Bean Boy II

October 3, 2010

I had some great bean soup at Mickey’s Diner in St. Paul, MN yesterday afternoon. I guess Mickey’s has been there for a long, long time. It’s a classic train-car diner—a real train car (but built to be a diner) as opposed to what you see more typically these days. The bean soup is made with navy beans and small bits of diced smoked ham. It’s a little salty but smoky and very tasty and it really hit the spot after getting of the airplane a little bit past the proper lunch hour.

If you do travel (and I’m not saying you should) I think it’s a good thing to suss out the local joints like Mickey’s—the ones that have been there forever and that have been part of defining the landmarks (physical and cultural) that make a locale into a genuine place. This trip to the twin cities will be memorable in part because of our quick trip to Mickey’s, and also because we stayed in the St. Paul Hotel and had dinner at the St. Paul Grill. The St. Paul Hotel is celebrating its centennial this year. Neither it nor the restaurant qualifies as quite the landmark that Mickey’s is. The hotel was closed in the 70s and the reopened in the mid-80s after a dramatic renovation. Nonetheless, I’m not going to quibble about the “centennial” thing. Both the hotel and the restaurant qualify as touchstones for local Twin Cities culture, even if there was a bit of a hiatus.

Some if the food that you will encounter in these local landmarks is actually not all that good. If you don’t know Cincinnati chili, for example, you really should sample some Skyline and some Gold Star just to get a bit of the local controversy (which is better?) for a half century or so. But I’m not sure that this needs to something you continue to do on your third or fourth trip to Cincy. In Buffalo, you might want to try a roast beef on weck, or a Texas Red Hot, but for many tastes once will be enough.

Any restaurant trying to convey a Minnesota food history will be serving some wild rice soup. The version Diane tried at the St. Paul Grill was pretty good. As for bean soup, there is a famous version that comes from the U.S. Senate cafeteria. I’m told Campbell’s Soup tried to copy it with their Bean and Bacon variety. Mickey’s version was a lot like the stuff my Mom used to make when I was growing up. Navy beans and ham was one of the “standards” at our house, and one of the things she did quite well. Despite all that, I used to drown my bowl in enough catsup to turn the whole thing into a vaguely tomatoish looking goulash. And I think I would inevitably scarf down two bowls.

Maybe that’s why I developed an alter ego called “Bean Boy II” during the rap era. A legend in my own mind, I’m always fronting some kind of air band in my daydreams, and strangely, several of them have a food connection. First there was “Bloody Gravy”, an actual band (with two, count ‘em, two paying gigs) in the 1970s. Then I toyed with a blues and bluegrass group that we thought we might call “The Spent Hens” when I lived in Texas. When my kids were teenagers, it never got farther than a three second recording on a little give-away key-chain memory device where I sang “They call me Bean Boy II”. Did the declining ambition and accomplishment of my musical alter-egos represent realism or a continuing delusional state?

Lucinda Williams sings:

I found the love I was lookin’ for…

It’s a true love, a real love.

Standin’ behind an electric guitar…

It’s a true love, a real love.

This week I’m in St. Peter, MN for the Gustavus Adolphus Nobel Conference. (You can watch it live on the Internet!) They say it’s the only place where college professors get treated like rock stars.

Rock on, Fat Elvis.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agriculture and Food Ethics at Michigan State University