By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 1999 Gourmet Magazine
I doubt there is another restaurant like this anywhere in the Twin Cities area,” Grace Gibas says across an oilcloth-covered table in Carol’s Calico Kitchen. “Carol serves the kind of food you never get tired of eating.” We take a bite of Carol’s supremely mild Amish chicken and it quickly becomes apparent that Gibas—former publisher of and reporter for The Circulating Pines, the weekly newspaper that she and her husband, Andy, founded in 1950 and ran until the presses stopped in 1994—definitely knows what’s what on both sides of Minnesota’s Chain of Lakes.
The Gibases have lived in Circle Pines, which began as a cooperative community in 1948, longer than anyone else. It is the big town (population 4,705) adjacent to Lexington (population 2,179), where the Calico Kitchen has thrived for 16 years. We hadn’t met Grace Gibas prior to lunch, but she had introduced herself to us in a mouthwatering letter that described her favorite café as our kind of place.
When we spotted it by the side of the road, where it adjoins Ray’s Small Engine Repair and Vintage Rose Floral Gifts in a low-slung, blond-brick building in front of the Paul Revere Mobile Manor community of manufactured homes, our hearts soared along with our appetites. As a general rule, country cafés are like homemade pies: The ones that are homely on the outside tend to be the most delicious.
After lunch with the Gibases we decide to stick around a few days and eat our way through the Calico Kitchen menu. We break bread alongside brawny construction workers as well as lunching ladies, and we spend time in the company of proprietor Carol Brown. We become quite certain that there isn’t another restaurant like Carol’s Calico Kitchen anywhere.
Like so many great chefs, whether four-star or simply four-square, Brown is fanatical about the food that comes from her kitchen. Her particular mania is that everything served be homemade, from scratch. “I waitressed here long ago when this was called The Lexington Café,” she recalls. “I felt so bad serving store-bought bread that I would heat it up before bringing it to a table. I always thought that if I ever had a restaurant of my own, I would bake the bread just like my grandparents did on their farm in the North Country.”
The Calico Kitchen menu is replete with reminders of Brown’s philosophy:
“Our desserts, sweet rolls, breads and buns are baked right here in our kitchen.”
“We make our own jams and syrup!!”
“For our salads we do our own dressings.”
“Our pancakes are made from scratch with real buttermilk.”
Although the menu notes that the biscuits are homemade, it does not mention that their savory flavor is owed to the fact that the dough is prepared the old-fashioned way—with lard. The result is a fluffy biscuit with a creamy complexion; it is a special pleasure at breakfast to gingerly twist off the top of one of these freshly baked monsters and to lay a sphere of butter down and watch it melt as aromatic baking-powder–biscuit steam wafts above the plate. Brown also uses lard to make pie crusts, which are lush and flaky.
Lard is basic, but fresh produce is her siren song. “I am not a vegetarian, but I am into vegetables,” she says. “When I see bunches of nice, big beets or good green beans at the farmers market, I buy all I can and cook them up to serve with supper.” For her renowned rhubarb cream pie, served from spring into August, she gets rhubarb from a local gardener. Starting in midsummer, corn on the cob is a regular companion to almost every dinner.
Brown’s personality is everywhere in the restaurant, which she describes as “just an old place I’ve fluffed.” Her fluffing style is flamboyantly feminine, including flowered wallpaper, enormous silver and lavender metallic-fabric window swags intertwined with honeysuckle vines and silken roses, and sentimental prints on the wall showing cherubic children and faithful dogs. “Some of the men who eat here regularly had a fit when they saw me start to fluff,” Brown recalls. “They said, ‘Now, don’t make it all lacy and girly.’ But I said to them, ‘Boys, you’ve been complaining about how bad this place looks for years now. So be quiet and eat!'” The contrast between her decorative flourishes and the rugged look of so many of the workmen who come for breakfast gives the scene in the dining room a New World–Victorian charm. Although the building itself is ramshackle (“I’ve got a supply of buckets to arrange for leaks when it rains!” Brown says), the ambiance is relentlessly civilized.
Open every day of the year except Christmas, from 5 A.M. on weekdays, the Calico Kitchen is where locals eat, so it is a good place for area businesses to advertise their services. On the wall adjacent to a clock is one of our favorites of all town-café artifacts—the rotating electrical flipboard on which merchants and professional people buy space to make their presence known. It is hypnotic to watch the placards flip from the Maytag Laundromat to the junkyard, to the auto repair shop, to an accountant and a real estate agent. Included in the mix, should you wish to reach the denizens of this good eatery, are a couple of enticing placards that offer THIS SPACE FOR RENT.
Brown is a religious person who sometimes conveys God’s strength by the laying on of hands for customers with aching backs or workplace injuries. Above the swinging kitchen doors, a wood plaque says GIVE Us THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD. A devotional portrait of Jesus Christ hangs in a place of honor near the cash register.
Even bigger than Jesus’ is a picture of a man from whom Brown derives much earthly verve and inspiration: Tony Little. A life-size poster shows the muscle-bound, hyperthyroid infomercial pitchman with a rhetorical caption: “Where Does Tony Little Get His Energy?” The answer can be found on a nearby shelf of Tony Little–endorsed vitamins and Eternal Energy–brand food supplements that Brown sells.
For our energy source, we prefer to start the day with one of Carol Brown’s breakfasts, preferably one with hash. Varieties include roast beef, corned beef, and spicy Italian sausage, each of which is cut into a chunky jumble and served on a bale of crisp hash browns. Hash and all egg breakfasts are accompanied by white or whole-wheat toast, sliced extra thick, and jam made from a mix of raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, pineapple, honey, and orange-spice seasonings. Sweet rolls, made from potato-flour dough, are immense—a full six inches in diameter and two inches tall—served in a deep pool of warm caramel sauce with a quarter cup of whipped butter on the side. (Warning: The day’s supply of caramel rolls is often gone well before noon.)
There is no mistaking Calico Kitchen pancakes for ones made from a mix. These tawny beauties are as wide as their plate, lightweight and tender with a buttermilk tang, served with a ramekin full of butter and a pitcher of syrup right on top of the stack, along with a superfluous little wedge of cantaloupe. We were especially smitten by the sensuously textured raisin-walnut cakes as well as the Amish potato cakes, made from leftover mashed potatoes whipped silky-smooth with eggs, flour, parsley, garlic, salt, and pepper, then fried in butter until their crust turns gold. These are considered breakfast (they’re served with syrup), but Carol’s is the sort of place that serves breakfast anytime. We imagine these potato cakes would make an ideal side dish for a plate of roast pork at supper.
The day’s baked goods are displayed each morning near the cash register, where, on your way toward a seat at lunchtime, you will vow to leave room for a square of apple-walnut cake—a dark, moist pastry that is served under a mantle of that fine caramel sauce, either a la mode or topped with a cloud of whipped cream. Among the daily bakery choices is a loaf that Brown calls apple-fritter bread, laced with chopped apples and cinnamon sugar. Dipped in egg batter, slices of this sweet bread become fabulous French toast.
Although she is adamant about not serving anything ready-made or artificial, Brown makes no lofty claims for the recipes she uses. “This is just regular food,” she explains. “Regular food that regular people like to eat. My recipes come from my childhood and from church cookbooks.” Her most popular meal, on the menu every day, is roast turkey dinner. This is a $6.95 plate of moist white and dark meat, sage-scented stuffing, and a great globe of mashed potatoes all smothered with gravy and sided by a vegetable, a cup of cranberry relish, white or wheat bread, and a serving of candied-yam casserole veined with melted brown sugar—introduced last Thanksgiving. Nothing could be more “regular.”
Many of Brown’s steady clientele wouldn’t think of having lunch without a cup of soup. Although there is a different variety of soup every day, hamburger vegetable is always available. So is tomato basil—so long as the week’s supply of basil holds out. It is a sweet, chunky broth loaded with spoon-size morsels of plum tomato. While a half dozen specials are always written on a sheet inserted in the printed menu, most regulars count on the same meals every day: meat loaf, roast beef, roast pork with stuffing, or spaghetti with meatballs.
Last year Brown thought it might be a good idea to replace the spaghetti with angel-hair pasta. “I never heard such an uproar!” she recalls. “From the local boys, of course. They didn’t like those skinny noodles with their meatballs, and they were not shy about complaining.” So and brought back thick spaghetti and now offers both kinds of pasta on the menu. “I listen to my customers,” she says. “They may pour concrete or sweep floors out there, but in here, they are my kings and queens.” Brown recently deleted rye bread from her daily roster because it became too time-consuming to separate leftover rye from white and wheat when she was cutting croutons for the salads, and several of her regular “boys” cannot abide the taste of the caraway seeds in the rye. “Of course, I can’t listen to everything they say,” Brown adds. “If I did, I’d serve nothing but stacks of pancakes in the morning and meatloaf and mashed potatoes all day long!”
We began to feel welcomed into Brown’s extended family at that very first lunch, sitting across from Grace and Andy Gibas while they regaled us with stories about the early days of The Circulating Pines. Like elders passing on treasured tales of olden times, they reminisced about their premier issue, which was put together with not much more than good intentions and a mimeograph machine. Andy boasted that the original editor, who got the job because she had taken a college course in journalism, went on to become the first female judge on the Minnesota Supreme Court. “It was always just a small-town paper,” Grace told us. “We covered council meetings and social events, and we’d write a story about anyone who had a Siamese fighting fish.” During the meal, she jotted a few notes in her reporter’s pad—an old habit she sustains, even now that there’s no deadline to meet.
The Gibases don’t eat with the gusto of their younger days, and they barely put a dent in their lunches—Amish chicken and roast turkey dinner—but Grace came prepared. As the meal concluded, she reached into her large purse and pulled out two clean whipped-topping containers to hold the leftovers.
When we stood to say goodbye to our new friends, Grace, who does not seem like a shy individual, appeared abashed when she quietly said, “I am a huggy person. Do you mind?” She reached out to embrace each of us, and to thank us for coming to visit the hometown café she cherishes. But we are the ones who owe a debt of gratitude. Carol’s Calico Kitchen is the sort of place we dream of discovering, a jewel in the rough that, for us, makes travel an adventure.