Minnesota’s Food Identity, and the Many-Headed Problem of #grapegate

Photos by Becca Dilley, Lake Superior Flavors

Unpacking the New York Times’ “legitimately offensive decision.”

First things first: A disclaimer. I have an unqualified love for New York City and the New York Times. I lived in Brooklyn for a glorious year and a half. Over that time period I fell in love with the place, the food, and the efficiency with which people ordered at restaurant counters. And I’ve been reading the New York Times daily for about 20 years.

With that firmly established, the idea that in a roundup of Thanksgiving dishes Minnesota should be represented by the some hitherto completely obscure grape salad recipe—while New York State gets to claim apple freaking pie—is a legitimately offensive decision. It’s a condescending pat on the head from the kind of incurious toffs who recently pretended to invent Iron Range porketta and claimed that Wisconsin’s cheese industry was invented in the 1920s by a marketing agency.

It’s also a transparent attempt by people willingly residing in a mass of concrete loosely bound together by a netting of cockroaches to negate the choices of those of us who would sacrifice even world-class museums, legitimate bagels, and Zagat-rated yakitori restaurants to live somewhere with clean air just a hop, skip, and a jump away from some of the most enchanting lakes and woods in the world.

But ultimately, as galling as #Grapegate was, the problem with #Grapegate really isn’t them. It’s us, kind of. Asked what Minnesota food is, too many of us reach for the often delicious but ultimately dead-end crutch of the jucy lucy, or the omnipresent and usually dreary walleye sandwich. The fact is, there is already a world-class Minnesota cuisine, and chefs throughout the state are slowly revealing it one recipe at a time, like sculptors chiseling their way toward something a lost god.

The Slow and Agonizing Birth of Tradition

There is an ideal to which Upper Midwestern food can and should aspire. It has little to do with food trends in New York, Paris, or Tokyo and should, in fact, totally ignore those trends as much as can be managed. That’s not a knock on these glorious eating capitals; it’s a recognition that our real strengths lie with our identity as a food-producing, farm-rich province, not as a hub of world commerce.

Producing and eating like proper provincials would put Minnesota up there with, to use well-known examples, rural France, Spain, or Italy. Or Lebanon, or Vietnam, or Trinidad. Or anywhere in the world where there’s a lot of lovingly produced local food that, over the course of generations, gets painstakingly fine-tuned, edited, and elevated from something good into something transcendentally great: that perfect falafel in East Jerusalem, that oven-baked queso de cabra al horno in Sevilla, that Lake Superior smoked whitefish in Duluth.

There are glimmers of our cuisine—of mind-blowing food—all around us, and every year that passes they grow more bright and clear.

Of course, the devil’s bargain is this: a region can have food that is affordable, and local, and very, very good, but it must narrow its focus. New York and San Francisco will never do that, and so they’ll eat wonderfully random things available on a fad-driven and catch-as-catch-can basis. But we can let our focus be narrowed by what’s close at hand. More than “can”—we must, if we ever hope to eat reliably well as a state.

The thing is this: What passes as the dominant food culture around here hasn’t been around for all that long. Time is really our ally in this regard. Historically speaking, it has taken hundreds of years to finely hone a regional food tradition—you can’t go from lutefisk and tater tots to the trattorias of Florence in 50 years, or even 100.

The other thing is this: There are already roadmaps for how we can do it. There is great, hearty fare that emerges from the food of Germany and Scandinavia that is well suited to our climate. American Indian food lore—much of which has been tragically sidelined or obliterated—should be restored and treasured. Modern ideas about seasonal, local fine dining, much of which has emerged in California, also need to be acknowledged and embraced. These ideas will provide much of the refinement that will elevate the hearty into the sublime.

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