Minnesotans are a fiercely independent, resilient, and self-reliant people. Harrison Salisbury, the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, once attributed much of his success to “the Minnesota spirit, skeptical, contrarian, often out-of-step, hostile to the Bigs.”
This deeply ingrained temperament explains why many of the small, struggling towns you pass through in western farm country haven’t died out yet, why Minnesota leads the nation in sales by business cooperatives, and why large chains have a harder time pushing out Mom-and-Pop restaurants and retail stores than most places in the country.
As pervasive as the state’s independent streak is, the defining quality of the native Minnesotan is what has come to be called “Minnesota Nice.” Minnesotans are friendly, easy-going, eager to please, humble (often to the point of self-deprecation), and do not want to stand out too much. Apologies are offered for simple acts like returning something to a store, and sincere pleases and thank yous are the norm.
Some people joke that it should really be called Minnesota “Ice” because people can be so reserved; but don’t be fooled—being quiet and restrained is considered polite here. No matter how frequently Minnesota Nice is joked about, it remains a point of pride.
The language played up in movies such as Fargo is real but rare. The Minnesota tongue spoken by most natives has a more typically neutral Midwestern diction, but it does share some of those now-famous characteristics and vocabulary. Space does not permit more than a cursory scan of the many delicate subtleties of formal Minnesotan, but Howard Mohr, in his definitive text How To Talk Minnesotan, lays them out in hilarious detail. “Minnesotan is not a musical language,” Mohr explains. “Some people with an ax to grind have said it is the musical equivalent of a one-string guitar. What I say is, what’s wrong with a monotone—at least you don’t startle anybody.”
Minnesotans are not an excitable bunch and, unless discussing a Viking Super Bowl victory (which would be exciting because the purple and gold have choked in the big game all four times they’ve made it) or bagging a thirty-point buck, their conversations reflect this. Again, Mohr says it best: “Get that excited about something in Minnesota and you might as well paste a bumper sticker on your forehead that says I’M NOT FROM AROUND HERE.”
All joking aside, there are several uniquely Minnesotan words and phrases you are likely to hear. The state’s true workhorse phrase is you bet. It can be a positive response to just about any question—“Were the fish biting today?”—or even most statements—“It’s gonna be a hot one.” As Mohr explains, “You bet is meant to be pleasantly agreeable and doesn’t obligate you to a strong position.” You bet also replaces “You’re welcome” as the most common reply to a thank you. You betcha serves as an enthusiastic “you bet.”
Yah, which is drawn out when spoken (yaahh), is an equally versatile word. It usually means “yes” or “sure,” but it can also mean “Really?” when pronounced with a rising tone. Yah also serves as a verbal filler like “um-hmm.” A Yah, for sure construction offers added emphasis.
Uff da is the only Norwegian expression that has survived assimilation. It is a general exclamation similar to “Oops” or “Damn it,” though uff da is never impolite. Charlie Brown’s “Good grief” could be expressed as uff da.
A uniquely Minnesotan word, one you are likely to encounter either in menus, newspapers, tourist brochures, or on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, is hot dish—this is just Minnesota vernacular for casserole. It should also be pointed out that during the winter most Minnesotans go sliding rather than sledding.
Less common than the others, and used primarily by women, the Oh, for? construction (“Oh, for fun!,” “Oh, for cute!,” “Oh, for gross!,” and so on) is an exclamation that can describe things good or bad.
While any blue-blooded Minnesotan regards the hot dish (local vernacular for a casserole) as a gourmet meal, Midwestern cuisine should not be dismissed out of hand. Featured prominently are locally grown ingredients such as cranberries, raspberries, morel mushrooms, pumpkin, wild rice, fresh fish, and wild game such as venison and elk—sounds pretty good, right? Many of the poshest restaurants specialize in imaginative uses of these ingredients, using them in various ethnic recipes and creating new takes on American classics, but even some small-town greasy spoons feature them.
Walleye, the most prevalent Minnesota specialty (though it almost always comes from Canada), is usually served batter-fried, and menus will often have multiple variations of it. Increasingly common is wild rice, which was historically so important to the Ojibwe (it once constituted as much as a quarter of their diet) that it remains a sacred food, and its harvest from the shallow lakes of northern and central Minnesota a sacred event.
Wild rice, or manomin (good berry) to the Ojibwe, has a slightly nutty flavor and is a remarkably versatile ingredient. While most common as a side dish or soup ingredient (a good wild rice soup is a truly glorious thing!), it can also be used to make tortilla chips, bread, beer, pancake flour, and much more. Its increased popularity has led to the creation of commercial paddies where water levels can be controlled.
Gourmets claim that naturally grown rice is a superior product, though there is absolutely nothing wrong with the cultivated variety. However, if your only experience with wild rice is from Uncle Ben, then you haven’t really tasted it.
Pasties (PASS-tees), stuffed pastry pockets with the look of mini-calzones, are a great snack, though they can easily make a meal. The basic filling is potato, onion, carrot, and beef, though chicken, ham and cheese, pizza, veggies, and breakfast (ham and eggs) are some common variations. They were brought to Minnesota by Cornish miners (who took them into the tunnels with them for lunch), and they remain an Iron Range fixture but are sometimes found in bakeries and restaurants elsewhere in the state.
Potica (po-TEET-sah), a walnut-filled sweet bread brought by south Slavic immigrants, and porketta, a highly seasoned pork roast, are other Iron Range specialties.
Though you won’t find it on too many menus, the state’s most distinctive cuisine is Scandinavian. Swedish meatballs are well known throughout the country, but it’s the three Ls, lutefisk, lefse, and lingonberries, that most intrigue visitors. These and other Scandinavian staples are largely reserved for church and lodge suppers and family get-togethers, but you’ll find them on the occasional restaurant menu. Lefse comes in many varieties, but the most common combines potato (occasionally rice), flour, butter, and salt. The mix is rolled flat and baked on a griddle producing a bread that resembles a thick tortilla. Traditionally lefse was wrapped around meat or fish—today it is mostly eaten on the side with butter and a sprinkling of sugar, brown sugar, or cinnamon, or with a spread of jam. Lingonberries are similar to cranberries, and are sometimes called mountain cranberries.
A much greater culinary adventure is lutefisk—dried North Atlantic cod reconstituted in water for three days, soaked in lye for another three, and then put back into water for up to a week. Yes, really. If not prepared properly it becomes a gelatinous, foul-smelling mess. When done right it is a flaky, foul-smelling mess. Traditionally Norwegians top it with butter and Swedes with a cream sauce, while a mustard sauce helps many non-fans get it down year after year. Minnesotans consume several tons of it annually, mostly between October and December.
A few churches also host communal Lapskaus (a traditional Norwegian beef stew) dinners, which might include a side course of sing-along. If you want to sample some of this ethnic cuisine, you can always pick some up at Scandinavian gift shops and many grocery stores. Microwaveable lutefisk dinners are a new option.
You might also stumble upon the German immigrant-bred tradition of the Friday-night fish fry (Catholics were once prohibited from eating meat on Fridays), where fillets of perch, cod, walleye, or whitefish are deep-fried, usually in a beer batter, and served as all-you-can-eat feasts along with french fries and coleslaw. If you’re not from Minnesota you’ll be surprised to find how popular they are—unless you’re from Wisconsin, in which case you’ll be shocked by their scarcity.
Fish boils, where chunks of fish, potatoes, and onions are cooked up outdoors in a large communal cauldron, are sometimes found along the North Shore, usually during town festivals, but some restaurants also prepare them on weekends. A boilmaster, equal parts chef and showman, finishes the preparation by dumping fuel onto the flames, creating a short-lived inferno. This boil-over not only garners a collective cheer from the crowd, but also sends the fat and other undesirables up and out of the cauldron.
Maple syrup from Minnesota often beats out that from New England in competitions, so be sure to pick some up when you see it for sale. If you like the idea of picking up farm-fresh produce while out on the road, get a free copy of the Minnesota Grown Directory (651/296-5029, www.mda.state.mn.us/mngrown). It lists hundreds of homegrown vendors selling everything from blueberries to bison brats.
Visitors are often surprised to learn that some 20 commercial wineries operate in frosty Minnesota, and even more surprised at how good some of the finished products are. Traditional grape vines must be buried each winter, but several new cold-hardy hybrids, such as Frontenac and La Crescent, have been developed in recent years, allowing the Minnesota Grape Growers Association (www.mngrapes.org) to become one of the largest viticulture groups in the nation. Several vintners deal with winter by using other fruits like raspberry, strawberry, plum, and apple exclusively.
There are also some beloved local breweries. The most widely tapped are Summit and Schell’s. The Minnesota Craft Brewer’s Guild (www.mncraftbrew.org) and MNBeer.com are good resources.
Minnesota’s diverse cultures afford some interesting shopping opportunities. Native American arts are found throughout the state. Beadwork and silver jewelry are most common, though the least Minnesotan. Baskets made of birch bark can be true works of art, while other birch-bark items, such as toy canoes, make cheap mementos. Though sold across the nation, pipestone carvings come from Minnesota.
Also common at craft fairs and in gift shops are Scandinavian folk arts, like rosemaling—a decorative painting characterized by flowers and flowing scrolls—and chip carving. Most large and mid-sized cities have Scandinavian gift shops. Hmong handiwork is less common. The principal craft is paj ntaub (pronounced pahn dow), which combines reverse applique with intricate embroidery to create colorful geometric designs containing hidden symbolism. While the “flower cloths” are traditionally part of the elaborate costumes worn at weddings, New Year’s celebrations, and other important events, you can buy wall hangings, bedspreads, Christmas-tree skirts, wallets, and much more with the artistic patterns.
A new take on the ancient art that developed in the refugee camps of Thailand, and has proven very popular in Minnesota, are storycloths that tell family histories or stories of the Hmong’s exodus from their tribal homelands. Prices are high, but a quick look at the intricacy shows why; large quilts or wall hangings can take months to complete. The best place to look is the Hmong Arts, Books, & Crafts Store in St. Paul. You will also find artists selling their creations at craft fairs and farmers markets.
Many people go to Lanesboro and Harmony just to buy Amish crafts, principally basketry, quilts, and furniture. The selection and quality in the shops is excellent, but many signs in front of farms invite shoppers to stop by homes (never go to a home on a Sunday) and purchase direct from the source. Others park their horses and buggies along busy highways to sell to passing motorists.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition