Northern Exposure: Ingenuity Thrives Among Foodies in Superior, Duluth
By Mary Bergin | Photos By Mary Bergin 0
When I get to know Mary Germinaro, it is through nods and hand signals. I point to my camera, and she grins with delight. When I take an interest in her work, she reaches for an exquisitely ripened tomato. Now both of us are grinning.
We meet in Superior, far-north Wisconsin, where Mary’s job for two decades has been filling plastic four-packs with the beefsteak Superior Tomato, grown year-round in the greenhouses of Bay Produce, part of the Challenge Center that helps developmentally disabled adults help themselves.
About two dozen workers—including Mary, who is deaf and has cerebral palsy—attentively follow these tomatoes from seedling to packaging. The unconventional fruit makes its way into high-end restaurants, average delis, grocery stores and hospital cafeterias. Up to 100 cases (each with at least 22 tomatoes) are harvested and shipped daily.
Demand tends to exceed supply. The success of the beefsteak led to the added production of grape tomatoes and sweet peppers—red, yellow and green—and what began as a one-half acre greenhouse project in 1990 has since tripled in size.
“It’s very easy to sell our tomatoes,” says Debbie Gergen, work services director. “We are recognized for our quality.”
I eat the Superior Tomato in a salad at the New Scenic Cafe in Two Harbors, Minn., just outside of Duluth, and in a seafood sandwich at the Angry Trout in Grand Marais, 100 miles farther north. Bay Produce customers extend into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and as far west as Fargo, N.D.
“People want to know the story behind their food,” Debbie observes. “We’re the safe tomato – vine-ripened in a monitored environment.” Anyone—college graduate students, first graders, vacationing families— can and have toured the operation, by appointment.What they see is far beyond a few rows of spindly stalks weighed down by plump bounty.
The tomato plants hang thick and high in greenhouses, neatly looping around and around, some growing 30 to 35 feet in length before replaced by younger plants.The roof will open to lessen humidity. Computers regulate temperature and watering. Water is recycled: nutrients are added to whatever the hydroponic plants don’t absorb, then reused. A curtain of shade eases the impact of harsh sunlight; artificial lighting may glow 16 hours daily during the dark of winter.
Employees thin out plant leaves and fruit, so the produce that remains will grow to the desired size. Then they pluck what is ready for shipment. Others sort the harvest by size and quality, prepare boxes for packaging, add stickers to single-sale tomatoes and peppers. They weigh the finished products, be it cases or four-packs of the beefsteaks, or eight-ounce containers of grape tomatoes.
A job treat is to take turns eating lunch with Henk Vandenbrink, an astute tomato grower from Holland, a country which Debbie describes as “the hub for tomato growing in the world.” She refers to Henk as “the captain of our ship” because “he knows the plants and what’s going on with them. He sets the temperature, decides when the roof opens, how many leaves need to be taken off of the plants.Whatever we need for excellent production.”
“We are a business and try to stay efficient,” Debbie says. All tomatoes— the perfect, the oddly shaped, those with splits and those that leave the vine too green—have a sales market. Ripened tomatoes find their way into hoagies at the Northern Waters Smokehaus, just over the John A. Blatnik Bridge that joins Superior with Duluth. Owner Eric Goerdt specializes in sausages and cured meats as well as locally caught salmon that is smoked, spiced and served by the sandwich or pound. The Cajun spiked version goes over especially well.
I don’t notice the tomatoes at Betty’s Pies, about 25 miles north of Duluth, because I was woefully distracted by a wedge of five-layer butterscotch pie. Betty’s has been fattening its clientele since 1956.
I mentioned the tomatoes eaten at New Scenic Cafe, but neglected to acknowledge that, in addition to supporting area farmers, cafe owner Scott Garden has an “in” with the cheesemakers. My favorite early summer treat: goat cheese cake. A work of art, topped with berries and garnished with tiny flower petals.
After stopping to smell the roses, literally, at Leif Erickson Park in Duluth (which contains more than 3,000 rose bushes), it’s logical to treat the taste buds with a thick shake from PortLand Malt Shoppe. Both overlook Lake Superior downtown, merely one-half mile apart. Before leaving town, I encounter the Superior Tomato (the grape version) one more time at Duluth’s Solglimt Lakeshore B&B, an ecoprogressive business operated by Brian and Mary Grover, located near the iconic Aerial Lift Bridge.
The innkeepers reduced or eliminated MSG, other food preservatives, scents and chemicals in cleaning supplies many years ago because of Brian’s severe allergic reactions. “I’d eat something with seasoned salt and be sick for 16 hours,” he says. So now guests benefit, too, and enjoy Brian’s food artistry.
Mary cooks but Brian garnishes, molding a ribbon of tomato into the shape of a delicate rose to place atop my green eggs (a blanched spinach scramble) and organic ham.
Three-course breakfasts are typical at Solglimt (Danish for “sun that glistens”), and the Grovers’ enthusiasm for fresh, from-scratch recipes is matched by the eagerness of other Duluth foodies to organize urban farm tours (gardens, edible forests, bee hives and/or city chickens) and encourage college students to plant vegetables on the rooftops of lecture halls.
Deb Shubat, a fruit farmer on 15 acres and key farmers market organizer, is responsible for the latter. She also teaches horticulture classes at the University of Minnesota at Duluth (UMD) and oversees activity at the campus greenhouse and leading tours on weekdays by appointment. Visitors see water chestnuts growing in a tank, and, most surprisingly, trees that do not belong this far north, mangoes, bananas, figs and pineapple, all growing under controlled conditions.
“It’s a permanent collection of plants from all over the world,” Deb explains, and free cuttings sometimes are possible.
I meet her on a farmers market Wednesday, in front of the UMD Kirby Student Center, where she sells apples, pears and plums as summer turns to fall. She and a friend recall the area’s first food co-op, which started in the basement of a commune in the 1970s, and revel about how the area’s local food movement has progressed.
“Duluth has a big group of people who want to push for regional sustainability,” Deb assures.
The growing season may be stunted because of the northern climate, but serious foodies insist they can, nevertheless, grow more than they are able to eat.