Swamp Sisters cook up a great country breakfastDespite limited hours, country cafe is a find
By Tom Wilkowske
Self-described "Bridgeman’s girl" Ardelle Barr knows a good short-order breakfast when she sees one. And when she wants one with a country flavor, she heads over to the Swamp Sisters Shop near Twig, where Bonnie’s Swamp Skillet egg breakfast awaits her.
Barr grew up in Duluth. “I worked at both Bridgeman’s, the one downtown and the one on 45th and Superior,” she said. She moved away for an education career. Now that she’s semi-retired (she works as an aide in the Twin Cities), Barr spends summers at the family cabin in Alborn. It was just this summer that she heard about Swamp Sisters from a friend. She wrote: “I just found this place a month or so ago and I’ve already been there three times.”
I met Barr on a Friday morning around 10 a.m., about the time the breakfast rush is winding down. Despite the midmorning hour, the lot looked full as we walked up to the restaurant building, a small barn-style gift shop and restaurant. A couple of rusty farm implements dotted the lush green. A cluster of crab apple trees filled the space between the restaurant and another barn.
“One time we saw chickens wandering around,” Barr said as we walked in the front door.
We passed through the gift shop to the restaurant, which held a dozen or so tables of various sizes, each covered with a checkered tablecloth. The room was lively with chatter; hair color was predominantly gray to silver. Most tables were full and we were seated at one end of a large family dining-room style table. Another couple was camped at the other end.
We placed our orders (Barr ordered a half skillet, I got the full) and chuckled together at some of the dish names: Suzi’s Buffalo Bog Barley Soup, Toot’s Fresh Caramel Rolls, Siggi’s Salsa Salad. Barr told me about some of the other area restaurants she likes: “Of course, the Pickwick, Coney Island, the Shorecrest and Sammy’s Pizza. I grew up on Sammy’s.”
Within 15 minutes, our breakfast arrived. Barr explained its appeal.
“It’s colorful, and it’s definitely not the usual omelet. The buffalo makes it a little more spicy.” And, she added, “half an order is plenty.”
This is not your father’s omelet, or just a fancy term for a scrambled-egg-cetera dish. The closest thing to Bonnie’s Swamp Skillet that I can think of is a Spanish omelet. The ingredients —tomatoes, hash browns, buffalo sausage, green pepper, mushrooms, onions — are fried in a 7-inch omelet pan along with the eggs so the whole thing forms a single-layer pie of sorts, a half inch or more thick. Or think quiche without a crust.
I love egg dishes and this was an atypical way to present them. I especially liked the slightly chewy, crunchy bottom of the “skillet,” which added some nice texture contrast. I tried to discern the buffalo-ness of the sausage, but came up mostly with the spice mix, which was typical of a breakfast sausage.
I duly noted Barr’s decision to have only half of the Swamp Skillet, feeling sure I’d wolf the whole thing down with ease. My first look at it didn’t change my mind — it was a mere seven inches across, served on a regular dinner plate (nice patterned china, in fact, not restaurant-style jumbo platters). I soon found there was more to this dish than met the eye. I could barely finish it. Maybe there were extenuating circumstances, i.e., the raspberry jam spread thickly on my crispy whole wheat toast, washed down with several cups of Kattya Kaffe’s “Black Dog Swamp Blend,” a coffee prepared especially for the restaurant; or the fact that I spent time talking and looking around the homey (but not kitschy) country dining room rather than wolfing my breakfast.
In any case, it was a fine country breakfast, made all the more delicious knowing that it is a rare commodity. That’s because the Swamp Sisters are open only from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, mid-April through — well, until it gets cold enough that it’s not fun anymore, maybe late October, maybe November. The sisters haven’t voted on it yet.
ABOUT THE DISH AND RESTAURANT
The Swamp Sisters Shop started in 1999 as a place to sell crafts and buffalo meat, raised at nearby Shady Lane Bison, said Suzi Lane, one of six Swamp Sisters and co-owner of the bison farm. The shop was built on the sisters’ Armstrong family homestead on Industrial Road in Saginaw, founded in 1923. (A niece now lives on the property, raising chickens and goats, which sometimes escape their pens, Lane said.) By 2003, the shop had added restaurant space to serve some buffalo items, which also are sold in the gift shop.
Asked to describe the flavor of bison, Lane said, “It’s kind of like beef only with more flavor, but not wild-tasting.” Besides its taste, the meat is healthy, Lane added. The buffalo are grass-fed, the meat is naturally lower in cholesterol and fat compared with beef, and it’s raised without hormones or antibiotics.
Four of the six sisters live nearby and regularly help out; one lives in Georgia and contributes pecans to the caramel rolls, which are baked fresh daily.
Why the short hours?
“We’re all senior citizens. Two of the sisters are retired teachers,” Lane said. “If we keep it part time, it’s more fun than work.”
This review was originally published Aug. 30, 2007.
Reach Tom Wilkowske at firstname.lastname@example.org.