Get Your Fill of Fall Food Traditions

By Erica Wacker

As summer’s heat gives way to autumn’s shorter days and cooler nights, other, subtler changes start to work their way into our daily lives. Kids go back to school, shorts and swimsuits go back in the closet, and cravings for ice cream and lemonade are replaced with thoughts of hearty chili, warm pie, darker beers and aged wines.

In addition to the changing leaves and crisper air, grape stomps, apple festivals and Oktoberfest celebrations are sure signs that fall has arrived in Minnesota. While some of our favorite food traditions go back centuries, others are much more recent additions.

Wild rice sign at Big Bog State ParkOne of Minnesota’s oldest and most treasured fall harvests is wild rice. Historians believe this ancient grain, which still grows naturally in northern Minnesota’s shallow lakes and streams, was one of the major factors in the Ojibwe migration here hundreds of years ago. Every fall, tribal band members and others with the required license harvest the rice using canoes, a forked push pole and wooden flails—a process that’s remained unchanged for centuries.

While this hard work is best left to the experts, the rest of us can taste the fruits of their labor at wild rice festivals in McGregor, Roseville and Park Rapids, which in addition to wild rice also offer live entertainment, demonstrations, and activities for the whole family. Visitors to the Mille Lacs Indian Museum in Onamia can watch museum staff process wild rice in hourly demonstrations on select days.

Unlike wild rice, Minnesota’s other celebrated crop required major human intervention to reach its full potential. Starting with the Wealthy in 1868, it wasn’t until 1991 that Minnesota cemented its status as a serious apple state with the introduction of the beloved Honeycrisp. Today, more than two dozen varieties are grown at over 100 orchards and farms across the state, drawing visitors from near and far to stock up on fresh apples, cider, pie and other treats.

Minnesota apples and fall leaves_1290680_Sunny Augustine 400 x 600In addition to all the festivities at the orchards themselves, many communities celebrate the apple with festivals of their own, including Excelsior Apple Day, the Almelund Apple Festival, Apple Pie Days in Alexandria, Smaczne Jablka (Apple Day) in Winona, and Applefest in La Crescent, held every fall since 1949 in Minnesota’s “apple capital.”

Prefer to drink your fruit? Many Minnesota wineries hold annual harvest events this time of year, when the grapes are at their peak ripeness to be picked and made into next year’s wine. Some wineries, like Falconer Vineyards in Red Wing, Parley Lake in Waconia and Four Daughters in Spring Valley, welcome volunteers to help with the harvest in exchange for wine and a hearty meal.

Other wineries go the celebratory route, hosting grape stomp festivals complete with live entertainment, art and food vendors, family-friendly activities, and costumed teams of grape stompers competing to win cases of the vineyard’s finest wine. Join the fun at Glacial Ridge in Spicer, Saint Croix Vineyards in Stillwater, Carlos Creek in Alexandria, Crow River in Hutchinson and Morgan Creek in New Ulm.

With the surge in local breweries over the past several years, the number of Minnesota-made Oktoberfests, pumpkin ales and other autumn brews has grown right along with it. From the state’s oldest brewery (Schell’s) to some of the newest, fall beer styles can be found in nearly every taproom, brewpub and beer-conscious restaurant as soon as the calendar turns to September.

Autumn Brew Review craft beer festival Minneapolis
Autumn Brew Review, Minneapolis

Those looking to sample fall beers from multiple breweries in one place can check out events including the Craft Brew Village in Duluth (part of the Hot Air Balloon Festival); the Minnesota Craft Brewers Guild’s Autumn Brew Review in Minneapolis; Tapped & Uncorked at the Roseville Oval; and Bakkelyka Brew, a craft beer and music festival at Welch Village.

For a more traditional fall beer tradition, restaurants and breweries around the state host Oktoberfest celebrations modeled after those in Germany, featuring the requisite polka bands, lederhosen, bratwurst, giant pretzels and steins of beer. The quintessential celebration in New Ulm takes over the entire town for two full weekends in October.

Other Oktoberfests take place at Gasthaus Bavarian Hunter in Stillwater, Gasthof Zur Gemutlichkeit in Minneapolis, Voyageur Brewing Co. in Grand Marais and Ruttger’s in Deerwood.

Find more fall food events in our comprehensive Food & Drink calendar.