Minwanjige Café

10 10 2008

by Alison Welwood with edits from Emily Larson

Minwanjige Cafe - by Alison WelwoodWithin the last few years, the Minwanjige Café has established itself as a destination restaurant: a lunch spot for visitors and locals alike with a cozy and welcoming atmosphere. This is perhaps why the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Native Harvest use the café to promote tourism at the White Earth Indian Reservation. The café itself displays the strong bond within the White Earth community, shown through its support of local producers as the menu is based on local ingredients. “We use as much local produce as possible, but some ingredients (such as cheese) are too hard to get locally, simply because there is no one on the Reservation who makes them,” said Keira, of Native Harvest’s Farm to School program, who works with the café to order the few ingredients needed from outside the reserve.

Chef Jenise Skramstad works closely with producers on or near White Earth to purchase the local ingredients. She also grows produce in the garden behind the café. The café features unique products like freshly roasted Muskrat Coffee, a brand owned by Native Harvest. Muskrat Coffee is a mix of beans from all around the world, purchased from fair trade suppliers. The café roasts the beans on-site, serving its customers an eclectic mix of rich flavors. The café also sells many other Native Harvest products, including wild rice harvested on the reserve and wild rice products like their famous wild rice cake mix. Other unique items include their homemade salad dressings, jams and maple butter.

The Minwanjige Café is a humble little log cabin on the edge of one of White Earth’s many forests. It exudes a homey and homemade feel, reflected by the handmade Native American crafts and goods lining the walls. The smell of the current day’s lunch fills the café, patiently waiting to entice anyone who enters. The dining area of the café consists of about eight wooden tables that fit tightly together in the largest portion of the single room dining room. Jenise and Keira greeted us kindly when we entered. We assumed they both were staff members, but found later that only Jenise is officially staff. Jenise served several White Earth locals who had stopped by for lunch, and Keira sat down with us to enjoy a delicious meal.

Chef Jenise Skramstad - Alison WelwoodThere are no menus in the café because there is only one lunch item served each day. The café is usually only open for lunch, but now serves dinner occasionally. Because the café uses almost all local ingredients, menu options are more limited. Thus, it’s much simpler to have a flexible, easily adaptable menu. “I usually decide what to make either the night before or in the morning, and usually whatever I’m in the mood for is what I make,” explained Jenise. “There’s always a soup and a sandwich with a side salad when I can get vegetables from the garden.” Unfortunately, food sourced as locally as your own garden has a disadvantage: it’s not available year round.

The menu also changes based on the interaction between individuals in the community. Bill Paulson, a local wild rice harvester and miller joined us for lunch. By the end of the meal, a couple of wild rice harvesters stopped by the café hoping to make an exchange. Local producers often drop by with produce for sale. It is these exchanges that help diversify the menu. Jenise uses ingredients until the café either runs out or there is a new purchase of different ingredients. Thus, the menu at Minwanjige Café changes according to the season, interactions with local producers, and the inspiration of Jenise.

On this sunny autumn day, Jenise probably based the meal of the day around the buffalo meat she recently purchased. The lunch of the day was wild rice and buffalo soup, served with a cheddar cheese and turkey sandwich on a homemade bun, and a side salad. As soon as the food was brought to the table, it was easy to imagine yourself sitting at your grandmother’s kitchen table enjoying her famous home-cooked soup. The soup was brothy with tender pieces of braised buffalo meat from a local buffalo farm, locally-harvested wild rice, and potatoes from a local organic potato farmer. The salad was a compilation of freshly picked vegetables and greens from the café’s garden, served with a choice of Native Harvest dressings. The bread for the Minwanjige "Plate" - by Alison Welwoodsandwiches came from the oven just minutes before. “I put them outside to try and cool them off enough to cut, they’re still a little warm,” warned Jenise. No warning was necessary, however, as their wheaty scent and soft texture amplified the flavor of the sandwich. The meal itself was every bit as delicious as its smell foreshadowed when we first arrived. We completed the perfect meal with a couple baskets of large assorted cookies, freshly baked that morning.

The café isn’t regularly open for breakfast, but we were invited for a late morning meal the next day. When we arrived, we found that Jenise had woken up early to begin preparing for us. She had incorporated many of the same ingredients from our lunch the day before into our breakfast. We enjoyed a spread of wild rice porridge made with Bill Paulson’s rice, pure maple syrup from Native Harvest, the same local, organic potatoes, sausage, egg bake, ripe apples and freshly baked bread toasted and served with Native Harvests maple butter. To drink, we had Muskrat Coffee and fresh juice. As we ate, Jenise prepared the kitchen for lunch. Two of her daughters helped at the café, having fun assisting their mother, and of course, enjoying the delectable breakfast.

Locally sourced food is, of course, better tasting and noticeably fresher than food flown from miles away. In addition to the better food, the Minwanjige Café’s support of local producers economically strengthens White Earth’s community.  Community building is apparent in almost every aspect of the café. By purchasing locally and encouraging friendly working relations with its local producers, Minwanjige Café serves as an example to other rural establishments who work towards sustainable practices and, of course, a successful restaurant that serves delicious food.

To view more photos see the Minwanjige Cafe slideshow.

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