Range Management 101
If there were to be a North Dakota cuisine, what would it be? Now, some of you think I’m setting up a punch line here, but I’m not. This Sunday my Suzzanne and I are giving a talk – it’s at the Ellendale Opera House, if you’re interested, go to Plains Folk on Facebook for details of the event—addressing the subject of cookery in the Flickertail State. Our title is, Range Management 101: The Idea of a Prairie Cuisine.
We were asked to do this, and it forced us to think about what we think about food and life on the plains, specifically North Dakota. In the first place, we cook a lot, and we eat a lot, too, or at least I do. We are, officially, omnivores. We eat junk, and we eat fine foods, and we enjoy life on the margins between the two.
Most of all, we like to eat things that are somehow grounded in our lives. Things we raise or catch or gather or know the producers of, or things that hearken back to our roots.
So, getting back to the original question, what would a North Dakota cuisine look like? Here’s what we think: three elements.
First, dynamic ethnic traditions. We have a rich array of historic traditions, most of them female-centered (with some specific male roles, like butchering), for putting food on the table. Some of these have fossilized. Lutefisk, for instance, isn’t really a food anymore, it’s a sacrament, an homage. Knoephle are food. In living ethnic food traditions, people are still eating the stuff and working with it. There is ongoing improvisation and customization.
Second, distinctively regional materials. Good cookery often happens from having an embarrassing surplus of something around and asking, what can we do with this stuff? If, for instance, you are a good shot and have a good retrieving dog, you become inventive and expert in the preparation of pheasant for the table. Likewise, I’m sure that North Dakotans score higher than the national average for consumption of rhubarb. If we’re going to eat the stuff, let’s do it well.
Third—and this is the one most difficult to pin down—a culture of culinary aspiration. We have to want to have good food, food that brings people to the table, food that is a reason to talk to one another, food that is admired as it is consumed. One heartening thing is that young people across the country, including many of my own acquaintance, get this. More and more young people can cook, and they take an interest in it.
These three essential elements are related to, but not limited to, many of the trendy ideas in the air today—sustainability, locavorism, the slow food movement, the foodie movement. Talking about these ideas, we decided we are not snooty foodies. Nor are our inclinations toward cookery simply matters of sensuous delight, although we embrace that.
No, it comes around to the idea of food as identity. We are the kind of people who like a pot of great northern beans because they are great, because they are northern, and because our neighbors are combining them. We are the kind of people who like scrapple because our parents made it, and their parents made it; and the kind of people who argue about the right way to make it, and we call that a mixed marriage.
It would be a good idea to have more arguments about food, and I don’t mean about food pyramids and school lunches, I mean about food. Because we are what we cook.