23 May 2007

Lunch at Shelly’s Northside in Baldwin, Wis.

Oh, boy – field trip! I had the pleasure of hosting a van load of visitors in Minnesota for a visit to a dairy farm near Baldwin, Wis. My visitors were co-op people from Washington, DC, the Northeast, and Kansas City. What brought them to this particular dairy? Manure!

More specifically, we came to learn about an innovative system set up on the dairy that captures methane gas from cow manure, refines and purifies it, and burns it as a fuel. As our nation starts to get serious about decreasing our reliance on petroleum-based fuels, we’re seeing a surge in interest in renewable fuels from agricultural products. Ethanol and biodiesel probably get the most attention. But in Wisconsin’s Dairyland, with all those cows, there’s a logical and natural interest in finding ways to convert methane from cow manure into a fuel.

The result is a win-win situation. There’s a desirable environmental benefit because the process of capturing the methane reduces the odors and carbon emissions from the dairy There’s also an economic benefit to the farmer in that it’s provides a new revenue stream to the dairy – from the sale of a renewable fuel and the sale of carbon credits earned by reducing carbon emissions from the farm.

Actually, if you want to learn more about it, you’ll find tons of information on the internet. But this is supposed to be a food blog.

The group I was hosting is the ‘Waste to Wealth’ committee of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives. Our tour ended just a little before noon. Our choices for lunch were simple – there were plenty of fast food options at the Interstate exit, or we could drive an hour back to the city, or we could test my theory and find a local café. People were hungry. No one particularly wanted fast food. So we steered onto Main Street to check out what was available.

We were unsure about a restaurant. But a friendly local gave us a tip. Shelly’s Northside is always busy at lunch time. It must be good.

So we piled back into the van, and after a few wrong turns (and nearly running a stop sign) we found Shelly’s. Our group of 7 took up a big chunk of the available seating. We got quizzical, and somewhat annoyed, looks from some of the locals who showed up and found their home territory invaded by a bunch of strangers – talking on cell phones, clicking on their BlackBerrys, and talking about co-ops.

There was a board posted with the daily specials and menus on the table. One of the specials was a cup of soup (choice of beef barley or cream of potato) and a half of a tuna sandwich. Three of our group had that. The soup looked good and hearty. The sandwich was filled with a generous scoop of tuna salad.

One of the group had a cheeseburger and fries. Another had a ‘petite’ burger, which was a smaller burger with a small order of fries. The burgers were fine. The buns didn’t look to be anything special. The fries appeared to be hand cut, not pre-cut, parboiled, frozen fries. Another member of the group had a patty melt. The burger was like the other burgers, and it was served grilled between slices of marble rye bread. The bread looked like good deli bread.

Shelly’s offers breakfast all day. I ordered a #5, two eggs and hash browns. I had my eggs cooked ‘over hard’ and they came out just how I like them with the yolks fully cooked but the whites weren’t overdone or rubbery. The hash browns also seemed to be hand grated rather than prepared in advance or frozen.

After we placed our order, our host from the dairy farm came in. We invited him to join us, and he told us that Shelly’s is his local favorite café. He ordered one of the daily specials – beef stew served over mashed potatoes. We all had ordered several minutes before he arrived. But no sooner had he placed his order when the waitress appeared with his lunch. I noticed that they have the stew simmering in a Crockpot, and as soon as someone orders the special, it’s served right up.

The menu board listed several kinds of homemade pie. I couldn’t resist. I was told the cherry crumble pie was made with canned cherries, so I ordered the rhubarb pie. It was great. The rhubarb was tart and the pie crust flakey. (Not as good as my mom’s or my wife’s pie crust, but very good.) Two others also ordered pie; both ordered the banana cream.

The final tally – lunch for 8 people at Shelly’s Northside: $52 plus tip. It was a good, authentic local café. We really only had one unpleasant surprise – smoking is allowed in the restaurant. It’s been so long since any of us had smelled cigarette smoke in a restaurant in Minnesota, or DC, or California that we almost forgot how unpleasant it is.

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