Some 2,000 years ago, Cleopatra bet Marc Antony that she could consume a single meal worth 10 million sesterces (a sesterce being an ancient Roman coin equal in value to two-and-a-half donkeys, in case you’re wondering). During the second course of the dinner in question, Cleopatra called for a glass of vinegar. She removed one of her large pearl earrings, popped it in the glass, and, when it had been sufficiently softened by the acid in the vinegar, she drank it.
This (probably tall) tale serves as a reminder that people have been consuming vinegar for hundreds of years. Roman gladiators and Japanese samurais used it as their Gatorade. Everyday, pre-modern folks added it to drinking water to kill off bacteria.
Vinegar is still used as a folk remedy, but it’s of course more commonly loved as a cooking ingredient, which brings us to another good vinegar story, this one set in Minnesota. About halfway between Minneapolis and Fargo, well into the scrub oak bluffs of the Long Prairie River, sits the world’s only vinegary: Leatherwood. It’s the world’s only because Ron Leasman invented the word. As a winery is to wine, a vinegary is to vinegar, he figured. If we’re being fussy about it, Leasman also has Minnesota’s only vinegar yard (as vinegar production facilities are known in England). But he’s not a fussy guy, rather a genial 66-year-old retired state trooper from the same flat and snowy lands made famous (along with their state troopers) in the movie and TV show Fargo.
He has white hair, a trim moustache, and a twinkle in his eye, and answers questions in the style of the region, which is to say in as few words as possible, and with a smile. Why did Leasman start making vinegar 18 years ago? “No one else was,” he says. “I wanted to drink it for health, and everything on the market was. . . .” Leasman grimaces, leaving you to fill in the blank. “Was what?” I press. “Not natural,” he says. “Nothing you’d want to drink.”
Thus, Minnesota’s only vinegar artisan got to it. The amount of work that goes into each batch is staggering. Consider his chokecherry vinegar. When chokecherries are in season, Leasman rounds up all the ones he can find from friends, neighbors, and local farms, and discards those with bugs or rot. He then washes and lightly presses the good ones until he has about eight pounds, a process that can take up to three hours. Next, he adds sugar and yeast, and sets the chokecherries on the course to becoming wine. Once he has the wine, he transfers it to a wide-mouth bucket containing “mother of vinegar,” the good-bacteria starter that has been kept alive since his last batch of chokecherry wine. Somewhere between three and five months later, though usually closer to five, the five gallons of wine he started with will have transformed into maybe three gallons of vinegar (much is lost to evaporation). Each batch is diluted to 5 percent acidity or so, then bottled up.
photo by Caitlin Abrams
Leasman also steeps herbs and other seasoning elements such as peppers and ginger with his fruit wines. Most people who set out to make, say, a basil and tomato wine vinegar would start with a commercially produced wine vinegar, add tomatoes and basil, then take them out when they start to look bad. Leasman, on the other hand, actually makes wine out of a mixture of tomatoes, basil, water, and sugar, and then turns it to vinegar. The resulting product is delicate, with the plump, ripe flavors of tomato (minus the sweetness) woven in with the licorice notes of basil, also with its sweetness sucked out and replaced by a light, brittle tartness. It’s marvelous on a tomato salad. The habanero rhubarb vinegar is a delicate veil of light tartness that leaves a stiletto stab of heat in its wake. The raspberry, made from raspberry wine, is the easiest to love, like a sweet-tart candy for grownups. Add gin and an ice cube for a gimlet variation fit for a bet with Cleopatra.
A new generation of Twin Cities food entrepreneurs is as wild about Leasman’s work as I am. Will Flanagan, the wine buyer and manager for the Italian restaurant La Grolla in St. Paul, just launched a pickle company called brine + barrel that uses Leatherwood vinegar. “Obviously there are people doing things like this in places like Emilia-Romagna,” says Flanagan of artisan vinegars, “but for this to be going on in northern Minnesota? It’s just cool.”
Molly Clark just launched a broth company, Taking Stock Foods, which uses Leatherwood’s vinegar as one of the five ingredients in its organic chicken stock. Former pastry chef Tony Stoy’s quick-growing Twin Cities hot sauce company Isabel Street Heat uses Leatherwood vinegars in its two high-end probiotic hot sauces. “I could get regular vinegar for a 10th the price,” he says. “But [Leatherwood is] such a better ingredient. The quality is so much better, it lasts longer, and tastes better as it ages.”
Leasman is happy to have found some young fans. But with his tiny, 150- to 200-gallon a year production going to Twin Cities retailers such as Golden Fig, GrassRoots Gourmet, and Local D’Lish—and to a guy he knows who buys a case every year (sometimes more)—he doesn’t really need new customers. “This was just a hobby,” he says in typically understated fashion.
While working in the world’s only vinegary, Leasman sometimes flips on a little TV in the corner and watches Pawn Stars on the History Channel. He never watches Fargo, the movie or show, even though he was, in fact, a Minnesota state trooper in 1987, the year of the grisly, [not actually] "real-life" events on which the Coen brothers’ creation was supposedly based. “I could never get through it, didn’t care for it,” says Leasman of the movie. I pressed him. “Tried twice, didn’t care for it,” he says, smiling, with just the light sort of acid tone that you’d imagine a good vinegar maker would use. As I drove off past the flat and orderly farms, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was that the same tone Cleopatra used when she won that bet?