On Wednesday night, more than 100 guests filled the Lexington’s wood-paneled, leaded glass, fire-lit Williamsburg Room in honor of the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s first-annual Fancy Hotdish Competition, a joint effort put together by two of the city’s most timeless institutions after noting that -- among a bevy of silly events -- the Carnival festivities lacked anything for foodies.
Pacing the room in anticipation of hotdish-riche, members of the Royal Family and devotees of the Lex all bided their time to sample cheffed-up takes on something that epitomizes Minnesota eating, yet also perfectly fits the Supreme Court’s definition of obscenity: we know it when we see it.
As an outsider grown tired of feeling like Sally Carrol, forever lost in a confounding Ice Palace, I’d wrenched open the Lex’s doors to try to better understand these frozen plains and their people. I figured, where better to find Minnesota’s (edible) heart than an exercise in oxymoronic cooking, co-sponsored by a 132-year-old fairytale tradition created in no small part to thumb their noses at East Coast snobbery?
The rules of the showdown itself were simple. Six judges -- Jess Fleming, Jack Riebel, Marjorie Johnson, Bob Kowalski, King Boreas of the Royal House of Fury Motors, and the Queen of the Snows of the Royal House of Partytime Liquors -- would choose their favorite fancy hotdish behind closed doors, while free-grazing attendees selected the “people’s choice” winner.
Though the temptation to go straight for the jugular covering an event like this was strong -- I was in a room full of folks paying $50 per person to eat from to-go ramekins with plastic forks -- to do so would be both unkind and unenlightening. I sought warmth and, moreover, to know the method to the world’s madness.
My first target was a man bellied up to the bar with a very fancy hat festooned with vintage buttons. His name was Dick Schlaefer. This hat was a reconstruction of a first that had been stolen long ago. Gotta love a guy who’ll make the same hat twice.
“They’re all Vulcan buttons,” he says. “My father was Vulcanus Rex. I never got into the Carnival myself. It costs a lot of money, and so much time… I was a chef. Y’know, restaurants take all your time.”
When asked what he was hoping for in a fancy hotdish, Dick didn’t hesitate: “No kale. And I want the right crunch from the potatoes. To feel all the layers of starch, like the potatoes at French Laundry.” Whether he’d actually eaten at French Laundry was moot. I appreciate the man’s very specific textural standards.
I posed the same question to Jill, a loner with drink in-hand who seemed to relish her corner of a grey chesterfield near the fireplace. “Nothing bland. I hope they don’t use cream-of-something soup…"
Jill then told me a secret: Not all Minnesotans like hotdish. Her neighbors growing up called it “ish-dish.” How could an endlessly customizable meal be wholly unsalvageable? I laughed like a maniac, waving goodbye to my mind as it wandered into the whiteout of my soul.
Before total hotdish nihilism engulfed me, I headed for the corner where Marjorie Johnson, the Blue Ribbon Baker herself, held court like the Perennial Queen she is. After nearly a century of schooling the world all things baked, Royals and churls alike waited patiently for an audience. If anyone had simple answers to complex problems disguised as food, surely it was Marjorie.
“What would be the cardinal sin of this hotdish competition?” I asked, genuflecting to meet her at eye-level.
“I don’t like hot things,” she replied. “I hope these don’t have a lot of those red pepper flakes, or whatever they are. I’m in the minority, because most people like those things.”
This brush with true Minnesota royalty left me hiding behind a grand piano, whereupon I took to photographing a room full of money in outfits. Just then, a broad man wearing head-to-toe white fur, jewels, and a blue and white crown gently ceded the lane to two servers. He caught my eye, realizing I’d seen their non-encounter, and said aloud to himself, “You gotta be careful,” while shrugging at me.
He was right. Plus, there was at least one scimitar somewhere in the crowd.
A few minutes later, I caught up to that disco polar bear, hoping to meet the most polite king the world has ever known. “Oh I’m not the King. I’m Bob, Prince of the North Wind.” I asked how he’s holding up through the extended revelry (this year’s Carnival runs 17 days instead of the usual ten – thanks, Super Bowl!). What About Bob jokes ensued.
“We’re on day… 11? Twelve? The Carnival’s over Sunday. I had yesterday off! But I had to shovel the driveway.”
He looked tired.
When I mentioned it would have been quite the sight to see him shoveling in his current get-up, I swear an actual light bulb flicked on above his head, like a cartoon. This, and the mention of the wide variety of flavors in the meal to come, really perked him up.
Parting ways, I warmed myself with the notion that at least one of the Royals shovels his own driveway, and still wears sweatpants.
As the cocktail hour drew to a close, the competition’s judges assembled at a clean white tablecloth beneath a painting of a golden eagle in a cravat. The Queen served. Jack Riebel took issue with a spot-on passive-aggressive note on the table reading “Please cut don’t scoop — Thanks!” Out of nowhere, bone marrow appeared on the table. It was not in a casserole dish.
Meanwhile, guests upstairs wobbled between chairless high-tops and banquet tables. Chefs from Joan’s in the Park, The Lexington, St. Paul Grill, Kowalski’s, Revival, Red Cow, and Pajarito spooned out mini portions of the same stuff, sans bone marrow. Droppings littered the floor. The bar remained popular.
Traversing the two levels felt like navigating my own version of Titanic, where everyone was… fine with their new iceberg life. There was plenty to eat here, despite the shortage of deck chairs.
Red Cow’s team (Trevis Langley and Craig Johnson) ultimately swept first place in both judge’s and people’s choice categories. Their smoked beef short rib, cream of porcini, mushroom romanesco, pea, and carrot concoction, topped off with a sheep’s milk arancini truffle “faux tot,” proved an elevated take on the classic form, where other teams took Asian or spicy routes. Johnson and Langley lifted their etched casserole dish trophies overhead like WWE belts before issuing modest victory yawps. At the end of the night, they could be found standing in the corner eating their competition, which they intended as a compliment.
On my way out, Dick-of-the-button-hat found me across the room.
“I just remembered! In addition to all those places I worked, I was a busboy here, 30 years ago."
“Does it feel different?”
“The Lexington hasn’t changed at all, but in other ways… It’s the same but so different. And here I am.”
The room, this entire event, had collapsed into this one beaming man. Telling him I thought as much – ticking off on my fingers: his dad, his culinary experience, where we stood — he blushed a little before laughing it off.
“All of St. Paul is like that.”
“Yeah, but that’s neat. Have you ever left St. Paul?”
“I was in Minneapolis for a bit?” He paused. “I’m happy. I love my life. And Red Cow’s hotdish is exactly what I was looking for. Their truffled arancini…”
He trailed off in ecstasy.
I’d overheard many a person mistake it for a (great) cheesy tater tot. But not Dick. Never Dick. That guy just gets it.