In this semi-regular feature, writer Dakota Sexton documents her travels through America’s towns and cities, and the people she meets along the way.
Most people tell me that I don’t have a Minnesota accent. I tell them that it’s probably all the state-funded, once-a-week speech therapy I got in elementary school. Otherwise known as a handful of hours I spent skipping class so that I could learn how to better enunciate words—mostly the ones with double-t sounds—like bitten, smitten and ratteen.
I imagine, now, people will probably never wrongly associate me with things like the movie Fargo; a thing called hot dish; ice hockey; or even being genuinely kind.
I still like Minnesota. Just compare it and its stereotypes (and even its malls) to other parts of the country: Boston? The Boston Globe reported in 2011 that a teacher had launched a class to help Bostonians lose their accent, replacing the infamous “ah” and “aw” sounds with actual rs. Ohio, according to one documentary on American dialect, is actually the place where people speak the most American kind of American English. But, Catch-22, you’re still from Ohio.
While staying with my parents for the holidays in December, I visit the Mill City Museum, the self-proclaimed “most explosive museum in the world.” It’s mostly about flour.
In one corner of the main exhibit hall, we have the history of the accidental invention of Wheaties. It’s not far from a box of Bisquick the size and height of a small family starter home, and pretty kitty-corner to the many fictional faces of Betty Crocker. My 31-year old brother Paul, in town for the weekend, busies himself in creating his own fake cereal, “Old Fashioned Goodness” with the pithy tagline, “It’s the Good Kind of Germ.”
If a lot of strangers played a game of free association, and you said “Wheaties” to them, explosive isn’t what they’d imagine. They’d probably say, “Cardboard” or “Childhood”. I’d be honest and say “gluten intolerance” or just “gas”.
But an explosion here, at what used to be the Washburn ‘A’ Mill, happened in 1973. A banner year that also saw the world premiere of School House Rock, the last regular-broadcast episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and the cease-fire that ended the Vietnam war.
It was all the particles of flour dust in the air, now known to be much more explosive than dynamite, that ignited a blast that killed 19 people. Visitors can learn about it on a tour of the Flour Tower, a room-sized elevator that moves repeatedly up-and-down between secluded floors of the museum, showcasing lights and rapid-fire, quickly-moving pieces of machinery and an overhead audio narration that together tell the story of the world’s one-time largest flour mill.
Our tour ends in a glass-walled observation deck overlooking the Mississippi river. An abandoned Pillsbury flour mill sits, with great civility, on the opposite bank. Before we leave the deck, “Call Me Maybe” begins playing on the tinny speakers of Paul’s smartphone. He holds it in his hand for a minute, listening to it. Not answering.
“What?” he asks out loud. “It’s my ringtone.”
“Why would you make that your ringtone?” I ask. Loudly.
“Because… it’s a song… about a phone call?” He asks. “It’s funny. Don’t judge me.”
I judge anyway. I could say how deep my relationship with my brother goes. How emotionally supportive I am. Except—during my last year of college—I let myself into his apartment every week, to clean, and do his laundry, for extra cash. It wasn’t very professional. My dad called me The Surly Maid.
The Surly Maid wasn’t very friendly. She would definitely steal your food. She would eat it in front of you. She would criticize your lifestyle and your general living habits. However, the Surly Maid didn’t have signature business policy that would always keep you coming back: “We give you lip, but you don’t have to tip.”
A couple days later Paul and I are in our dad’s car. We’re driving in Eagan, our own suburb south of the river. He tries to turn on ESPN radio. My choice, a radio affiliate of Minnesota Public Radio called 89.3 The Current, is forbidden. It is, in his estimation, a piece of garbage only intended for “Yuppie-Hipsters”.
One more great thing about the Twin Cities (that may or may not be disliked by my brother): by far, the bicycle culture at large. Year round, it includes bike-flavored events like ArtCrank, a now-nationwide celebration of bicycle culture billed as a “poster party for bike people,” and the Stupor Bowl, a city-wide amateur bike race held every February that is either the world’s largest urban bike race, or possibly, just the world’s most competitive pub crawl.
Fanaticism for commuting by bike here might not be as well established as other local forms of it, namely ice fishing, snowshoeing, and the Polar Bear Plunge. But bike advocates say that the Midtown Greenway, a 5.5-mile stretch of railway-turned-bike path in Minneapolis is always plowed before we clear our actual roads.
All it really takes to become a bicycle-powered commuter in winter here—beyond the bike (or the lock or the sometimes-mandatory beard)—is to do your best/worst impression of the Invisible Man and never leave the house without wrapping your whole body in at least 3 layers. Or, be like the twenty-something dude with an old road bike and skinny tires I passed while leaving the Mill City Museum: just jeans, boots, and a facemask.
That balaclava might make you look both like a terribly dumb bank robber and a new recruit to a Twin Cities regional ski patrol. But in Minnesota, that’s ok; everyone is pretty much cool with you and your crazy money-saving, environment-saving, alternative transportation wiles.
Take a bike on a long tour of more rural portions of the country and you just might also find, as Zach Furness notes in his commentary on the political and cultural history of riding a bike, One Less Car, that it is probably the one super-excellent, heart-healthy activity “simultaneously interpreted as a protest, a party, a threat to the status quo, and, even more bizarrely, a ‘terrorist-type behavior.'”
In a creative writing class in college, while trying to nail down the “Minnesota dialect” instead of studying Ebonics or how people spoke after Abraham Lincoln’s death, I discovered that Garrison Keillor left New York to return to the Twin Cities in 1992.
This might not seem entirely significant, except that he returned to resume broadcasting A Prairie Home Companion at St. Paul’s World Theater, a place referred to by the show, now, as a “lovely, crumbling building that was one plaster crack away from the wrecking ball”.
I’d like to believe that Keillor decided to return to an old and (at the time) fairly decrepit radio-broadcasting home because he woke up and realized, “This is your humble prairie hometown, dammit. You don’t need to only appeal to New York. They can all tune into broadcasts from the heart of Lake Wobegon.”
He probably didn’t. But this is a place where all the women are strong. The children are above average. And ketchup, naturally, is a spice.
Minnesota. We don’t know how to cook, but we like you.
Dakota Sexton grew up exploring the wild Minnesota frontier. She now has a soft spot for both slightly inaccurate maps of the world and printing inventions almost no-one knows how to operate. She is a frequent contributor to Yoga International and her writing can also be found in the anthology The Way We Sleep.