Sunday, January 31, 2010

Neighborhoods – North Loop

The North Loop, also known as the Minneapolis warehouse district, has been through quite a few changes since I got a job there three decades ago. A friend of mine had a loft in the Amsterdam building—I mean a real loft, on the third floor, that you arrived at via freight elevator, with an enormous photo of Joseph Beuys on the wall and pigeons outside the window. In those days the Wyman Building across the street was loaded with art galleries and the New French Bar was the place to hang out.

Not that I was ever a part of that scene. You’d be far more likely to find me passing through on my way to the downtown library (the old one) or heading off from work in the opposite direction, toward the Salvation Army headquarters on 10th street in search of old books and LPs and furniture and clothes. I was introduced there one day to both Kenny Barron and Sonny Fortune via a LP called Innocence that I got for 50 cents. The freeway spur from I-94 into downtown hadn’t been built yet and along the way you passed a restaurant supply warehouse and a little concrete-block building that housed Mix Transfer. Ah, the good old days!

In recent decades most of the jobbers have left, of course, and warehouse “lofts” are everywhere, some of them in old buildings and many more in structures newly built for residential purposes. Convenience stores have sprung up in some of the buildings, and even a wine bar here and there. The neighborhood has reached the point in gentrification where restaurants have not only opened but closed again sveral times over. But there have always been restaurants. The old Monte Carlo on 3rd street, more suitable for truck drivers and shipping clerks than lawyers and sales executives, had a wonderful steak salad and a plate called the Critelli Queen Special consisting of steak and spaghetti ($3.95). And before there was J.D. Hoyt’s there was the 301. I once heard the Cajun band Beausoliel within the intimate confines of Bunker’s Bar on 8th Street N.

But all that’s ancient history. What interests us now is two recent additions to the neighborhood that lie at opposite ends of the sociological spectrum—Black Sheep Pizza and La Grassa. Black Sheep (on the corner of Washington Ave and 6th street N, in the basement of the old Brin Glass Building) specializes in coal-fired pizza and I must say that its crusts are very good—not quite as doughy as the also-excellent crusts at Pizza Nea and far superior to the too-often soggy crusts at Punch. The toppings are also closer to the fresh and primitive ones you often get in Italy (or at least as far as I can remember) with less dependence on tomato sauce and rubbery cheese.

Black Sheep is extremely popular and there can be a long wait, but you can have fun on a cold winter night standing around on the staircase of the restaurant’s tiny subterranean confines with a glass of wine in your hands, taking in the heady aromas of garlic and oregano as you look around, examining the dishes that have been served and listening to the buzz of men and women, most of them several generations younger than you, who are also waiting in line to be seated.

Though the servers were rushing here and there feverishly, they seemed to be enjoying themselves and exuded an earthy charm that seemed to derive from the atmosphere and management of the place. It makes you feel at home. There was energy and even (dare I say it) joy in the room; everyone was getting pretty much want they wanted.

La Grassa is two blocks up the street in the place that used to be occupied by Babaloo, a chic restaurant and dance palace that evidently lost its luster with the Latino crowd. To my mind La Grassa has laid the same space out better, with a brightly lit, animated pasta bar along the far end, a dark, semi-enclosed bar space just as you walk in, and a square, tightly-packed dining area in the middle. The huge wooden beams that hold up the warehouse remain exposed and the back walls seem to be covered with the kind of bead board you’d find in a Wisconsin roadhouse built before the days of plywood paneling. On the other hand, the table settings are lavish and elegant.

The menu follows the traditional Italian pattern of antipasti, pasta (et and dry), entrees, and contorni, with a heavy emphasis on the first two categories. Many of the dishes run in the $5 to $8 dollar range, though the lobster bruschetta will set you back $13.

La Grassa received the Star-Tribune‘s Restaurant of the Year Award recently, and we stopped by unannounced recently at 5:00 when the restaurant opened. (It’s only ten minutes from our house.) The hostess merely said, “I can seat you if you’ll be out by 6:30.” Though I was a little concerned about the whispering dullness of an empty dining room, there were people waiting outside the door when we arrived and the place was lively from the get-go.

The wines are reasonably priced, with a bottle of 14 Hands Chardonnay (which recently vanished from the Vincent wine list) at $20, for example, and the Château Graville-Lacoste (which retails for $16.49 at Surdyk’s) at $33.

Our waiter, who looked like Kevin Spacy’s little brother, helped us wander the menu, though we had already made a few choices in front of the computer at home. My silver-anchovy-and-avocado bruschetta was flavorful and limy and fresh; Hilary’s gnocchi with cauliflower and orange was even better; my pasta cooked in red wine with pine nuts was pretty good; and only the orecchiette with braised rabbit left something to be desired. The orecchiette themselves were on the tough side of al dente, and though there was a hint of rabbit flavor in the air above the dish, the meat itself consisted of a few shards amid the slightly pedestrian tomato sauce.

I could very happily return for another sampling, perhaps checking out the torchio with artichokes and mint, or the crab ravioli, or the chicken and foie gras polpettone. Even the pork ribs and the chicken look pretty good.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Neighborhoods – West End

By a strange coincidence or cunning act of city planning, I find that the suburban development west of highway 100 and south of I-394, which lies 10 minutes from our house, has come to serve a variety of practical needs. The Health Partners office where I get my yearly physical has always been there, wedged between the highway and a long brick Novartis warehouse, and also the Taste of India restaurant. A Costco lies a hundred yards to the west, and a few years ago we began to pick up bulk items such as coffee, olive oil, organic lettuce, frozen spanikopita, Manchego cheese, and almonds there—not to mention the occasional deck chair, boxed DVD collection, ink jet cartridge, office chair or set of automobile tires. New strip malls have sprung up along the peripheral service roads boasting convenient haircut franchises, a Kinkos, and two Caribou Coffee outlets; and last year, in an effort to stave off the effects of all that spanikopita, I joined the health club at the end of the block. It was sort of like a neighborhood—but with absolutely no neighbors.

Two years ago, just before the economy went south, they tore down the Novartis warehouse and a shopping-entertainment complex rose from the rubble--it even had a pretentious name: The West End.

At night the entire area, with its faux streets and light foot-traffic (due to underground parking garages) looks like an abandoned set from Bladerunner. And I would not normally be likely to visit a restaurant with a name like Crave, one of the restaurants in the new complex. The name itself is a deterrent, conjuring images of affluent pseudo-barbarity. From the outside it could easily be mistaken for one of those pricy women’s clothing stores that masquerade as pre-Columbian art galleries, or perhaps a spa where you can unwind after a grueling day at the law office with a mud bath and a lecture about stopping to smell the roses. (In fact, there’s an Anthropologie store right across the street.)

We had planned to go to Cooper, another new restaurant in the complex run by Kieran Folliard, which looks like an enormous ersatz Victorian pub, and were naïve enough to imagine that because the place had been open only a week, it would be largely empty. We arrived at 6 PM to find there was a 90-minute wait. We wandered across the street to Crave and were lucky enough to get the last free table before the place filled up.

It was obvious from the get-go that Crave was a better place to be than Cooper, which is staggeringly noisy and very dark, but with a harsh white streetlight glare coming in through the window. Crave is well-lit and elegantly appointed, and though the tall blonde greeter gave my jeans a quick and unapproving glance, the rest of the evening was spent in the midst of relaxed cordiality.

In a recent interview in the Star Tribune, Kam Talebi, who runs the restaurant with his brother, Keyvan, remarked, "We feel very comfortable that the Crave concept has gotten traction in this local market. It is the value proposition that we're giving our customers -- they really walk away with that sort of high-end restaurant look and feel and experience, but they're not paying the dollars."

This reminds me of the infamous advertising slogan used the promote the Ford Edsel back in the 1950s: Want an expensive-looking car that’s really cheap?
But to tell you the truth, I found the atmosphere in Crave appealing. The noise level was moderate, the lighting was soft but not overly-subdued, and the people were certainly fun to watch. I had forgotten my reading glasses and ran into trouble when I walked over to examine the menu in a shaft of bright light shining down onto the bar, only to discover that the light was actually glowing from within the bar. Our waitress agreeably brought me a collection of ten sets of glasses that had been left since the restaurant opened, and I soon found one that worked fairly well.

The wines were uniformly overpriced but the martini I ordered as an end-around was good, albeit with little ice crystals floating in it. We were treating an old friend to dinner that night and ordered a sushi appetizer platter at his request which was ample and tasty. Hilary’s Chipolte barbeque chicken pizza was very fine, Norton’s Thai chicken pizza was perhaps slightly less impressive. I ordered a steak salade Nicoise which suffered a little from the fact that the “spring mix” lettuce had lost its “spring” almost entirely. The salad also lacked anchovies, though when I mentioned this to our waitress she promptly brought me a large bowl of them. Near the end of the meal she reappeared with some little cups of dessert for $2 a piece (a great idea!) and we sampled several.

Though it wasn’t what I would call cheap, all of this added up to a pleasant and memorable evening, and I almost have a hankering to go back for more. Maybe the baked truffle macaroni?

Next up: La Grassi and the North Loop

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Very Good Year

It’s always interesting when the post-game conversation is less about who won than whether they should have scored so much. (Or not.) Brett Favre threw a short touchdown pass to Visanthe Shiancoe with little less than two minutes to play in Minnesota’s lop-sided victory over the Dallas Cowboys, which seemed to some observers like gilding the lily. Or rubbing salt in the wound. Or running up the score. But when you’re trying to run out the clock, scoring seven points on fourth down would seem to be a safer strategy than attempting to hammer out another first down on the ground. Though some of the Cowboys referred to it as “classless” they might just as well have taken it as a sign of respect. Perhaps being ahead by only 24 struck the Vikings as dangerous when facing “the hottest team in football.” A lot can happen in 115 seconds, you know. And if the Cowboys had given up the game for lost, they wouldn’t have used their three time-outs and the game would already have been over.

What’s truly classless is for sportswriters such as Baltimore’s Larry Harris to remind us that way back in 1964, Cleveland Browns quarterback Frank Ryan totally destroyed the Baltimore Colts, 27-0, for the NFL championship. A few weeks later, Ryan was buried in a pile-up during the Pro Bowl and emerged with a severely discombobulated throwing shoulder. The Colts’ defensive end Gino Marchetti, whom Harris refers to as “great,” was part of that pile, and Harris presumes that the injury was inflicted in retaliation for the fact that the Browns had “run up the score” a few weeks earlier. A truly disgusting story if it happens to be true. Scoring points is part of football, after all. That’s what decides who the winner is, and that’s what the fans come to see. On the other hand, inflicting injury intentionally and maliciously out of spite or wounded pride is a matter for the police to investigate.

The first few weeks of the Vikings season consisted of Brett Favre handing off the ball to Adrian Peterson and throwing screens, but within a month under Favre’s experienced wing, the Vikings found themselves suddenly endowed with a full contingent of outstanding receivers including Shiancoe, Sidney Rice, and Percy Harvin—not to mention Bernard Berrian, who had formerly been the Vikings’ go-to guy. Favre was very good at seizing opportunities and he made very few mistakes, but it was truly astounding to watch the receivers pull in catches again and again that no one had made since the days when Randy Moss wore purple.

As the year progressed, opposing defenses did a good job of bottling up Peterson, though he still averaged 114 total yards per game and scored a league-leading 18 touchdowns, and the attention he received undoubtedly made it easier for Favre to find an open man downfield. Yet the victory over Dallas was a showcase for the defense, with the Vikings’ touchdowns slipping in here and there almost inadvertently. The end result is that even though the Vikings have defeated their last two venerable opponents, the Giants and the Cowboys, by a combined score of 78 – 10, they arrive in New Orleans as underdogs.

All well and good. They’re a respectable 11-0 on artificial turf this year. And we don’t need to worry about them getting infatuated by their own hype, because the story has always been mostly about Old Man Favre. However the game turns out, the season has been full of those remarkable football moments—classic broken-field runs and aerial displays—that kept me wandering back into the room to see what was going on.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Tákacs Quartet

There is something “magical” about attending a live musical performance. I am referring not to the degree of transport generated by the music itself, but to a sort of sympathetic magic along the order of “George Washington slept here.” Thus, "Yes, I heard the Tákacs Quartet perform a late Beethoven quartet the other night.” The performance was intriguing and thoughtful from beginning to end, more scratchy and argumentative and soaring but less deeply meditative than I am accustomed to hearing. Then again, the performers were a long ways away…and that makes it hard to pull off those sublimely interior moments.

Coincidentally, we had just a few days earlier purchased a new receiver. In case you’re too young to have lived through the age of stereo components, a receiver is a device—it can be part of a radio, television set, or telephone—that receives incoming signals and converts them to perceptible forms, such as sound or light. (I guess surround-sound packages have receivers even today.) We also used to call it the “tuner” and even the “amp.” The one we were using was certainly more than 40 years old—I think it belonged originally to Hilary’s parents—and it was well past its prime. A speaker would suddenly cease producing sound for half an hour, then spring to life once again, and the sound itself was haunted by an intermittent overlay of mumbly static. This had been going on for years. I am neither a “techie” nor an audiophile, but it was clear to me that something had to be done.

It came as a great relief, if not a total surprise, to find that the 100-watt Sony 2-channel audio receiver we purchased ($154) from a cheeky sales clerk at Best Buy returned the sound coming out of those little Bose bookshelf speakers to a place it hadn’t been for a long time. Wow! Yesterday I checked out a pristine CD of the Mozart and Brahms clarinet concertos from the library—two pieces I listened to so often in my youth that I wore them out and came to distain them (though I knew the problem was really with me, not them). Luscious sound, great old compositions. You begin to listen to every note, every nuance—to the very timbre of the reed and strings.

This is also how you listen in the concert hall—you don’t have much choice. And though the music is neither so loud nor so pure, the “liveness” adds excitement while the anticipation of how a given phrase will be turned keeps your mind from wandering too far from the thread of the action. You may have heard the piece a hundred times before, but never quite like they’re playing it tonight.

Even the distractions add to the evening’s entertainment.

I was sitting next to a retired Economics professor from the London School of Economics. I know this because I sat next to him a few years ago and he told me. An interesting fellow…but I didn’t want to cover that ground again, and he seemed to be engrossed in his program. (In other words, he doesn't consider me to be an interesting fellow.) A few rows in front of us I spotted the Schubert Club’s director, Kathleen von Bergen, wearing glasses with pale green frames and a sharp black-and-white print dress covered with hollow leaf and knot forms, almost like a wood-block print. Lively yet conservative. The plants on stage looked like giant green tropical clubs, with broad, rounded leaves staying very close to the stalk. At intermission we strolled around the upstairs lobby of the Ordway, looking out at the little white lights strewn through the trees in the park across the street and the huge cloud of luminescent white steam continually erupting from the power plant down the way.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Three Winter Films

Supposing you had a hankering to see an off-beat film, maybe at an art-house theater, on a cold winter night when things were looking sort of glum. Your best bet, I think, or at least a very good one, would be Me and Orson Welles. New York theater life circa 1937, with a pleasantly yellowed but still colorful cinematography, one or two romances, and the young Orson Welles at the center of it all, as seen through the eyes of a high school kid who inadvertently lands a part in the Mercury Theatre’s landmark production of Julius Caesar.

Back when I was a kid, Orson Welles was just a name we heard now and again, and wondered why. Then his face began to appear in Gallo wine commercials. When I asked my parents who he was, they described him as an over-rated has-been, a failed talent, and I got the impression they considered him more than a little disreputable, maybe because he was so fat. Nevertheless I was intrigued, and not long afterward, while I was thumbing through an Everest Records catalog, I spotted two LPs that piqued my curiosity. One was of Welles doing his famous radio broadcast of War of the Worlds, and the other had his recitation of selections from Leaves of Grass. I bought them both. Great stuff! I can’t imagine anyone doing Whitman’s exuberant expansiveness greater justice. (I’d put the disc on right now if I had a turntable hooked up.)

I saw Citizen Kane for the first time a few years later in stifling summer heat on a folding chair in the basement of a church in Dinkytown—a 16 mm showing sponsored by the Zanadu Film Society. Though the conditions were not ideal, and the film seemed rather brittle emotionally, it also struck me a powerhouse of narrative ingenuity, and from there was on to lesser delights such as Touch of Evil and The Lady from Shanghai. I came eventually to the conclusion that Welles’s finest films, apart from Kane, were his low-budget versions of Othello and Chimes at Midnight.

Welles was an ass and a ham, and he knew it. His films depict people of a similar stripe who get their comeuppance in one way or another, after they’ve been showing off on stage or screen for an hour or two. This same appealing and unbearable swagger has been captured in Me and Orson Welles by Christian McKay, who also happens to look a lot like the young Welles. But the film has a broader focus than Welles himself, and when you get right down to it, it’s a better film than most of Welles’s own productions. Nothing overly intense or melodramatic, but it keeps on flowing from start to finish. And Zak Efron, who plays the kid, succeeds in acting mature enough to command the attention of his theatrical colleagues while making it clear to us that he knows he’s in a little over his head.

And speaking of coming-of-age films, how about An Education, which follows a few months on the life of a middle-class English high school girl circa 1960 who’s pinned her hopes on scoring well in exams and going to Oxford? Well, in fact her father has been drilling that aspiration into her for years, and she doesn’t really buy it. Through a series of coincidences she forms an attachment with a man quite a bit older than she is, and he introduces her to all kinds of exciting things, from art auctions and jazz clubs to West End concerts at which they play Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro”—harp music, no less! Carey Mulligan, in the role of the young woman, is flawlessly intelligent, cocky, and naïve, and Peter Sarsgaard, as her suitor, is no less successful at conveying the type of artless gentlemanliness that would win someone like her over. Alfred Molina, as the domineering dad, offers a less nuanced performance, which is too bad. (I think back to the dad in Bend It Like Beckam, a much more believable and sympathetic character.) But the center of the piece holds, more than a little weird and mysterious, as the “boyfriend” seems to be involved in a lot of shady business transactions and it’s hard to imagine that anything good will come out of the relationship.

It may be worth noting, matters of romance and disappointment aside, that both of these films remind us that some young people simply love literature, music, art, theater, refined emotion, and all the rest…and find it hard to see where (and why) their elders have lost sight of it all.

Yet both films are period pieces, straight-ahead narratives, wonderfully presented though altogether “conventional” in design. If you’re looking for something more contemporary (and farther from the mainstream) you may be tempted by the new Almadóvar film, Broken Embraces.

Yet it seems that Almadóvar has settled into his own “mainstream.” If you like his earlier films, you’ll probably like this one, though it’s his weakest since Live Flesh (1997). It has all the beautiful women, drugs, homosexuals and/or transvestites, and veneer of cheerful normalcy that we’ve come to expect from him, but it has few of the inspired visual or thematic quirks that add a final touch of absurdity and carry us to the next level. The revelations are not terribly shocking and the emotional valences are sheer “soap.” Penelope Cruz may be the most voluptuous and “watchable” foreign actress of our time but it’s hard to make out much depth of character beneath her lovely expression. (Whatever happened to the riveting sternness of Franke Potenta?) And Lluís Homar, in the role of the screenwriter, is really kind of wooden—even in the flashbacks, when he isn’t blind. Then again, a few of the plot elements remain inexplicable. For example, who ripped up those photographs? Who crashed into that car?

Though it seems that the “La Movida” has finally stopped moving, I must say that even as I describe this film, I start to feel like seeing it again.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Man at Play

A steady stream of books have been appearing recently suggesting that religious faith, regardless of the truth or error of the specific dogmas upon which it is based, has served a useful purpose in the evolution of mankind. One such offering is The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures by Nicholas Wade (Penguin Press; 310 pp; $25.95.) Another is The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (Little Brown; 567 pp; $25.99).

I doubt if it would be worthwhile to read such books (576 pages?) because life is short, time is limited, and evolution has proven itself capable of taking care of itself. We don’t need to know why religious faith may serve an evolutionary function. In fact, it such a function exists, it can only be maintained by faith and practice—not by the reasons a few intellectuals uncover in support of the phenomenon. Knowing too much about such things might even undermine their effectiveness.

To judge from the reviews I’ve read, Nicholas Wade is suggesting that the adaptive value of religion is two-fold. It provides social cohesion through shared ritual and ecstatic experience, and it also offers a moral code that makes it easier for us to behave civilly and raise our children to do the same. A few problems arise. Ecstatic communion seldom squares with moral injunctions. And in any case, the benefits Wade mentions are unlikely to accrue unless we can find it within ourselves to breathe new life into outworn myths and threadbare liturgical practices—and many modern folk find that very difficult to do.

Robert Wright returns again to the win-win game theory that drove his earlier book, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny, but his thesis is similar to Wade’s. He argues that religious doctrines has grown more tolerant with the passage of time as an expanding network of political and commercial ties has developed between tribes, sects, and nations. He also considers it a great achievement that religions have been able to expand the “moral imagination” from time to time, and he supplies a wealth of examples to bolster that claim. He seems to be saying that peace and prosperity are good things, and if religion can supply the social lubrication to keep the machinery functioning, that’s all the better.

Yet on the fact of it, Wright’s vision of the impact of religious life doesn’t square completely with the chronicle of brutal wars, inquisitions, expulsions, and enslavements that we associate with religious history. In any case, such materialistic treatments remain a little hollow, if not entirely uninteresting, because they sidestep the compelling question of whether any particular line of religious belief has merit on a personal level. The species will probably survive regardless of what scheme you or I come up with to describe our own state vis-a-vis the wider universe. Yes, tribal dancing is great, and so are incense, yoga, the Latin Mass, Anglican hymns, and the ten commandments. Yet when we quiver in our beds, wondering what it is that will make our own lives more meaningful, discussions of gene pools, adaptation, and social solidarity simply don’t have much purchase. What we really want to know is, Is there a God, and if there is, how can I get to know him better? It seems to me that, matters of evolutionary merit aside, there is also a lot to be said for the Logos contained in myth, scripture, mystical literature and even theological hairsplitting. That’s where the real interest in religion lies.

Hegel once described history as God’s autobiography. Alexander Herzen, the great Russian liberal, described history (in a novel) as the autobiography of a madman. But let us suppose that God is a madman ... at least some of the time. And we are the makers of history, as I hope you are aware. Put it all into the stew pot, along with the beef and the prunes and the lemon peel, and what have you got? Theology!

This may sound like a frivolous remark. I suppose it is. But any serious inquiry, even into the fundamentals of life, could probably be enlivened by a dash of frivolity. And while I have avoided reading about the evolutionary utility of religion and win-win game theory, I have not shrunk from reading entirely. No, I’ve been paging through an old paperback copy of Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (Man at Play) that I came across while doing some year-end weeding of books in the basement.

Huizinga’s thesis is that most of our important social activities once contained an element of play that has largely disappeared from them. I suppose this is just as well with regard to the exercise of justice and the conduct of war, but in the realm of religious theory and philosophical speculation we might still benefit from such an accent. A few nuggets:

Experimental child-psychology has shown that a large part of the questions put by a six-year-old are actually of a cosmogonic nature, as for instance: What makes water run? Where does the wind come from? etc.

As civilization develops, the riddle branches out in two directions: mystic philosophy on the one hand and recreation on the other... [Thus] civilization gradually brings about a certain division between two modes of mental life which we distinguish as play and seriousness respectively, but which originally formed a continuous mental medium wherein that civilization arose.

Myth ... is the appropriate vehicle for primitive man’s ideas about the cosmos. In it, the line between the barely conceivable and the flatly impossible has not yet been drawn with any sharpness.... Living myth knows no line between play and seriousness. Only when myth has become mythology, that is, literature, born along as traditional lore by a culture which has in the meantime more or less outgrown the primitive imagination, only then will the contrast between play and seriousness apply to myth—and to its detriment.

In our own delightfully fragmented age, the sources of potential inspiration are almost limitless. This morning I downloaded a fairly high resolution photograph released just yesterday of parts of space containing nascent galaxies that formed 13.7 billion years ago—which is quite close to the origin of the universe we inhabit. It boggles the mind. But this afternoon I opened a book of poems by the Tang poet Po Chü-I.

Here at incense mountain, already old, I walk out into night
For the first time, meet autumn’s first pellucid round of moon.

Thinking this, this is surely my home-mountain moon now,
I try asking such radiant clarity if it might feel the same way.

A man twelve hundred years ago, alone, talking to the moon. It isn’t a great poem, perhaps, but I hear him and know pretty well what he’s feeling and “where he’s at.” I ask you, now, Which connection is deeper? Which takes us farther? Opens our vision and gladdens our hearts?

Monday, January 4, 2010

Happy (Frozen) New Year

We greeted the new year with a few days of solitude on the North Shore, where the stars are bright at night and the steam rises from the frothy lake into the frigid air all day. It’s an annual pilgrimage to a land without computers, telephones, or televisions—just a little music at dinner time, and the roaring of waves or the silence of the deep forest broken by the guttural caw of a raven or the chatter of a distant squirrel.

Dinner time itself can become a little more elaborate, especially when the very cold weather cuts the skiing short. (The pimento salad with capers and garlic was especially tasty.)
Driving up the backroads into the hills above the lake at -15 degrees to an empty parking lot, we began to wonder if there was anyone out here except us. I neglected to pack my Norwegian fish-net long johns, but it doesn’t matter much. Yet a double hat and a good scarf are essential.

The cabin we stayed at was a few miles north of Lutsen, and we made it a point to “do” a few of the nearby trails, which included sections of Deer Yard, Moose Fence, Bally Creek (where wolfs and moose are spotted fairly often, or so we’ve been told) and the Cedar Woods loop at Cascade River State Park. (The afternoon sun cutting through the crisp air into the shadows of those mighty cedars was sublime.)

The lodge above our cabin had a hot tub and we made use of it every day to cut the chill that had crept in during the ski. The cabin itself had a number of minor flaws, and one major one: the floor was covered with bright faux-wooden plastic strips, which clashed with the rustic charm of the rest of the cabin and undercut its coziness. Because the aged floor was pitched at a slant and the chairs were on wheels, it was also difficult to sit at the table without drifting off toward the opposite side of the room. An oval rag rug would have improved the place immeasurably.

I’m not complaining. But one of the requirements of any cabin is comfortable seating. How else are you going to make a dent in that large stack of books you’ve brought along?