An open letter to the New York Times’ David Tanis re: #Grapegate

An open letter to the New York Times’ David Tanis re: #Grapegate

David, call your mom.

We don’t have heiresses here, we have the Royal Court of Princess Kay of the Milky Way and sometimes Kim Kardashian bangs a professional athlete in town. Whatever pale, gold-plated woman you found in NYC was lying to you. She is not the long-lost daughter of a Swedish royal who is set to inherit a large amount of money she will split with you if only you would loan her $4,000 to cover her up-front legal expenses. Whatever you’ve been doing and wherever you’ve been to meet this woman, it’s not good and you need to call your mom and talk about the life choices you’re making.

I’m talking to you, David Tanis, contributor to the New York Times article about Thanksgiving dishes that “evoke” each of the states in our union. In it you describe the quintessentially Minnesotan dish of grapes, sour cream, and brown sugar that absolutely no one here has ever heard of, considered the possibility of while high, or even been forced to combine when snowed in with dwindling food supplies.

You claim that the information about this alleged “Grape Salad” came from “a Minnesota-born heiress.” Not only is this alleged heiress dishonest but she has seriously misled you when it comes to grapes. If she gave you any grapes throw them away. If you’ve already eaten them then go to the doctor. David, I’m worried about the fact that you’re accepting grapes from strange heiresses in New York and believing everything they tell you about the Midwest. Not just because that sounds like the Veggie Tales version of Grey Gardens but because you’re missing out on some great food and some very well known stereotypes.

You actually used the words “Jell-O salad” in your opening sentence and somehow failed to learn that almost every meal during every part of the year here includes some form of it. We eat so many different kinds of Jell-O salad here that there are correct and incorrect ways to prepare shredded carrots in orange Jell-O shaped in a Bundt cake pan. That is food. That is polar-vortex-resisting, wild-bear-in-the-suburbs-watching, Michele-Bachmann-dodging soul food.

In addition to apparently not knowing how to use grapes you passed up a completely legitimate excuse to say “lutefisk” and make some kind of a Garrison Keillor joke in a professional capacity. You’re wasting your life, David: lutefisk is real. My great-great-grandfather Ola Person came to Upsala, Minnesota from Sweden in the 1890s and 200 years later I was eating lutefisk for Thanksgiving and Christmas on my Grandma Olson’s breezeway because that was the only room big enough for all of the family.

I’ll grant that plenty of people who live in Minnesota cringe at the mention of lutefisk. I know that cod preserved in lye, rehydrated and baked does not sound like something you’d look for on a take out menu. But when it’s 1890, cod is the only affordable kind of fish and that’s the best way you can preserve it to travel long distances and last for months on end then you eat it. We’re not talking about how or why someone chooses to endure that kind of shit, David, we’re talking about the intense Minnesotaness of the thing. The stoic, eat-it-with-a-smile-and-go-shovel-the-driveway-again-ness of it. You can actually tell a Minnesotan’s heritage from the way they prefer their lutefisk: Swedes smother it in a hearty, cream gravy and Norwegians douse it in liquid, melted butter from gravy bowls. And this is far from anecdotal–after my grandma died more than a decade ago my family continued to seek out lutefisk. Each year we go to anywhere between five and ten Lutheran church basements around the state between November and January to eat family-style with strangers and the gravy/butter rule is law.

Man cannot live on lutefisk alone, David, it’s true. These dinners also include Swedish meatballs, boiled potatoes and lefse, which is like a potato tortilla. Marine-on-St.-Croix serves outstanding Swedish brown beans with their dinner and Elim Lutheran in Scandia has rutabagas, which is unusual but tasty. They’re meals based on easy to store root crops and things you can make from a cow year round. Meals shared at large, round tables from shared serving platters by strangers who don’t necessarily talk much or make eye contact when they sit down, but gradually warm up to each other. Winter is long, cold, and dark, and while we may not be the nation’s most gregarious people we are resilient. We’re resilient because that’s what we were taught by people who were willing to live a hard life to make something in a hard place.

Lest you imagine Lake Wobegon itself, David, I assure you that life here is just as modern and diverse as anywhere else in the world. We do have grapes. We eat them alone or in fruit salads and in any other number of perfectly normal ways. And we are home to significant artistic, scientific, medical, and business institutions and we encourage people of all sexual orientations to marry medical marijuana on pontoons on the lakes everyone has in their backyard. And for holidays we eat monochromatic, durable foods several generations removed from their Scandinavian origins because that’s who we are. And if you’d like to try it we’re happy to have you over any time—just leave your basic heiress and her caterer’s Mediterranean-Diet-inspired recipe where you found them.

Lisa Olson