I love getting out of town. I always stumble onto something unexpected and unforgettable. Escaping my usual surroundings refocuses my perspective, amplifies my curiosity and makes me feel brave. My addiction to this feeling keeps me irresponsibly booking vacations across the country and globe. But I’m becoming increasingly aware, it doesn’t matter what distance I travel, the magic of any new surroundings gives me the high I need.
I write this high on Mankato, a city in the Minnesota River valley an hour and a half southwest of the Twin Cities. After learning Mankato Ribfest was happening, Sissy and I embarked on a bakery/BBQ road trip fueled by Sirius XM’s 70s and 80s R&B station, The Groove. It always delivers.
We started at Friesen’s Family Bakery and Bistro, which opened just over a year ago and has exploded with popularity. We entered to find squishy bags of fresh rolls scattered on tables throughout the store waiting to be stocked. We walked slowly and admired each package as if in a museum, restraining from touching everything. There was a table of exclusively gluten-free products, and another with packaged pastries and cookies ready to bring home. We became zombies, slowly and silently pulled to the pastry case by the giant cakes and at least ten varieties of cookies stacked high.
It took a significant amount of deliberating before deciding what to get. Fun fact – my sister is notoriously decision-making challenged. This is common knowledge. It’s best to not present her with too many choices. Somehow, we miraculously landed on a muffin and some cookies.
Is it weird to call a blueberry muffin juicy? It was so fresh and brightly flavored, we inhaled it in under two minutes. We agreed to do a quick taste test of our cookies to make sure they were as good as they looked, and immediately knew if we didn’t purchase at least three more cookies for the road, we’d be pissed at ourselves.
Somewhere between the muffin and cookies, Sissy purchased a bag of the Zorba rolls, a sweet, pillowy dinner roll baked with generous chunks of cheese and green onions. This is the roll you want as your soup’s sidekick on a chilly Sunday afternoon.
Perhaps the best part of our visit was the opportunity to talk to bakery owner, Tony Friesen. I’m continuously humbled and inspired by the dedication bakers bring not only to their craft, but to their community. The folks at Friesen’s are committed to keeping it local, and operate under three principles – produce everything on site, shop at local businesses and support the community. They sponsor local charities and recreational sports, and have won awards for their dedication to the local community.
After a nearly 20-year career in the corporate grocery world, Tony was compelled to focus on a smaller-scale bakery to serve his hometown. He is a baking wizard with wickedly sharp creativity. “I love being alone and being able to bake,” he said. “The smartest thing to tell me is, ‘do whatever you want.’ It’s in these moments when he comes up with creations like “Pie-splosions” – a pie baked inside a cake. He’s got “Panilla” – pumpkin pie in vanilla cake, “Spapple” – apple pie in spice cake, and “Black Forest” – cherry pie in red velvet and chocolate cake. They’re a sight to see.
The bakery’s demand is increasing, and soon Friesen’s will expand to fill the entire building. The renovation will include a larger kitchen with a regulated section for gluten-free baking, as well as a community area to be used for meetings, events, parties, yoga and more. For now, the devoted kitchen superstars bake everything in one shockingly small oven, including 120 dozen cookies each week, enormous multi-colored cakes every few days and several varieties of rolls to pair with the soups they serve at lunch each day. Oh, did I mention Friesen’s features a “12-Mile Soup” with 95 percent of ingredients sourced within 12 miles of Mankato? Local, you guys.
Talking to Tony and learning about the tight community they are fostering made me secretly want to live in Mankato, and after tasting Friesen’s sugar cookies, I would seriously consider moving. You know how when a cookie is still a little soft and doughy in the middle even though the rest of it is crisp? And how you pick up a little taste of salt among the sugar crystals? That’s what’s going on here.
After the bakery, we had time to kill and an appetite to build before heading to Ribfest. We explored town, walked along the river and checked out the playground near Riverfront Park, where we had a less than thrilling time on the children’s slide. These aren’t made for 30-something women. Lesson noted.
Weird confession alert – this was my second Ribfest in two weeks. If I understand correctly, it’s basically an opportunity for BBQ vendors to travel around the country, sell meat and compete for various “best” titles. I’m not a huge meat eater, nor an especially big BBQ fan. My first visit was strictly for the free “A Flock of Seagulls” concert, and this time was because my sister loves pulled pork sandwiches and slaw, and I wanted her to have a memorable BBQ experience.
At Ribfest, we were again faced with way too many choices – remember what I said about decision making? Do we get ribs or a sandwich, or both? Which sauce should we add? Do we get sides? Which vendor? Texas, we agreed, sounded like the home of some seriously good meat, and we trekked through the muddy park to the Austin’s Texas Lightning BBQ stand. Every 30 seconds, the grill cook loudly proclaimed, to no one in particular, “This is the best BBQ you’ll ever eat!” I think every vendor had some version of this guy barking the wonders of their BBQ, but this one had the most conviction. We spent time chatting with him and learned he’s been working there for more than 10 years and genuinely loves his job. He said, “The people here make me feel like a celebrity.” It made us feel good about getting a pulled pork sandwich from him. And we made a good choice since they won “Best Pork” at Mankato Ribfest this year. Kind of a creepy title.
On the drive home we stopped in Jordan to visit Minnesota’s Largest Candy Store. Hot tip: Don’t go here on a Saturday afternoon. It’s so damn squished and frenetic, it feels like being herded through the Farmer’s Market, but instead of bountiful squash varieties, there are Pop Rocks and candy cigarettes. Yes, this is a thrilling and nostalgia-inducing roadside attraction, but hit it up before the crowds make you want to jam wands of rock candy into your eyeballs.
Everything about our trip was perfect. Spending the day with my sis, singing songs, playing outside, eating cookies, laughing hard, exploring a new city, talking to interesting people…this is what escaping your daily routine is all about. I hope to get high on Mankato and eat many sugar cookies again soon.