Plains Folk

Cream Can Supper


There are six old-fashioned cream cans, 10 or 8 or 5 gallons each, steaming atop propane burners, and a couple more packed and ready to cook-packed with layers of hearty vegetables and smoked sausage. The aroma drifting out of the hall, not to mention the gathering crowd, tells us we’re just in time for the Sixth Annual Cream Can Supper in Dunn Center, North Dakota.

It’s a fund-raiser for the Dunn County Historical Society & Museum. The idea is pretty simple. The cooking vessels are cream cans picked up at sales. Into the bottom of a can you stack, in this order, spuds, carrots, onions, cabbage, sweet corn, and sausage, in this case Cloverdale smoked Polish links. The can is filled about to the handles. Add some water, steam on a propane burner for an hour or so, and serve-by dumping the whole mess into the double wash tub that does duty as serving tray, or we might say, trough.

Add some bars (the zucchini bars were terrific, by the way) and buns and beverages, and you have a full meal deal. As typical of outdoor feeds in this part of the country, the women do the organizing and the men do the cooking. Kory Richardson, the guy in the camouflage cap, seems to be in charge of the can crew.

Barb Fridley and Linda Kittelson provide some details about the operation. Last year they fed about 150 people, this year about 200. When they first started the event they cooked over coals in pits, but that was hazardous as well as laborious, and so Allan Lynch bought the propane burners.

The cooking takes place in a steel exhibit hall housing farm machinery, the serving in the parking lot. Inky Paulson and Marvin Sinnes, on fiddle and guitar, entertain the diners. Members of the Civil Air Patrol help with setup and supervise parking. It’s a pretty efficient, relaxed operation.

And the cause is good, because the Dunn County Historical Society is an all-volunteer operation operating a museum with outstanding collections. Many of its artifacts are rare objects that speak from everyday life in the region. I doubt many people know what a calf blab is anymore, but they have one. Their ice plow, a device that mechanized the winter harvest of ice from local lakes, is a wonderful piece, as is their Woodman’s Approved Prairie Fire Extinguisher, a chain-link drag for putting out prairie fires.

Hardly anyone in these parts has ever heard of a cream can supper, and in fact, the origins of the custom are a little murky. It’s one of those things that sounds old-time authentic, but I can’t locate any documentation of it being done as a common or public event until recently. There is an outfit in Nebraska called the Ogallala Cream Can Supper Company that is marketing stainless steel cream cans, and it appears they have made up a mythology about feeding cowboys on the range in this fashion-which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, given the aversion of cowboys to milking, and to vegetables likewise.

In recent years, though, cream can cooking, sometimes known as a “Polish luau,” has spread across the country, its appeal being simplicity of preparation for large groups combined with a certain amount of hilarity around dumping the product into a trough of some kind and people tucking in with enthusiasm.

The music is done, the plates are cleared, but people linger at the tables to chat and enjoy the low light and evening air. Satisfaction is more than a matter of a full stomach.

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