Minneapolis-based chef and outdoorsmen Jon Wipfli spends most of his time cooking food around the city, writing or in the woods looking for critters. His passion for hunting and cooking wild game takes him to some unconventional places. On the latest Journal story, Jon shares his experience hosting guests to a locally sourced meal on a Wisconsin cranberry bog.
The answer is yes. Of course, I’ll create a four-course October meal on a cranberry theme, with a wild game emphasis, using a smoker and a grill. And yes, I’d be happy to prepare and serve the meal—for 24 guests—next to a Wisconsin cranberry bog.
Partly I say yes because nothing good comes easy, and I like it that way. Partly I say yes because my friends at Northerly Collective are doing good work spreading the word about my spiritual home in northern Wisconsin.
But mostly, it’s about that cranberry bog.
France has its vineyards. California has its redwoods. Amsterdam has its tulips. And Wisconsin in October has cranberry bogs the size of football fields filled with floating red, pink, and white jewels, just as the leaves on the surrounding birches, aspens, and maples flare and begin to fall.
It’s a world-class sight, and frankly, more people should know about it.
That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t spend the 10 days leading up to the event stressed out, working late, sourcing, curing, pickling, menu writing, costing and lingering over an occasional midnight stove with a glass of whiskey, trying to tweak a sausage recipe so I can get to work in the morning without having sausage grinds churning through my mind. It doesn’t mean I don’t spend a couple of nights running to every Asian market in the Twin Cities trying to find the right Donabe bowls.
Those are nights that call everything into question and make you wonder what the hell you were thinking.
But it’s those nights, too, that make it all worthwhile, when you eventually serve the perfect dish of braised moose sausage and sauerkraut in one of those perfect earthenware bowls, to a crowd of hungry Northerners who breathe in the smoky hardwood fumes and the wonderfully sour tang of sauerkraut, and dig in hungrily and gratefully.
I’m what happens, for better or worse, when you do what you love as often as you can, and avoid the rest as much as possible. It means I miss a lot of cocktail parties, I don’t see the inside of a church much between the big holidays, I skip the evening news, and I may or may not own a suit and tie—I’d have to check my closet.
But I get to spend a lot of time eating with good people, and a lot of time in front of stoves and smokers and cooking fires, and a lot of time in the North Woods with a shotgun or rifle over my arm and a dog within earshot, and the prospect of game on the table.
And sometimes I get to combine all those loves into one event, and something happens then that I don’t really have words for, except to say that life, for a while, makes a whole lot of sense.
At seven in the morning on the day of the supper, I’m looking out from under the eave of a huge commercial barn at an absolute downpour. There’s so much rain falling on us that the smoker is having a hard time staying lit and the photographer, Colleen of 2nd Truth, has to double as the fire fanner to keep it lit. By 11 am I have to change my pants and my shoes because they’re soaked to a point where I’m not so much wearing clothes as wearing rainwater in the shape of clothes. The picnic table that serves as my prep table comes up to somewhere between my knees and my waist, and I’m trying to prep a four-course meal with an aching back. At that point, I find out that the guy delivering the bread for the meal—not just the bread, but the actual first course of the meal, to be served with cranberry butter—is running late somewhere between Minneapolis and me. I’m soaked, I’m aching, I’m cold, there’s smoke in my eyes. It’s absolutely perfect, I live for this shit.
At four, the guests start to arrive. With a nonchalance and good humor that is one of the things I love about this place, the entire meal is moved from outdoors to indoors, and a 20-foot wooden banquet table is reassembled on the floor of the barn, while strands of twinkle lights are strung overhead from two enormous dump trucks. As the sun sets, the barn and its farm equipment fade into the background, and there is just the glow of a talkative table, and four courses served in leisurely succession. As the last bites of smoked cranberry crumble get scraped from the bottom of 24 dessert ramekins, the storytelling and joking appear to have only just begun.
The barn door is an enormous dark rectangle behind the table, and on my way from the smoker to rejoin the group, I pause to crack a celebratory beer and watch a nearly full moon glint a little pinkly on the surface of the silent bog.
Make sure to order a copy of Jon’s newest book, Venison: The Slay to Gourmet, Field to Kitchen Cookbook. Now available to order through Amazon. Venison: The Slay to Gourmet, Field to Kitchen Cookbook is a book about venison procuring and cooking. It’s focus is fresh, simple and restrained cuisine that revolves around different cuts of deer from a chef first, hunter second perspective.