety of local cheeses and other snacks were also on offer. Just get ready to wait in a few lines, of course. The place was packed and tickets sold out days in advance. Watching the other festgoers bedecked in pretzels, cheese sticks, and the occasional garland of beef jerky was also quite amusing. I’ll admit, I probably had a bit more than I normally do, but it’s a little hard to keep track of it all when you are having little tastes of a whole lot of stuff!

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Lindsay samples some goat cheese at the Beer Dabbler!

All in all, there was much fun to be had at the Winter Carnival and I look forward to trying out new experiences next winter!

Mysterious Lakes & Beers

In a city of burgeoning breweries, it seems like every week brings a new location to enjoy a flight, a tulip, or a pint of beer from a mosaic of styles and types. If you like one, buy a growler and take it to your next gathering. With all of the choices available, it can be quite overwhelming. So after a weekend of explorations of Lake Minnetonka in December (really, it’s starting to get creepy warm), I decided to check out some breweries.

Just last week, two new breweries celebrated their grand openings, both recalling Minnesota’s reputation for lakes and eccentricity. Lake Monster Brewing in St. Paul and Lakes and Legends Brewing in Minneapolis, just a block from my apartment! Both of them offered a wide variety of styles, Lake Monster toying with a grab bag of styles, with Lakes and Legends leaning more towards Belgian traditions, with a farm to table mission.

 

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Last Friday, I made it to Lake Monster’s grand opening, which was completely packed. I’ve seen some of their wares sold around town, particularly their Calhoun Claw pilsner, but this would be the first time that they had an open taproom at their sprawling location off of Vandalia Street in an industrial area of the St. Anthony Park neighborhood of St. Paul, which seems to be a hotbed of new breweries right now.  I had a difficult time finding a place to park my bike, and noticed that others had that issue, too, resigned to chain their bicycles to feeble parking signs and trees. In spite of the expansive parking lot, it looked like a lot of people were having trouble finding a spot themselves. Lake Monster is also huge, the bar stretching down through the old warehouse almost as far as the eye could see (at least in the crowd). While they were not offering growlers on Friday, they will, hopefully, add those soon.

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I drank a pint of the Untethered Sour Brown Ale, which was definitely a good choice. I’ve come to be a fan of the sour beers, and this one, tangy and funky, was a solid one. I liked it’s malty character as well. I’m looking forward to checking the place out again when it’s not so packed.

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While I couldn’t make it to the grand opening on Saturday, Lakes and Legends Brewing is right down the street from me, so I popped in after work yesterday to check it out. Like much of the Loring Park area of Minneapolis, there were plenty of spots for your bike, though car parking is a bit dicier, of course. On a sleepy weekday night, the place was still attracting a crowd and I ordered a flight to sample some of Lakes and Legends Belgian inspired offerings, in particular that tradition’s rustic farmhouse ales.

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Tulip of Boreal winter warmer

Featuring a bouquet of fruit and floral esters from the yeast used, they reflected the best of farmhouse styles, including the use of locally farmed honey, fruit, and smoke flavors. My favorite was probably the seasonal winter warmer, a stout as dark as a Minnesota winter with plenty of coffee and chocolate notes. However, to share with some friends, I got a growler of the raspberry braggot, which was infused with a rich raspberry and honey flavor. Since I’m just about to open up my own attempt at that honey based beer-mead hybrid beer style myself, I thought I’d try some other, more professional stuff to compare.

Both Lakes and Legends and Lake Monster are now open with a regular schedule, with a lot of events planned, too, so visit one of them, or one of the Twin City’s many other new breweries soon, if only to show your disapproval of current rumblings I’ve been hearing about in the beer industry.

Lake Monster Brewing, 550 Vandalia St, St. Paul

Monday-Thursday: 4:00 pm – 10:00 pm
Friday-Saturday: Noon – Midnight
Sunday: Noon – 10:00pm

Lakes and Legends Brewing, 1368 Lasalle Ave, Minneapolis

Tuesday – Thursday: 3pm – 10pm
Friday: 3pm – 12am
Saturday: 12pm – 12am
Sunday: 12pm – 9pm