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Northern Comfort – A Barn Dinner with Northern Waters Smokehaus

On July 22, 2017, we welcome you to another Smokehaus/Hemlock Preserve collaboration at the barn in Esko.

We can’t help but reminisce.

It’s August 2015, a heady day amid a heady summer, and I am slogging through piles of prep in the Smokehouse. There are smokers, dishwashers, managers, prep people, and miscellaneous fishermen who need their fish custom-smoked endlessly pouring in and out of the long oblong space, slipping on the moist bricks of the kitchen floor and talking as loud as they can in order to be heard above the clamber of our industrial fans and Daft Punk. Fresh smoke is in the air from a recent truck (a large, rolling cart that has little shelves to load perforated racks for smoking) of smoked pork shoulder, which is cooling magnificently in the center of the room, a white-handled Dexter knife placed on the top rack beside a chunk that has been hacked off and savored. I’m “supervising” cornbread: Eric’s recipe, which includes lovely fresh corn off the cob and lovelier butter and cream, needs to be backed in batches and served while still warm to guests 45 miles and 2 hours away. We have heirloom tomatoes to delicately dismantle, Octo-Vin (fresh and unashamedly from the pages of the Momofuku cookbook) to make, herbs to pick, pasta salad to season, servers to wrangle, and the almighty “gather” list to attend to. I’ve got an empty stomach, a torn t-shirt and filthy apron, and it’s about time to load up.
On the way to Esko, just as we crest Thompson Hill, I get a frantic call from my partner in crime, April. She can’t account for the Octo-Vin – and neither can I, so I scramble to the back of my Volvo as my husband continues speeding towards our destination, and I’m digging through towels and warm (read:hot) cast iron skillets of cornbread and adorable menu cards that Flo magically whipped up and I touch a mystery Cambro, extract it from its nesting place – and voila! – our not-so-secret sauce. “Good news,” I tell April over the Volvo’s failing muffler, “I found the Octo-Vin.” “We need ice!” April laughs. We’re pretty used to these situations – we kind of live for them.
There’s a little cloud of dust as we turn down the dirt road toward Hemlock Preserve, obscuring the brambly ditch weeds and meandering path for a few minutes, but we make the turn toward Sue Watt’s estate and everything becomes clear. Two straight rows of pale pebbles guides our tire, a manicured strip of hyperactive green grass down the center. Our kitchen – a ten-by-ten foot tent that we use during farmers markets along with a propane-powered set of turkey fryers and a few folding tables smartly lined with Epicurean cutting boards – is pretty much ready for action and we pull up to unload. I leave the Volvo empty handed in order to get the lay of the land and walk toward the barn.
The barn – white, stately, adorned with Rhododendrons – I haven’t seen it for a few months, when it was closed off for the season. Now it is in full blossom. It is elegant and country, mismatched and perfectly appointed, it is the Henri Matisse of barns – it is natural but it is secretly, expertly organized. Every nook and cranny is a still life. The sunlight is somehow captured in the vaulted holiness of the barn’s wooden ceiling arches, and I get the feeling I am smelling hay from pre-war Minnesota. There is twinkling from the silverware and creaking from the floorboards. Ned has started to tune up his guitar and starts playing a Pavement song gently to himself. This is perfect. I think this to myself, but I’m saying it out loud, and everyone else is saying it too.
The food that follows has no choice – it is also perfect, as are the guests, the drinks, the wacky chauffeur, the soft ice cream, the distant lightening. This place is like that – inexplicably, effortlessly glorious. The day’s preparations, anxieties, arguments and oversights have vanished into the evening, drifting down the meadow into the St. Louis River Valley with the embers of our bonfire, soaked up and overturned by our guests and their laughter.
We invite you to join us once again to Hemlock Preserve. Dinner will be served – fried chicken and fixings – as well as drinks and dessert. We figure we all deserve a little Northern Comfort.

Hemlock Preserve barn with table by Sue Watt, dinner by Northern Waters Smokehaus, and menu cards by Flo.