Lake to Table: Cooking Inspiration from Minnesota's North Shore
The newly risen sun glows through a milky fog over Grand Marais Harbor, casting the morning sky in pearly shades of white and gray. Lake Superior, all 3 quadrillion gallons of it, hides still and almost silent, except for the occasional sleepy wave. Soon vacationers will cross the beach with coffee cups and dogs, but at 6:30, the world's largest freshwater lake plays host to creatures who know her better-birds and fishermen.
Two mergansers tweak their tufted heads left and right, shaking off water before plunging headlong into the shallows. A minute later, they pop up and right themselves like bath toys. A lesser yellowlegs picks her way across wet pebbles on sunny stilts. Several Canada geese emerge from the mist, sounding mournful foghorns and curling their necks to dip their beaks. Everyone is hungry.
A mile out from shore, white gulls circle a small, bobbing boat, crying greedily. The thieving birds are waiting for Harley Toftey and Tyler Smith to begin picking lake herring from gill nets that have been submerged all night, hung vertically in the water like vast sheets on a clothesline. When the wind, current and food supply nudge the herring (or ciscoes, as they're properly called) the right way, Harley and Tyler might come home with half a ton of silvery fish. Today, the lake yields just 180 pounds.
Harley is one of 25 licensed commercial fishermen on Minnesota's North Shore, a small band preserving a century-old tradition. Their catch goes to roadside smokehouses that still preserve fish with techniques that date to the Anishinaabe. They also deliver to chefs who know that fresh lake trout needs little more than fry batter or a squeeze of lemon. Between customers at Dockside Fish Market, Harley's wife, Shele, says simply, "When people come up here, they just expect fish."
And they always have. In the 1880s, a wave of Scandinavian immigrants settled north of Duluth. These stoic Swedes and Norwegians knew how to handle Minnesota's brutal winters and Lake Superior's fickle, ocean-like moods. They built hundreds of fish houses along a shore that still lacked roads, clinging for life as fiercely and hopefully as the purple harebells that grow in stony clefts there today.
In Tofte, the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum illuminates the parallels between those hardy founding fishermen and their contemporary counterparts. The old nets were woven of cotton, not monofilament. The corks that kept them afloat were made of glass, not plastic. The boats were powered by oars, not motors. But really, what's changed? Not the essential process, nor the work ethic, and certainly not the names that still letter signs and mailboxes in these parts: Toftey, Lutsen, Pederson, Johnson, Tormondsen.
The first North Shore fishermen salt-packed most of their catch in barrels and sent it south on steamships. But they smoked fish, too, forging a regional food culture as strong as pork tenderloin in Iowa or lobster rolls in Maine. At Russ Kendall's Smokehouse in Knife River, locals in camo line up with tourists in Keens. Staff wrap bronzed chunks of fish in yesterday's Duluth News Tribune, as they have since 1908. Meanwhile, at Northern Waters Smokehaus in Duluth, Eric Goerdt marries classic with modern, piling moist, flaky smoked salmon on a salad with Marcona almonds and wasabi mayonnaise.
Between those two extremes, you'll find Angry Trout Cafe. Barb LaVigne and George Wilkes opened the restaurant in an old Grand Marais fish house in 1988. They buy fish from Harley and Shele, and the menu is comfortingly unpretentious. "A man from France once said, ‘You don't cook things here-you just throw them on the grill!'" Barb laughs. "George wants it to feel like you're sitting at home. We put everything on one plate. It's seasonal. It's fresh. The fish just tastes like Lake Superior."
Outside Angry Trout, the fog that burned off during the day has returned, thickly cloaking orange street lights. The gulls have tucked their heads in their feathers, but down the way, Harley's boat rocks a bit in her berth. Dawn is just a few hours away, and somewhere in the dark depths, the nets are waiting.
Touring the Shore
Duluth, Gateway city Northern Waters Smokehaus has a deli counter; its sister restaurant of the same name serves more formal fare. Check boatnerd.com to see when freighters will pass under the hulking lift bridge, and explore shipping history at Lake Superior Maritime Visitor Center.
Knife River, Roadside stop About 100 years after Native Americans taught mechanic William Kendall how to smoke fish, Russ Kendall's Smokehouse still delivers unblemished small-town character-right down to the individual sleeves of Ritz Crackers sold to pair with the cream cheese-based salmon spread.
Tofte, History break The North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum is an unexpected treasure, packed with photographs, artifacts and powerful oral histories. It's also the first stop on a walking path that offers more history and pretty views. Nearby, the Coho Cafe is a good casual lunch spot.
Grand Marais, Northern outpost Angry Trout and Dockside perch like welcome sentries on the western edge of town. Take an easy hike along Artists Point's rocky flats, or book a ride on the North House Folk School's 50-foot schooner for a taste of open water.