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Swede Hollow Cafe in St. Paul, MN

Posted on July 27, 2017

A large brass bell hangs from a leather strap at the top of the front door. Tacked behind it with clear packing tape is a pocket pack of tissue. It’s a ridiculously simple contraption. When you open the door the bell swings and smacks the tissue, ringing out a muffled ding and announcing your arrival at someone’s idea of the perfect decibel level.

But there’s as much need for a bell on the front door here as there is on the front door of Grand Central Station. Wooden tables nestled along the perimeter are jammed with patrons hunched over newspapers blowing steam off the top of their coffee or huddled into groups of twos and fours catching up on neighborhood gossip.

Illustration by WACSO

Also, the place is small. Sure, the high ceilings and bank of windows overlooking the garden patio and St. Paul skyline make the room seem open. But the wood floor — scarred from years of people scooting in their chairs to let the occupants of neighboring tables squeeze by — tells another story. Bell or no bell, it’d be impossible for anyone walking through the front door to go unnoticed.

We catch a glimpse of something that may have been a menu of coffee drinks and homemade sandwiches above the register. It’s hard to say. Because our faces are immediately pressed against the glass of a tall, wood-trimmed bakery case like kids eying the prizes in a crane game. The case is filled with mouthwatering, oven-browned goodies. Baked french toast.

A slab of hash browns the size of a small brick. A crinkle-edged quiche. Sweet rolls swimming in a shimmering pool of caramel topped with pecans and bits of caramelized bacon.

The girl at the register asks if we’d like it warmed. The way she asks, it’s clear this really isn’t a question.

We order a few more lunch-appropriate items and wedge into a table in the front window next to gentleman grading student papers. Our only other time here, the same man was doing the same thing in nearly the same spot. It’s as if the place is trying to make itself familiar and comfortable to us.

The caramel roll arrives — a gooey, buttery, sweet, hot mess. Adding bacon to this mound of perfection feels almost dangerous. Like experimenting in bed. It’s tantalizing, a bit scary, and not absolutely necessary. But when it works, it’s unforgettable. The bacon works. We’re left staring at a bare sticky plate within seconds.

Just as the feelings of shame start to set in, the rest of our lunch hits the table. A hearty seafood gumbo, a moist-yet-crumbly corn muffin, crunchy battered french fries, sweet barbecue pork ribs, and (why not?) that brick of baked hash browns filled with ham, sausage, and cheese. The beef pot pie arrives in a large white mug topped with golden blanket of flaky crust. Hidden underneath are huge chunks of tender potatoes and carrots and beef held in a rich stock that’s just the right consistency, not the gloppy goo you’re met with in most pot pies. It’s the kind of comfort food people like to say grandma used to make. But she never did. Not really. Not this good. (Sorry, Grandma.)

A tour of the kitchen consists almost entirely of us trying to stay out of the way in a space where nothing is out of the way. No nook or cranny goes unused. Pots and pans and tongs and spoons dangle overhead. Stuffed utility shelves line every wall. The handles and knobs of industrial appliances poke out everywhere. We sidle by a small center island where a woman is pressing layers of egg-soaked bread into a baking pan. The claustrophobia begins to take hold about the time owner Wes Lindstrom informs us that the kitchen was actually recently expanded. This is expanded? We could’ve fallen over, if there were any room to fall.

If you stumbled into Swede Hollow while passing through some quaint European town, you’d think you’d died and were born again as Rick Steve’s unearthing some hidden gem in a far corner of the world. But here it is tucked in the corner of an historic building on Dayton’s Bluff in St. Paul. Taken almost for granted in our own backyard.

Swede Hollow is a good reminder. At a time when even the smallest business decision has to be thoroughly rationalized using animated PowerPoint presentations and approved by faceless committees in dark conference rooms, we need a place that puts bacon on a caramel roll. Some things defy explanation because they’re one person’s idea of perfection, like that bell / tissue contraption on the front door. You may never notice it, but it’s music to somebody’s ear. And we’d all miss it if it were gone.

BEST BET: The mocha is a velvety mugful of house-made chocolate, espresso, and milk with a little chocolate bar balanced on the brim. A sign claims it’s the best in town. That’s an understatement. Also, don’t miss the caramel roll. Warmed, of course.

(Originally appeared at HeavyTable.com)

 

Walk on Water

Posted on August 26, 2017

The boy and the man—the boy’s stepfather—came every year when the ice was thick enough to hold them. “Let’s walk on water,” the man would say. And he’d grin at his own joke and reach out and give the boy’s hair a tousle. And the boy would roll his eyes and resist, but he would smile, too. It was usually January.

The owner of the fish house rental knew them. He was a barrel of a man with chapped cheeks and a purple, cratered nose carved from the wine-soaked end of a cork. A white mesh cap with a yellow band of sweat squeezed his head. Red letters screamed BIG MIKE’S FISHIN’ SERVICE, LAKE MILLE LACS, MN across the front.

“Got you a twelve-by this year.” Big Mike spoke with a high-pitched voice on the wrong side of puberty. “Four bunks, couple of rattle reels, nice, big center hole, just augured this morning.”

The boy, the man and Big Mike sat around a card table in the kitchenette of a mobile home on the southwest bank of Lake Mille Lacs—Big Mike’s office. The flimsy table creaked and wobbled under the force of Big Mike’s ham-sized arm as he filled out the rental form.

“What’s biting?” the man said.

Big Mike stopped writing and leaned in close to the boy. A mix of chewing tobacco, coffee and baitfish filled the boy’s nose. “Your dad really think he’s gonna catch anything but eelpout again this year?” He winked. “Go ahead. Ask your father, boy.”

The boy met his stepfather’s eyes momentarily. They both looked away.

Big Mike flicked his eyes back and forth between them. “Crappie,” he said, “Big ones. Guy pulled out a monster last weekend. Fourteen-incher.” He bent over the form again. “Two nights, right?”

“Right,” the man said.

Big Mike scratched a red ‘X’ across the bottom of the form and turned it around and slid it across the table. He set aside a white mug half-full of brown sludge—coffee or tobacco spit, the boy couldn’t tell—and lifted the pages of the desk-sized calendar underneath. The top page was wrinkled and stained with an endless chain of coffee rings. “Same time next year?” Big Mike said.

The man signed the form as he spoke. “Not gonna make it.”

“Well, hell. I was only kidding about the eelpout.” Big Mike winked at the boy. “Moving?”

The boy watched his stepfather’s reaction. The man’s gaze drifted up to Big Mike but looked through him. He squinted, as though attempting to focus on thin air—a ghost maybe. “No. Not moving.”

“Well, you’re a fountain of information, ain’t ya’?” said Big Mike. He pulled the form back and ripped off the carbon and slapped it on a pile of similar carbons. The card table bounced.

At this, the man snapped back from where ever he was. “I’ll be here in spirit,” he said.

“Spirits don’t pay the bills.” Big Mike stood and turned to the lake map duct-taped to the wall.

“True.” The man glanced at the boy, but the boy stuffed his hands in his coverall pockets and stared at the map. It was dotted with red pins.

“Right,” Big Mike said. “The ice is eighteen inches all the way out. No fissures I know of.” He traced a hand-drawn red line on the map with a stubby finger. “Just follow the plowed road about three-quarter a mile out on the lake. You’ll see the house. It’s the only one out there yet.” He tapped on one of the red pins. “There’s some drunks out there,” He flipped his head toward the lake and rolled his eyes. “Some boys renting from Kenny’s. They’re further out, a good quarter mile up the same road, but they’re there.”

The boy and the man stood. Big Mike grabbed the man’s hand. “Guess I won’t be seeing you.”

“It’d be a miracle.” The man smiled.

“It’d be a miracle, if you caught something.” Big Mike winked once more at the boy.

As they walked out the boy looked over his shoulder and saw Big Mike lift the sludge-filled mug to his mouth. He pursed his lips and spit a brown stream of tobacco into it.

*

The man usually let the boy drive on the lake, but this day the man slid behind the wheel. “Your mom made me promise,” he said.

The boy shrugged and climbed in the passenger side.

The man brought the Ford F-150 to life. “No seat belt and keep your door cracked.”

“I know.”

“We’re not going in. I’m just sayin’. If we do—”

“I know.”

The brakes squeaked and the Ford F-150 rolled to a stop beside the fish house.

The truck tires crunched over a thin blanket of snow that had fallen on the lake that morning. The Ford’s big-block engine droned and hummed in a deep, throaty voice. The man’s key ring tick-ticked rhythmically against the steering column. And the boy’s thoughts drifted back to the night before. Back to his promise.

His mother sat next to him on his bed. “It will make him happy,” she said.

“I know,” the boy said. 

“He loves you.”

The boy twisted the frayed threads that bordered a kneehole in his jeans.

“Do it for me. He needs to hear it.” His mother’s soft fingers cradled his chin and lifted his head. Her eyes pleaded. “Just say it for me.” 

“Mom.”

“I know it’s hard,” she said.

“Geez.” He ripped his head from her grip.

“He deserves to hear it.” She reached for a pillow.

He went back to the hole in his jeans.

“He’s raised you. He loves you.” She fluffed the pillow and a puff of air filled with the lilac smell of his mother’s favorite dryer sheets blew across his face. “He’s a good man.”

“I know.”

“You’ll miss him.” She placed the pillow straight against the headboard and patted it flat the way the boy liked it. “I’ll miss him.” Then she wrapped her hands on both sides of his face and turned it to hers and leaned in. They were nose to nose. Her eyes threatened to overflow. “Promise me.” 

He tried to turn away again, but she tightened her grip.

“Promise.” A tear spilled over her eyelash and fell warm and wet on the back of his hand. “Please.” Her chin began to quiver.

“OK.”

The brakes squeaked and the Ford F-150 rolled to a stop beside the fish house.

(Originally appeared in Stones Throw Magazine)

Jerry Seinfeld is the Harbinger of the Alien Apocalypse

Posted on June 27, 2017

People of Earth:

I am Jerry, representative of an advanced alien species that has come to enslave the human race and strip your planet of its meager resources leaving behind a decimated wasteland of human despair and suffering. If you do not do as we say, we will squash you like the helpless insects you are. Assuming your mayonnaise doesn’t kill us first. Seriously. Do you know what this stuff is? Egg yolks beaten with oil and vinegar. Does this sound even remotely healthy to anyone? If you leave it out too long, it forms a crust. A crust? What is that? Something isn’t right about a food that creates a protective barrier around itself. Nacho cheese sauce. Instant pudding. Should we really trust these foods? What are they hiding?

But that’s not important.

What is important is that your military forces are no match for us. With almost no effort we have rendered your entire species utterly impotent. Your global defense systems have been hopelessly incapacitated by our superior alien technology. And somehow we still can’t open those little soy packets you get with Chinese takeout. Is there some kind of trick we’re not getting? What are these things made of? Weapons-grade titanium? Kryptonite? This stuff is harder to get into than an 18th century Russian novel. So let me get this straight, you guard your soy sauce like a military secret, but you’ll make us take home Kung Pao chicken in paper box with a glorified paperclip for a handle? Who thought this was a good idea. Show of hands, who doesn’t have an egg foo yung stain on the passenger seat of their car?

Don’t answer that.

Your global defense systems have been hopelessly incapacitated by our superior alien technology. And somehow we still can’t open those little soy packets you get with Chinese takeout.

My point is, you must abandon all hope of overthrowing us. Even now we live amongst you, disguised as your mothers and fathers, your friends and coworkers. Every move you make is monitored. Our keen alien senses are attuned to your every thought. Any attempt to form a rag-tag band of survivors that becomes the last hope of survival for humanity will be detected and crushed immediately. And honestly, what 7-11 are these screenwriters shopping at anyway? Have you ever seen an ex-Navy Seal, an Asian gang leader, two lesbian swimsuit models, and a NASA scientist waiting in line together at the convenience store? But somehow these are the only people who run out of milk on the brink of the alien apocalypse? It’s never just Irv from accounting and some pervert buying a girlie magazine? Really?

Whatever.

Any attempt to form a rag-tag band of survivors that becomes the last hope of survival for humanity will be detected and crushed immediately. And honestly, what 7-11 are these screenwriters shopping at anyway?

What I’m trying to say is we are eminently powerful. We have technology at our disposal that your feeble human minds cannot begin to comprehend. Yet even we can’t figure out how to set the clock on your microwaves. It’s unbelievable. You’ve learned how to cook a meal by using magnetic waves to manipulate food particles at a sub-atomic level, but one power outage and you’re clocks are set to noon for eternity. You’ve spent billions of dollars to engineer trays that keep the crust on your microwave pizzas from getting soggy, but you’ve never thought of a battery backup for the clock?

Don’t get me started.

We have studied your species for millions of years. We’ve watched you evolve from an inferior blob of cellular goo into the weak, quivering sacks of flesh you are today. We understand you better than you understand even yourselves. But seriously folks, what’s the deal with mayo?

Is it just me? Maybe it’s just me.