Friday, July 1, 2016

One Year and Counting

Yesterday Susan and I celebrated the anniversary of our first date together, in five-part harmony. As it was a Thursday, Susan put in her normal five-hour shift at St Paul's Episcopal Church, and our special time together ensued. It was especially fun to recognize how much I have been able to acclimate to local options in my first year.

1. Duluth Public Library
After eight hands of gun rummy (an afternoon staple) in which Susan walked away with an easy victory, we drove through an unsettled sky (featuring patches of brooding, gray nimbi alternating with windows of brilliant sunshine) to get to the downtown public library. Susan helped me register for a card about a month ago and it was time to rotate stock. In addition to securing a pair of Jeffrey Deaver pot boilers I managed to find a copy of Monique Truong's The Book of Salt. Is there any sense of security quite like having good books lined up for the month ahead?

While it's unclear how much reading energy I'll muster at Mayo's as I recover from my stem-cell transplant, I certainly don't want to be caught short.

2. Zinema
From the library it was a brief drive down Superior to get to Zinema, the avant garde theater downtown. There we caught a matinee showing of The Lobster, last year's mirthless exploration of a dystopian future in which unpartnered adults have 45 days to find a soul mate or are ruthlessly weeded from the population by being forceably turned into an animal and released into the woods—where renegade loners roam at large. (Yes, we had a lot of questions, too.)

It stars Colin Ferrell and Rachel Weisz (with John C Reilly in a supporting role as a lisping man who has trouble controlling his urge to masturbate). It was a disturbing film all around. While the box office appeal was dubious (Susan and I constituted two-thirds of the paying audience) it nonetheless helped work up a powerful appetite—which was our modest reward for having forsworn popcorn.

As someone who has devoted his life to promoting community and understanding both its appeal and its inaccessibility, I have necessarily come into close contact with a variety of dystopian fiction over the years—the better to appreciate what people fear about living closely with one another. Thus, I have read or seen:
—1984 by Orwell (1949)
—Blade Runner with Harrison Ford (1982)
—Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003)
—Children of Men by P.D. James (1992) though I haven't seen the 2006 movie based on the book, starring Clive Owen
Occasionally we come to know a thing more surely by the aspects that we don't want it to be, than by being able to articulate what, exactly, our city on a hill encompasses. Thus, the elusive qualities of community can be glimpsed from both sides of the street.

3. Bookstore at Fitger's
As we tried to puzzle out what the movie was all about, we continued our crawl up Superior to the refurbished Fitger's Brewery. This lovely complex (of inn, brew pub, gourmet kitchen supplies, Mexican restaurant, bookstore, etc.) right on the shores of Lake Superior represents some of the best of Duluth, where locals have raised the bar (rather than razed it) by embracing their heritage to preserve some funky blue collar architecture replete with local flavor.

Like cities all over the upper Midwest, Duluth had its own successful brewery for about a century (1857-1972), but Fitger's finally succumbed to the economic pressures of macro lagers (think Budweiser, Coors, and Millers) and disappeared under the successive waves of so many Clydesdales and silver bullets. Happily (or perhaps in this case, hoppily), locals bought the facility in 1984 and developed the concept of a boutique shopping complex that has ultimately been anchored by a hotel, and has fresh beer being brewed again on site. Opa!

We stopped here to do a bit of targeted shopping for my grandson's 5th birthday. They have a basement bookstore that reliably features local authors and I secured a copy of Little Elephants by Graeme Base (author of Animalia and Eleventh Hour). Meanwhile, Susan bought me a signed copy of Chester Creek Ravine, a collection of haiku by Bart Sutter, the former port laureate of Duluth. Not coincidentally, Bart, just like Susan and me, is a 49er‚ which the two of us consider to be a vintage year.

4. Northern Waters
We followed up our successful book foray by moseying up the hill to the Mount Royal neighborhood, and an early dinner at Northern Waters. This restaurant was opened in the winter as the second facility operated by Eric Goerdt, following his fabulously successful smokehouse, located in the bowels of the DeWitt Seitz Marketplace in Canal Park since its launch in 1998.

Northern Waters is a great story about a local guy making good, taking local ingredients and becoming obsessed with smoking fish and meat. Springboarding off the brisk lunchtime sandwich business he'd developed at his original location, Goerdt decided to branch into restauranteering. At his second location (where we ate last night) you can tell immediately that something unique is happening. While there is a well-upholstered run of de rigueur booths along one wall, the remainder of the seating is surprisingly open, highlighted by one long wooden table in the center where clients dine communally (your group is shoehorned in with everyone else to minimize empty seats). You can also sit at the bar, by yourself at the front widow (a la Starbucks), or in one-off arrangements of odd-lot cushioned chairs that are casually arrayed around low tables.

The obvious point of this open layout is high octane mingling—dining as a social occasion, rather than as a mundane solitary act (like filling the gas tank) or an opportunity for rendezvous (let's tryst again like we did last summer). While we lingered there for about 90 minutes on a Thursday evening, Susan (the well-established local) pointed out that a city councilman, the mayor, and other up-and-coming politicos waltzed through at various times to amicably work the crowd. And I thought we were just having dinner!

As you might expect, Goerdt takes seriously his role as a market maker in defining beer and wine selections that are distinctive yet not budget crushing. It's a bull market out there these days and you really can't be a player unless you're willing to roll up your sleeves and take a stand. Thus, he offers five reds and five whites, all available by the glass or by the bottle.

For those favoring malt, he's got half a dozen beers on tap (plus a robust selection of back-ups in bottles) so there's really no excuse for leaving thirsty. 

Most distinctive of all, at Northern Waters tipping is expressly discouraged. Goerdt figures, and I agree, that it's confusing enough to navigate fair compensation for under-paid wait staff, so why go there at all? Instead, they pay staff a living wage and tell clients to knock it off with the tips already. Talk about radical! It changes the dynamic of how you relate to the person serving you. You can let go of any cynical supposition about how smiles may correlate to expected remuneration. They just want you to have a good experience and to come again. The wait staff becomes more of an active partner in the dining experience, where everyone wants it to go well. Refreshing.

Susan ordered the Salmon Satay, fillets grilled on skewers, served with coconut rice and Asian slaw. I countered with a rack of lamb with cannellini beans cooked down in mirepoix (the menu come-on advises, "it's like prison food in France in the 1800s"). For a finale we split a scoop of in-house cranked vanilla ice cream, slathered in a salted caramel sauce. Mighty fine.

5. Bedroom
While there was nothing peculiar to Duluth about how we closed our day (bedspring braille, where you let your fingers do the walking), it did help that with outdoor temperatures comfortably in the 60s that we needn't worry ourselves with overheating. Without getting into details, suffice it to say we were highly appreciative of my gradually increasing stamina and flexibility (do you ever have too much?)

I'm already looking forward to next year.

1 comment:

karen said...

Laird, please consider setting up a crowdfunding website...There is one called youcaring. This really helps spread the word via social media and allow your friend and colleagues far and why to have an easy opportunity to give...