• Otter Views: Hello Minnesota

    Driving back from Lake Tahoe the other day, I caught a National Public Radio discussion about America’s most congenial cities.

    Among the panelists were editors of magazines and websites that do “livability” rankings of U.S. locales. As one might imagine, the survey methods and rating criteria vary widely. Outside Magazine’s list skews toward fitness and recreational options; Money Magazine’s list is about making money. The Food Network site considers restaurants and farmer’s markets. And so on.

    If the lists have anything in common, it is the annual presence among the “top 10” of at least three municipalities from the upper Midwest. Sure enough, among this year’s honorees were Madison, Wisconsin and Rochester, Minnesota.

    I can’t recall if my travels ever took me through those specific cities, but I did visit their mother states. Lamentably, my stays in both were very brief. The Wisconsin itinerary included a sailboat turnaround in Green Bay and a small plane flight to a lovely rural town with “Apple” in its name. I think the name was Appleton. If not, it should have been.

    The Minnesota visit was equally short-lived, a single April afternoon long ago. I was on my way to visit relatives in Great Falls, Montana during a collegiate spring break. I forget the year, but the carrier was Northwest Airlines, the plane was very slow, and it had a propeller in the front. We stopped in Minneapolis for maintenance.

    There being few travelers flying on to Great Falls in those days, the pilot and I struck up a conversation as we taxied toward the terminal. My recollection is admittedly suspect all these decades later, but there may have been an open cockpit.

    “Nice weather,” I shouted from the passenger seat.

    “Ya, you betcha!” he shouted back over his shoulder. “Say, would ya like to see Minneapolis while you’re here?”

    “That’d be great! Do we have time?”

    “Ya sure!” He nodded his leather helmet toward one wing, then the other. “Ground crew’ll need time ta scrape off those mosquitoes. I’ll drive ya home, meet the little lady.” It was a beautiful spring afternoon. We rode around Minneapolis in the pilot’s red MG roadster while he talked to his wife over the first CB radio I had ever seen. He showed me all the sights: Minnehaha Falls, Nicolette Field, the Guthrie Theater, Minnehaha Falls again.

    When we reached their modest suburban home, Mrs. Pilot served a rib-stickin’ repast of doughy lefse, wild rice, white bread, “Land O Lakes” butter, fresh snap beans, Hormel cold cuts, and a lime Jell-O salad with little marshmallows jiggling inside.

    “And I know you’ll want to try some of my special lutefisk,” she smiled, pinching my cheek.

    “What’s that?” I asked warily.

    “It’s flayed walleye pike fermented in lye,” the old pilot explained proudly. “Caught it myself when I was your age, ya know. It should be just about ready.”

    While pondering my response, I had time to consider Minnesota itself, a remarkable state by any yardstick. What other state can claim as exports both Spam and F. Scott Fitzgerald? Both Post-Its and Prince? Both mayonnaise and the Mayo Clinic? And how ‘bout Hamm’s Beer, Scotch Tape, Bob Dylan, Jessica Lange and America’s foremost storyteller, Garrison Keillor?

    Having lived in France and spent many years in Manhattan, Keillor has lost some of the plangent, slightly Nordic accent of the native Minnesotan (“Ya, you betcha”). But he still embodies the free-thinking, social reformist point of view that has made “The Land of 10,000 Lakes” the unofficial conscience of America.

    Many Minnesotans actually practice the Founding Father democratic principles that only rate lip service elsewhere in the country. Decency, fair play, and a set of forthright ethical opinions are issued each Minnesotan at birth, along with ear muffs and thermal underwear.

    The latter are standard garb in the lower 48’s coldest state, where the temperature may lurk below zero for weeks at a time, like walleye pike below an ice fishing shack. The reverse holds true in summer, when I’m told Minnesota offers searing days and humid, sullen nights that drive its citizens to remote lakeside cabins “up north.” There they drink Grain Belt beer on their porches and watch the state’s legendary mosquitoes rise into the moonlight bearing sleeping toddlers away.

    Also remarkable is Minnesota’s reputation as a cradle of losing presidential candidates like Harold Stassen, who ran for the nation’s highest office and lost three times. Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Ed Muskie only lost once apiece, but they were memorable losses.

    Of course, Minnesota has winners also – the Vikings, Twins and North Stars now and then, and such perennial corporate titans as General Mills, General Foods and 3M Corporation.

    To them all I say: “Hello Minnesota! . . . goodbye lutefisk!”

    posted to Cedar Street Times on October 10, 2014

    Topics: Otter Views

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