Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Minnesota-Nice and Hotdish: The 10 Things You Miss Out on by Not Growing up in Minnesota

As a displaced Minnesotan living, and loving, life in the City of Angels I don't generally speak fondly of growing up in Minnesota. Part of it is for show, as complaining about the weather back home (which I once heard described as if not trying to outright kill you, is at least striving to maim you ) to my born-and-raised Californian friends is akin to describing the Loch Ness monster. Their eyes widen, they clutch the hand of their loved one, and scurry off to Wikipedia to research just how much evidence there is out there to support this crazy talk of -28 windchills.

But last week, as John and I took a driving tour of the Midwest, I started to reminisce about some of the truly great aspects of growing up in Minnesota - specifically in a relatively small town. I thought about all of the things that I would have missed out on had I grown up in the sunny, cloudless, naivety that is Southern California and found myself growing warm with the memories (oh wait, that was just the heated seats finally starting to kick in. Thank God!). Here's just a few that I came up with - and for those of you who didn't grow up in Minnesota trust me, these are ALL true!

1. Snow Days

Again, directing this at my friends in Cali, Minnesota can get a lot of snow. A. LOT. The DNR website just told me it averages around 36 - 70+ inches each winter, depending on what region of the state you live in. And while I know the Grapevine shuts down if a snowflake even forms in the atmosphere, it takes a lot more than that to shut down Minnesota, otherwise the whole state would need to close from October - April. But usually, once or twice a winter, a good blizzard would sweep through and schools would be forced to close.

Always better if the cancellation happened before you left home

Oh those mornings were so glorious! I don't know how to describe the anticipation to someone who hasn't experienced it, but imagine your birthday + Christmas morning + seeing your first Backstreet Boys concert all wrapped into one morning, where you're staring at the local weather on the TV watching the names of closed schools scroll along the bottom .and there it is! A free day! Instead of school clothes, you don your snowpants and head outside with the other neighborhood kids until your mom had to drag you in to chip the ice off of you (note: kids never got cold. I had an immeasurably higher tolerance for cold when I was under 12 years old).

Yup; growing up without that slight possibility of a few free days off each winter would be pretty dismal. Although not having to deal with the disappointment that was a bush league "late start" wouldn't be all that bad

2. Two Different 40 degrees

You probably never knew it, but there are in fact two different 40 *F! Every midwesterner knows exactly what I'm talking about. One occurs around early November and the other generally mid March (although it has been known to make an appearance as early as January! Tease.). The first time that thermometer drops to 40 *F, after a miserably hot and humid summer, even the toughest Minnesotan reaches for a jacket, and changes the topic of conversation at work from the 'unbelievable mosquitoes this year!' to the now cold temperatures.

But after not seeing the sun for 30+ days, digging yourself out of the aforementioned 70-some inches of snow, tolerating - and still functioning in!- 30 *Fbelow O windchills, and overall barely surviving another Minnesota winter, when that thermometer reaches UP to 40 *F again ..well you'd think it was a heat wave in southern Florida! Coats get left in the backs of cars when shopping, you make short trips to the mailbox or the neighbors in just jeans and a t-shirt, and windows in homes get cracked open for fresh air. It is legitimately a different 40 *F than the one experienced just 6 months prior. It's warmer, fresher, and more optimistic.

3. Knowing Everyone

I remember as a kid thinking my dad must have been famous, for real. We couldn't go to a grocery store, movie store, or gas station without running into someone that knew my dad. And in Minnesota we don't just smile, wave, and acknowledge. Oh no - we 'catch up'. Right there in the Kwik Trip aisle sporting Red Vines, Mac-n-Cheese, and bait/tackle. Or better yet, if it's the second 40 *F of the year winter (see above) probably outside, right in the doorway of whatever establishment you were trying to enter.

While my dad's career did make him a common and prominent fixture in the community, I know now that it's less that he had some secret second lifestyle as a street performer and more that that is just a part of growing up in a smaller Minnesotan community. It's just that - community. People know you, people acknowledge you, and people want you to feel like you're a part of something.

Now with that comes the bad - running into someone you know literally everywhere you go, people wanting to 'catch up' (read: gossip), and everyone knowing everyone else and everything about them. As an adult I'm much more appreciative of the anonymity that comes with living in a huge city like L.A. but since this is a list of the things I'm glad I had growing up, I'll focus on how great it feels to belong to a community. And growing up thinking your dad was a local celebrity wasn't too shabby either. (Side note: this hasn't changed and has in fact worsened since Dad now owns his own business, that sports his namesake. I have friends who say my dad has become nearly unavoidable in town now)

4. Going up North

OK, so this isn't to say that I believe Minnesota is the only state that has a "north". We may be the only state that plays "duck, duck, grey duck" (true fact) but I realize we are not the only one with a direction that directly opposes south. But I do think that going "up north" means something different to a Minnesotan than to anyone else.

Northern Minnesota is the wilderness version I think most people picture when they think of Minnesota in general. Small, very small, towns (a church, a bar, a non-chain market, and some antique shops) settled beneath tall pine trees by the thousands,allsurrounding one of our 11, 842 lakes (Land of 10,000 Lakes just had a better ring to it perhaps they could only have 1 significant figure?!). Going Up North meant time with infrequently seen aunts, uncles, and cousins - either at one of the hidden resorts buried deep in the forest or if you were lucky, as I was, at your grandparents house right on the lake. It meant stopping at a grocery store in St. Cloud because that was the last town with a large grocery store to buy snacks for the week. It meant spotty cell phone signal (or none at all, if you went when I was a kid) and it meant chilly mornings waking with the sound of loons, tubing and pontoons all afternoon, and bonfires to cut the chilly night.

Lake Edna; Brainerd, MN

While every Minnesotan family had their specific Up North destination each summer, I'm pretty sure it was all some version of the same, and likely is filled with the same memories of a vacation you simply couldn't capture anywhere else. And honestly, how many of you specifically remember Nisswa, Minnesota and it's "Pretty Good Shopping"?!

5. Literal 100 degree temperature fluctuations

I'm the first to admit, living in California for the past 4 years has turned me into such a wimp when it comes to temperature changes. If it gets below 60 *F I'm wearing my Northface jacket, and if it's above 80 *F I'm reaching for the AC. So I have to say, I'm proud of the fact that I grew up a little bit .sturdier than I am now. My students who were born and raised in SoCal become nearly immobilized with cold when it's a morning in the 40s; Santa Barbara recently posted a 7-day forecast where the 60 *F day had the caption "Brrrrr" under it. Growing up in Minnesota meant I was exceedingly more exposed to the elements than if I had grown up here in LA.

On the day John and I left for California, it was -9 *F -- -29 *F if you considered wind chill. Earlier that same year, probably mid-July, we had a stretch of days that were all over 100 *F (and whatever the 'wind-chill' equivalent of humidity is added on top of that what temperature is just the numerical equivalent of 'miserable'?!). And this wasn't a particularly remarkable or uncommon year! Nope, growing up in Minnesota meant you were accustomed to temperature changes of more than 100 degrees over the course of the year. It meant drastically different wardrobes, and the seasonal changing out of the closet; investing in thermal underwear and wool turtlenecks as well as board shorts and bikinis and the occasional confusion of when it was appropriate to wear each ("50 today? Bust out the shorts!")

6. The MN State Fair

Now before all of you reading in other states (because I exist in a delusional world where my blog is read by dozens of my fans, spread across the country) get up in arms that your state fair is a good as the Minnesota state fair .just know you're wrong. No. Stop it. You're wrong. Even Buzzfeed said so:

That's the normal sized container from Sweet Martha's. MN portions are the best!

Where else, other than the Great Minnesotan Get-Together, can you eat a deep-fried stick of butter, a bucket of fresh chocolate chip cookies (with unlimited milk all day!), a wine-glazed meatloaf on a stick, or cocoa-dusted cheese curds all on your way to see that year's Dairy Princess carved in butter, before hopping on the Sky Ride that takes you across the entire grounds, then watching Tom Thumb's mini donuts cruise through their little hot oil lazy river, visiting the Miracle of Birth exhibit with all the baby everythings, and ending the evening checking out the lumberjack challenges. Oh and guess what else - you'll run into about a dozen people you know, even amidst the 150,000 daily attendees (see number 3).

7. Adaptations to make hobbies year-round (add in warming houses)

Because of the previously mentioned drastic weather-fluctuations, Minnesotan's have to adapt their favorite hobbies for any season, otherwise no one activity could continue for more than 4-6 months out of the year. You like hiking in the summer and fall? Well, strap some skis or some glorified tennis rackets on your feet and head out in the snow to keep it up! How about riding 4-wheelers in the gravel pits? Swap it out for a snowmobile and you're good to go! (We even have miniature street signs on our snowmobile trails).

My favorite adaptation, although not that I participated in it much, was ice fishing. Leave it to Minnesotans to make fishing a year-long activity. Logical enough in the spring, summer, even in the cold fall .but once the lake freezes over with a foot of ice you'd think we'd pack up our poles and head for the hot cocoa. Imagine, if you will, getting up at the crack of dawn, bundling up and heading out into below O weather - making sure your face is covered so you don't get instant frostbite and trying to keep walking while your pants are literally freezing into stiff tubes, and driving out onto the frozen lake. Now set yourself up inside a tiny little house, which is likely heated although nothing balmy, and sitting around a hole carved into the ice so you can fish in it. Don't forget the whiskey. It'll do more good than the heater.

And yes, every year we pull trucks out of the lake from overly anxious and optimistic ice fisherman who ventured out the ice a bit too soon.

8. Food

OK, I need to explain this one. In Los Angeles there is simply no limit to the unbelievably amazing food you can try on any given night, and I am loving the task of slowly eating my way through the city and I may be guilty of Instagraming food and cocktails on more than one occasion. So I don't list this item to make some statement about the high quality of Minnesotan cuisine. But this list isn't about being an adventurous eater, it's about growing up in Minnesota, and there are foods in Minnesota that you simply cannot get somewhere else.

For starters, Minnesotans are generally a sturdy people, who aren't afraid of butter. We put butter in and on everything - sometimes just a stick (see MN state fair), and you know what? It's freakin delicious. Also, you can't go to any other state - I guarantee you - and order a "hotdish". They will politely and uncomfortably smile at you while discreetly trying to reach for their phone to call security. But mention that item to any restaurant owner in Minnesota and the response will be "which one?!" A Minnesota hotdish is as versatile as the name suggests - if it includes cream of mushroom soup, a starch (potatoes generally), maybe a vegetable if it isn't too suspect, and meat, then it qualifies as a hotdish. And it is always a good decision.

Speaking of meat - Minnesotan's know their way around meat, and thankfully I wasn't a vegetarian while living in Minnesota (there's a good chance I would have starved). Every meal is centered around meat, generally red meat, and a huge portion of it. I have a friend here in SoCal who got sent to northern Minnesota for work once and went to a small bar/diner for dinner -- his steak options were the Queen or the King, weighing in at 18 and 22 oz respectively. I told him, yup - that sounds about right.

And lastly, the sweet corn. I don't miss much about Minnesota food options, as a health-conscience vegetarian, but man .I miss the sweet corn. You guys anywhere else simply don't know what you're missing. Picked from the field and driven straight into town, sold out of the back of a beat up pickup truck by some ornery girl on her cell phone, so fresh and sweet you could honestly eat it raw and it would be just as good ..yeah, Minnesota has cornered the market on sweet corn. Which is a good thing, otherwise no vegetables would get eaten as part of a daily diet .since most Minnesotans give other vegetables a wary stink eye as they reach for another pork chop.

9. Hockey

Minnesota does have a variety of professional sports, and truly we love all of our sports teams. We pack into Vikings games and Twins games despite being disappointed and heartbroken every season -- what can we say, we love 'em. But growing up in Minnesota also means growing up on hockey. Whether its a pick-up game at a flooded rink in the winter (where I spent the entire time in the warming house trying to thaw) or an actual organized game through high school or college, or the 1980 Miracle on Ice (coached by the UMN coach and filled with 13/20 Minnesotans!) we grow up loving hockey. Plus, if you go to a hockey game in the middle of winter in Minnesota, it's guaranteed to be warmer inside the rink than it is outside!

10. Being able to talk about it

Whether it's this long-winded blog post that is mostly for my own sake, or stories shared with students, friends, and colleagues, I love reminiscing about growing up in Minnesota. Many of my friends who were born and raised in Southern California simply cannot fathom the type of cold I grew up with, and I love coming up with example after example of the craziest aspects -- like when you have to plug your car in to make it start, or when they close the interstates sometimes with people still on them, or when your eyelashes freeze when you blink .their reactions make me feel like I'm Bear Grylls!

Mostly I'm just so thankful that I now live somewhere different than when I grew up, and among people who have different life experiences than I do. It is so much more enriching to share our stories with new people, different people, and learn what it was like to grow up with entirely different experiences. In fact, you should all share yours with me now.
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