Good food and old tradition at Hague Cafe

Donovan, Lauren. "Good food and old tradition at Hague Cafe." Bismarck Tribune, 21 October 2012.

A gorgeous, towering Catholic church is the soul of Hague, but its heart is the oven that warms the town’s kitchen every single day.

That glow creates heat and hearty German dishes at the Hague Cafe, a relic from when food was made from scratch and recipes were embedded in the cook’s genetic code.

The cafe has been owned by the city ever since Mayor Ervine Nold can remember, long enough to be an institution and the centerpiece of the town’s society, a place where everyone knows your name unless it’s your first time to stop in.

Nold said he and the town’s aldermen have the job of maintaining the cafe building, built back in the last century when Hague was just getting started down there in Emmons County.

Unlike the food, the building’s seen better days.

Joining forces for food

The tiny town, population 91, is marshalling its resources to build a new cafe. This one will be many times bigger to accommodate other businesses, Nold said. There’s potential for a kuchen bakery and locally made sausage outlet along with the cafe, enabling folks to triple their German food experience all in one stop.

Nold said the city is taking donations and talking to bankers and to builders with local roots, hoping to get a project organized perhaps as soon as next year.

“We’re gung ho for this and we hope we can get it through,” Nold said.

A new building will be quite an accomplishment for Hague. But it will mean a sentimental farewell to the history and the cozy charm of a place where so many meals have been enjoyed and so much conversation has spooled through the generations seated at mismatched tables and red vinyl stools at the lunch counter.

The cafe is not exactly a money-maker for the Hague city budget, but it does well enough to pay for itself with a bit left over from year to year.

“We’ve got some money stashed away from that,” Nold said.

German favorites

Nold said the cafe’s reputation for German lunch specials is known far and wide, and being open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days a week attracts customers, too.

“It brings a tremendous amount of people here. The place is sometimes jammed full and people are even waiting. By God, they come from all over. Sundays are unbelievable,” he said.

He said he’s threatened to buy rollerblades for the cooks and waitresses so they can keep up.

Days when German dishes are on the lunch menu are reliably busy, said cook Barb Nieuwsma, who was working her day-long shift in the kitchen on a recent Friday.

She pulled roasters of cheese buttons from the oven, where they’re warmed until it’s time to finish them on the grill with a dab of sweet butter.

“People like the strudels and the cheese buttons. People come in for everything,” she said. She’s been cooking at the Hague Cafe for nine years. It gets her out and about, off the farm and puts a little cash in her pocket, she said.

It’s best to come a bit early on days when those doughy German delights are on the menu. Serving starts at 11 a.m. and lasts until the last bit is scraped from the pan.

Special of the day

The specials vary day to day, but not week to week.

A meal of apple or pumpkin blachinda, bean soup and fry bread is the special every Tuesday. Strudels with sausage and baked chicken are served Thursdays. Friday’s special is the inimitable cheese buttons, made either sweet with sugar and cinnamon, or savory with butter.

Sunday is good for a bowl of hot knoephle soup, or a hearty breakfast with sausage made over in Zeeland.

“This is a strong German town and it’s old traditional food,” Nieuwsma said.

Ordeen Ebel, who lives east in McIntosh County, stopped through for a burger to go and waited at the counter while his meal was prepared.

It’s his habit whenever he drives though Hague at lunch time.

“It’s nice to have a little place here. It’s always good food and a good hometown atmosphere,” he said.

Alice Matthews and friends drove over from Wishek to enjoy the cheese button special.

“We don’t make cheese buttons at home. They’re too much work. This place has the best pie and soups are all homemade,” she said.

Nold said the food is as beloved by the community as it is by the guests who come to town.

“We all grew up here,” he said of the community. “When we were kids, we had a lot of that stuff. It’s just tradition.”

Cheese buttons — one or two, sweet or savory — are the Friday special at the Hague Cafe. Here, cook Barb Nieuwsma pulls a roaster full of them out of the warming oven.
A group of Wishek friends gathers for a lunch of cheese buttons at the Hague Cafe on a recent Friday. From left are Alice Matthews, Eileen Ketterling, Jean Ulmer and George Ulmer.
There's nothing "button"-sized about the cheese buttons prepared for German lunch every Friday at the Hague Cafe, an institution that’s been successfully owned and operated by the city for many years. The cheesy, doughy delights are about the same size as the paw of a St. Bernard.

Printed with permission of the Bismarck Tribune

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