Hangin’ With Klecko: Breaking Bread in Minnesota Sealed the Peace Deal
In a recent conversation, in a Grand Avenue tavern, I was asked if the Vikings advanced to the Super Bowl in their hometown, would that be the most special event that I had baked for.
First off, like many of you, my heart bleeds purple, but truth be told, as big of a thrill as that would have been, my greatest moment in baking occurred 28 years ago.
On June 3, 1990, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s red, white and blue Aeroloft jet touched down in the Twin Cities.
For the first time in a long time, Minnesota was back in the international spotlight. Everyone was curious why Gorbachev agreed to a six-hour layover here before hooking up with President Reagan in California.
As usual, answers were not given. Nor did it matter as Gorby Mania was out of control and sweeping across America. Everybody wanted a piece of Gorbachev’s layover.
Hundreds of VIPs ranging from Fritz Mondale to preapproved CEOs waited to pimp their wares while standing in uncharacteristic weather in June that resembled a Siberian cold front. The temp was 49 degrees. The sky was gray and drizzling as this beautiful mob stood huddled close for warmth on the tarmac next to a bunch of Marines, all of them packing major heat.
All of us sensed this had to be the event of the season. Even Cher offered to fly in from Chicago after her concert. Nobody likes a good time like Cher, but her request was denied.
A local farmer remembering that Gorbachev was once a Soviet agriculture secretary, offered to bring an 850-pound boar to any spot along the motorcade to be admired. That idea was also shot down.
I even heard that a woman who had become a bride that day offered to save Gorby a dance, but our diplomatic guest just didn’t have enough hours to partake of all the hospitality that was offered.
I was an exception.
I first found out about Gorbachev’s visit when I was working at Custom Bakery on West Seventh, in the Capital City. The Governor’s mansion was one of our accounts. I was told that Governor Rudy Perpich (a Croatian-American) wanted to have a special loaf designed for a ceremony where he and Gorby would break bread together as a symbol of peace.
That’s where I came in.
The symbol of peace, this special bread, couldn’t come off a grocery store shelf. That would be savage. The world leaders were in the milling capital of the free world. This event demanded a loaf, a perfect loaf that would transcend all expectations.
When you design culinary dishes for visiting dignitaries you have two options. You can try to replicate something from their homeland, or you can create something indigenous to us. I opted for the latter, after hearing that Gorby was excited to visit Reagan’s ranch. It was reported that he was enthralled with Native Americans and wanted to learn more about their history from one of America’s favorite cowboy actors.
Like a symphony conductor, I orchestrated securing the finest ingredients our state had to offer.
Projects like this are a blast because you have no budget. You’re expected to get the best ingredients money can buy.
First I tracked down the wild rice with the best reputation. I got it from a Native American reservation in the northernmost part of the state.
My recipe used honey and molasses for a sweetening agent, and back in those days you couldn’t find good blackstrap in the north, but I got turned on to a woman in the western part of the state who kept hives. Her honey was fantastic.
I collected my grains from as many different Minnesota flour mills as possible. I knew these people would get a charge out of being in on this project. And after everything was secured, I decided to use sourdough as my medium. I used a potato brick starter much like the ones Old World Russian bakers used. Gorbachev didn’t know that, but I did, and I wanted everything to be perfect.
During the week leading up to the arrival, we had visits from intimidating-looking thugs who might have been FBI or KGB. These people didn’t hand out business cards. I was a young man at the time and took no offense while the inspectors grilled me with questions while sifting through my ingredient bins.
I never did get an invite to the actual event. Of course I was, after all, just the baker, but imagine in your mind’s eye the president of Russia biting into a slice of my bread, with just a dab of good Minnesota butter on it. His eyes close. The two leaders nod their approval in unison and seal their friendship.
I had done my job.
For more than 30 years I’ve had the honor of developing breadlines that feed an entire city on a daily basis and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that gives me great pride.
But knowing our governor and the Soviet president used my creation to symbolize ending the Cold War blows me away.
So, friends, yes it’s exciting to be in a position to service events that the entire world is watching. And during these events, if your hometown squad ends up hoisting a trophy, that’s fantastic.
But for me, baking for the president of Russia was the defining moment of my career. After all, if my expertise hadn’t been deployed, there still might be Soviet missiles pointed at your home.
Dan “Klecko” McGleno is the CEO at Saint Agnes Baking Company in St Paul and can be reached electronically at firstname.lastname@example.org, at the office at 651-290-7633, or on his cellular device at 651-329-4321.