Ole’s son came home from school one day, very upset. "How come I haff the biggest feet in the 3rd grade?" he asked. "Is it becoss I’m Norvegian?"
"No, son" Ole replied. "It’s becoss you’re nineteen."
"So, what’s the local specialty?" we asked our hosts, hoping to uncover some unique and wholesome grain belt dish to sample. They claimed not to have one, but that was just Minnesotan good manners speaking. Over time, this pushy New Yorker got them to admit to a few. 'Admit' being the operative word, because frankly, I might have been better off not knowing. One night over drinks we learned that walleye is a popular local fish that is most often served as fried "Walleye Fingers", found on every bar menu in the state. Another bar snack that’ll kill ya is Deep Fried Cheese Curds, which are not entirely unlike mozzarella sticks except that they’re about half the size of your thumb and the cheese inside is yellow, nameless, and definitely not mozzarella. Our boss described them in impeccable consultant-speak as "an extremely efficient fat delivery mechanism".
Then there are the Scandinavian pastries, with intriguing names like ‘snickerdoodle’, ‘munkki’, ‘kolache’, and ‘pulla’. Though I’ve not yet sampled them all, my pants are straining at the waist from my efforts after only a few weeks here. Each pastry is an interesting diversion from the tastes and spices I’m used to – especially the cardamon-speckled pulla roll with its slices of almond and sprinkling of rock sugar - but none can hold a candle to a good old-fashioned all-American chocolate chip cookie.
Those wishing to get in touch with their Norwegian heritage (or lose some weight) may want to learn more about lutefisk, a by-all-accounts unspeakable combination of codfish and lye. As Clay Shirky reported eloquently in a now-cult-classic Usenet post:
"The moment every traveler lives for is the native dinner where, throwing caution to the wind and plunging into a local delicacy which ought by rights to be disgusting, one discovers that it is not only delicious but that it also contradicts a previously held prejudice about food, that it expands ones culinary horizons to include surprising new smells, tastes, and textures.
Lutefisk is not such a dish.
Lutefisk is instead pretty much what you'd expect of jellied cod; it is a foul and odiferous goo, whose gelatinous texture and rancid oily taste are locked in spirited competition to see which can be the more responsible for rendering the whole completely inedible."
Tempted? 92-year old Olsen Fish Company (612-287-0838) offers a tour of their factory – noseplugs not included. Stare into the 2000-pound steel soaking tanks! Breathe in the heady aroma of lye bath! Come in clothes you don’t care about – because the smell lingers on your clothing for hours afterwards! (Several Olsen employees have been kicked off public buses because of their stench.) The folks at Olsen say that they use the local obituaries to help predict next year’s sales. For every Scandinavian name they see, they subtract eight pounds of product from their projections. All kidding aside, with the older generations dying off, Olsen is losing up to 10% of sales every year.
The real culinary finding - the thing you must try if you want to experience the real Minnesota, is Minnesota Wild Rice and Chicken soup. The wild rice is grown upstate (I bet the growing season must be about three weeks long) and it is on every menu I looked at. My colleague Chris got so addicted he had to have it every day.
Vegetarians will not fare as well in Minneapolis as their carnivorous companions, although I was surprised to find that many restaurants have a veggie burger on the menu. Most Minnesotans, however, can’t imagine why you don’t just order the walleye and stop drawing attention to yourself. Fellow plant-eaters, I suggest you learn this important phrase in the local language: "I’ll have the Caesar Salad, no anchovies please"!