In light of Michele Bachmann’s pronouncements regarding what she believes could be a link between the human papillomavirus vaccine and mental retardation and cures for homosexuality (to name just a few of her recent statements from her self-anointed mount), I’ve been asked by more than a few friends and acquaintances as to whether everyone in Minnesota is whack or is such nuttiness mostly confined to Bachmann. And maybe to Tim Pawlenty, although it seems as if most people just thought him as sort of the somewhat foolish and better looking Don Knotts-Mr. Chicken candidate for this presidential cycle.
I’m not a Minnesota native but I have lived here, on and off, for more than 25 years and so I guess it’s all right that I defend this state and its citizens against such associations.
And the answer is no, the whole state is not completely full of nutjobs. This is a place that produced deservedly renowned political leaders such as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Paul Wellstone. And writers such as Sinclair Lewis, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Lorna Landvik. Then there’s Bob Dylan, Prince, Garrison Keillor and even the Andrews Sisters. And “The Mary Tyler Moore” show was set here. The public schools have long been among the nation’s finest, although whether that distinction remains in light of the budget woes that caused the three-week state government shutdown this summer is a matter yet to be seen. The University of Minnesota and the Mayo Clinic are justifiably famous for medical innovations that have improved the lives of countless millions. Post-It™ notes are made by Minnesota-based 3M.
Still, despite all of these noteworthy people and achievements (including not just 10,000 lakes but 11,842 that are larger than 10 acres), anyone save the fiercest Minnesotan living in a log cabin and wearing horns the real Vikings actually did not wear does have to admit there are some things about Minnesota that are, to put it simply, difficult to understand. I didn’t say nuts or whack, just tough to figure out, even if you end up liking some of them just because they are so incomprehensible. Or bizarrely tasty.
To start, there’s the tradition of crowning a “Princess Kay of the Milky Way” each year at the Minnesota State Fair (a pioneer in producing food and/or things-people-will-still-eat on sticks, including chocolate-covered bacon and fried Reuben sandwiches). All right, I understand the princess concept, as lots of people have a thing about putting crowns on young women, and the title is meant to highlight Minnesota’s claim as the nation’s butter capital. But in 1965, they started carving the likeness of the princess of this dairy galaxy in butter. I’m not making this up. Here’s a picture from 2009 I found on Travel.gather.com, including the artist (Linda Christensen) who’s been creating butter busts of the milky royalty since 1971. Yes, they are in a refrigerated cell. Because the Minnesota State Fair takes place at the end of August and believe it or not, it’s too hot for snow or unmelted butter at that time of year.
Then there’s the matter of cooking not with butter, but with cream of mushroom soup. Some will say using such an ingredient in anything meant to be eaten by humans does not constitute cooking but is rather a form of chemical adulteration masking as proper food. I cannot say I’m a real fan of the stuff, given that it’s mostly fat and salt and even a few mushrooms, but there are times when a helping or four of something constructed with cream of mushroom soup hits the spot: when the air temperature is minus 20 Fahrenheit and 18 inches of snow is predicted for the next day; when you have had too much Windsor Canadian Whisky, otherwise known as the “Minnesota state bottle” by many trying to stay warm while sitting in a hut on a frozen lake trying to catch walleye through a small ice opening (some might think that’s weird too, I suppose); when some guy dumps you because you are either too good or too difficult for him and you want to turn to Windsor for comfort; or there’s not much else left in the house but said soup, hamburger, frozen beans or corn and frozen tater tots. And why would you have such stores on hand in the first place? Well, to make one of the most loved/hated of concoctions involving cream of mushroom soup, the Tater Tot Hotdish (Minnesotans use the term "hotdish" for what most everyone else calls a casserole. Guess it is because you make the stuff in a dish and when you take it out of the oven, it’s hot. Got it?). Here’s what it can look like when finished. Some people put cheddar cheese on top before baking but that is optional depending on your level of dairy fanaticism. Now tell me the truth. You want some, don’t you? Or else you don’t. At all.
Some people have been known to use one form of another Minnesota-born-and-made item in their Tater Tot and other hot dishes (and this stuff is quite popular in Hawaii and Korea):
Staying with food relatives, there’s the matter of lutefisk. The Norwegians (whose descendants in 2009 still made up 16.5 percent of Minnesota’s population) and the Swedes (who call it lutfisk, and 9.9 percent of the state’s people claim Swedish descent) are responsible for this, well, fish. The name, in Norwegian or Swedish, literally means “lye fish.” Yeah. You make it from stockfish or whitefish. First you soak the fish in cold water (that is changed daily, the Scandinavians are big on hygiene) for five or six days. Then you soak it in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye, really, for two days. Then to make it pretty safe to eat, you soak it for another four to six days in cold water, changed daily. To keep the fish from going all jelly before you (carefully) cook it, you coat it in salt 30 minutes before cooking, although the salt is rinsed off before the fish hits the stove. Then you serve it, often with lefse (Norwegian flat potato bread) and maybe mashed rutabaga or peas. Oh boy, I know most of you are just watering at the mouth. I’ve been made to eat lutefisk just a few times during my time in Minnesota, to show the very Lutheran parents of friends of Norwegian and/or Swedish descent that not all people raised as Catholics who are not from Minnesota and not of Scandinavian descent are total heathens who should be banned from social gatherings where (small quantities) of alcohol might be served. The drawing below by Ed Fischer is a funny but accurate way to think of lutefisk. I’ve found that eating it very hot, with a lot of butter not taken from a princess bust and salt, and a lashing or two of Windsor Canadian or Canadian Club helps. But just barely.
So yes, there are a good many things about Minnesota that some of you who don’t live here or hail from here might find odd. You might find them odd if you are a native or if you’ve decided to live here. And even though snow and ice and cold and nearly poisoned fish are huge parts of Minnesota life, there also are all those beautiful lakes, truly edible fish, and people who, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, are often above average.
Please don't judge our weirdness based on just one or two politicians.