Traveling always yields interesting facts about the places on a well-planned itinerary.
So when Mr. G and I embarked on our annual summer road trip eight days ago, it was with great anticipation — and empty stomachs — that we headed the car north, destined for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW) outside Ely, Minn.
Along the way, I learned six important things.
First, St. Paul, Minn., is a hotbed of restaurants and chefs serving up local flavor — Minneapolis’s twin sister holds her own when it comes to serving up from-scratch cuisine such as migas, roasted red-pepper eggs Benedict with artisan sausage and homemade pie.
Second, thanks to private guide Bill Griffin of Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service, I discover how to successfully portage a Kevlar canoe loaded with daypacks and fishing gear across boggy, rocky terrain.
Third, Griffin demonstrates that baiting a hook with a juicy, slippery and slimy extra-large leech — and that leeches come in different sizes, for goodness sake — is easier if you dry off said leech on your nylon hiking pants.
Four, a mosquito’s incessant drone can be heard even through noise-canceling headphones.
Five, The Chocolate Moose in Ely — a popular stopping-off point where fishermen, hikers and troops of Boy Scouts gorge on burgers, fish sandwiches and steaks before heading into the woods to subsist on beef jerky and trail mix — makes a mean summer fruit pie.
And six, the regional savory pie known as the pastie — sometimes spelled pasty, say, in Michigan — is indeed pronounced “pass-tee” and not “pace-tee.”
That last lesson came the hard way when I ask two young girls working behind the Zup’s Market deli counter if they carry fresh pace-tees, thus revealing my you’re-not-from-here ignorance.
Suppressing giggles and eye rolls, they responded almost in unison with, “Oh, you mean pass-tees?” Pointing to the case directly in front of me, I grab a fat pastie and head to the checkout; a convenient dinner in the event Mr. G and I don’t catch any bass.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the trip, an overnight in Minneapolis with breakfast at The Neighborhood Café in St. Paul, where locals flock for breakfast, lunch, happy hour and dinner.
I choose their interpretation of migas, a Spanish dish with scrambled eggs, tortilla strips, cheese, salsa and black beans. The plate arrives pretty as a picture, with cornmeal pancakes substituting for the crunchy tortillas.
“We’re known for our pancakes,” co-owner Mike Noyes nodded at the sign above The Neighborhood Café’s pick-up window declaring in neon-colored chalk, “Best Pancakes in the Twin Cities.”
“What about pie?” I volley the question to Noyes.
“Oh yeah, we have pie.”
Noyes trots back to the kitchen and returns, cradling a glass Pyrex pie dish with two remaining gigantic pieces of French silk pie and some errant crumbs.
“Sunny Lane Pies, owned by two sisters, makes our pies,” he said, waving the pie under my nose, tempting, tempting, tempting.
I snap a picture of Noyes and his business partner, co-owner Kris Masanz, posing with my two towering slices of French silk before they place them in a to-go box. Mr. G and I leave The Neighborhood Café, tummies full for the four-hour trip up north, road pie in hand.
While eating the pie — mile after mile of pines and tiny lakes zipping by the car windows — online research reveals that The Chocolate Moose is not only the place to go in Ely for some darned good home cooking, but is a pie pleasure palace.
Open only during the season — read: closed during northern Minnesota’s harsh winter months — the restaurant takes full advantage of summer fruits and slices some eight to nine pies bursting with blueberries, cherries, peaches and rhubarb every day for hungry locals and tourists.
Before setting off on our wilderness adventure, Mr. G and I make a pie stop at The Chocolate Moose and settle in at the bar, ordering up strawberry-rhubarb and blueberry a la mode from server Brynne Ryan.
Seconds later, she plops down two plates of thick-crusted, home-baked pie, scoops of snowy-white ice cream melting in pools.
“People usually get pie here,” Ryan said. “It’s one of our things.”
As we dig into our pie, Tim and Ione Prange of Lake Village, Ind., are swooning over a shared slice at a table behind us.
The couple has returned to Ely to celebrate 38 years of marriage and the place where they spent their honeymoon nearly four decades ago, long before The Chocolate Moose was on the cuisine scene.
“It’s really good,” acknowledged Ione, closing her eyes for a nanosecond while Tim devours forkfuls of pie and ice cream.
Looking around The Chocolate Moose, I see tables of families, a Boy Scout troop, individuals and couples like the Prange’s, eating pie, mostly in silence.
Necessary sustenance, I think, for the outdoor rigors ahead.
About those pesky pasties. One afternoon, after an arduous hike on the Bass Lake Trail, Mr. G and I visit a beloved Ely watering hole, the Kwazy Wabbit. Recounting my story about buying pasties at Zup’s earlier in the week, affable owner Jim Boal chuckles at my mispronunciation of the local delicacy.
He quickly emphasizes one important fact.
“A pastie,” he said, refreshing my club soda and Mr. G’s craft beer, must have rutabagas. And douse ‘em in ketchup.”
Seven. I learned seven things on my trip to the spectacular BWCAW.
Kimberly Winter Stern — also known as Kim Dishes — is an award-winning freelance writer and national blogger from Overland Park and co-host with Chef Jasper Mirabile on LIVE! From Jasper’s Kitchen each Saturday on KCMO 710/103.7FM. She is inspired by the passion, creativity and innovation of chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans who make Kansas City a vibrant center of locavore cuisine.