#GrapeGate 2014: Some Annoying Opinions

https://twitter.com/hashtag/GrapeGate?src=hash

What is grape salad, pa?

In as bad a case of pandering as you’re likely to see all week I will have on the blog tomorrow a recipe for a turkey kofta “curry”. If you serve it at your Thanksgiving meal you’re likely to provoke great outrage from your family and friends, and that’s before you try to sell it as an Indian recipe—then again, family conflict is one of the great Thanksgiving traditions and so perhaps this is indeed a proper Thanksgiving recipe. Before I get to the recipe, however, I want to say a few quick things about an actual recent, local Thanksgiving-related outrage. I am referring to #GrapeGate.

If you don’t know what #GrapeGate is you obviously do not live in Minnesota. For the better part of a week it has seemed to be the only thing anyone in Minnesota can talk about. Last week the New York Times published in their food section an article featuring “recipes that evoke each of the 50 states (and D.C. and Puerto Rico)“. Minnesota was assigned something called grape salad. All hell, as I alluded to above, then proceeded to break loose. Local chefs, food writers, foodies etc. all took to Facebook, Twitter, newspapers, radio and television (and for all I know, to fax machines, telex and carrier pigeon) to describe their shock at this mystifying choice, to note that they had never encountered grape salad before and to ask why on earth anyone would associate Minnesota with grape salad—or some variations on these themes. In perhaps the only good thing to come out of all this Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl had a very witty rejoinder to the NY Times on the MSPmag website.

There are two major problems with this outrage though. The first is that grape salad is real. In the last few days I’ve talked to a number of native Minnesotans and long-time residents who’ve encountered and eaten it. And it’s not some relic from the distant past either as some of the #GrapeGate coverage might lead you to believe. In fact, one of my good friends in town, a city councillor and person below the age of 40 (and proprietor of our town’s excellent brand new indie bookstore), reports that she and her husband have not only seen grape salad but that someone brought it to their Thanksgiving feast just last year!

The second problem is that the outrage seems to partially stem also from a failure of close reading. This is perhaps something I and my ilk should feel some degree of responsibility for but the fact is that the Times piece does not purport to be a list of traditional Thanksgiving dishes from each of the states, merely a list of dishes that “evoke” each state (though it’s possible that this in fact made it worse, see below). While there seems to have been some backtracking on this front from some figures in the Times’ editorial I think the piece speaks for itself. The brief clearly seems to have been to produce an idiosyncratic list of some combination of unexpected and expected (with a twist) selections that could be tied in some way to each state without necessarily being representative in a direct way. Thus, on the one hand, Maine got lobster but as “lobster mac and cheese”, and, on the other, Iowa got something called “Thanksgiving cookies”. But if you read the accompanying writeup you’ll note that “Thanksgiving cookies” (which none of my friends, colleagues or students from Iowa have ever heard of) is not meant to be a traditional Iowa dish—it’s merely one recipe in a recipe book published by an Iowa Falls press in 1975. The Times is just trying too hard to be quirky.

And Thanksgiving cookies are not the only such choice. It’s certainly not the case that “every state got a perfectly representative Thanksgiving dish”, as Moskowitz Grumdahl put it in her piece (she may actually be being ironic here but the notion that the list is representative was brought up by a number of people). See here the entry for Washington DC. Yes, I am referring to “Garam masala pumpkin tart”. No, this has not been selected on account of the long-awaited South Asian takeover of Thanksgiving customs in DC. The only reason this is on the list is because Marcus Samuelsson on one occasion prepared a pumpkin tart with garam masala for a White House dinner honouring then-Indian Prime Minster, Manmohan Singh. The list in fact has more of this kind of thing—see also Rick Bayless’ Mexican-inspired pumpkin soup that is assigned to Illinois (and is all of Ohio also freaking out about Jonathon Sawyer’s throwback English pea and onion salad, “a personal recipe that calls to mind the processed-food delights that, for decades, characterized the cooking of the Midwest”? I dunno, maybe they are). So why is it that Minnesotans got so upset about being assigned a dish, which while by no means a Thanksgiving staple is certainly one with an actual history in the state?

The answer, I suspect, is a version of cultural cringe (and also that our great rivals in Wisconsin were given our wild rice, goddammit!). Minnesotans (and many other midwesterners) have long suffered the humiliation of the scorn—or worse, indifference—of the elite arbiters of culture in New York and elsewhere on the coasts. We have been the punchlines of jokes that don’t usually go far beyond accents. We may have been the source of some of the most important voices in American culture—Bob Dylan, Prince, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the Coen brothers, Siri Hustvedt, Robert Mondavi etc. etc.—but they’re all either known for having left Minnesota or are seen as being from Minnesota but not of it (or in the case of Robert Mondavi no one knows he was born in Minnesota). Not to mention in the world of politics Al Franken is still labouring in the considerable, and considerably batshit-crazy, shadow of Michele Bachmann, even though Minnesota has long been one of the most progressive states in the union.

And if Minnesota has not been associated with culture generally in the eyes of coastal elites, it has certainly not been associated with sophisticated food. If the NY Times’ readership outside Minnesota thinks of Minnesotan food at all it’s likely to be lutefisk, hot dish and deep-fried foods on a stick at the State Fair that come to mind (and to be fair these are all things that Minnesotans good-naturedly embrace). In the last decade or so, however, there has been a bit of a revolution in the high-end dining scene in the Twin Cities. Lots of new ambitious and exciting restaurants have opened. A number of these have been recognized by the national media; and the local food scene had, I think, begun to see itself as belonging in the same conversation as the more celebrated restaurants and chefs in the more predictable parts of the country. (And keep in mind that in the Twin Cities local food writers are as much boosters of the scene as they are critics; their hopes of national recognition are tied to the success of the local scene as well.) We had just begun to convince ourselves that we are not a cultural backwater anymore when it comes to food.

This is why, I think, that so many people here—especially those within the new high-end food scene, which is where #GrapeGate almost entirely has its home—reacted as though the NY Times had hit them full in the face with a bowl of grape salad. In most of the jokes and snark about #GrapeGate—some of them even funny—runs, I think, a strong defensive undercurrent. It’s not that grape salad is not (also) Minnesotan (though some of those who deny it is may genuinely not know it), it’s that grape salad (and all the other foods and ways of being it symbolizes) is not what we are anymore, it’s not what we thought other, cooler cities see when they look at us now. And then with one indifferent sideswipe, not even meant as an insult, the cool kids at the NY Times food section—whose words we otherwise hang on—reminded us that we’re still a backwater in their eyes, that they still don’t feel the need to look at us carefully or even properly update their stereotypes.

This is more or less straight-up acknowledged in this NPR blog post on the subject by Linda Holmes, which otherwise recognizes the premise of the NY Times piece. Holmes’ own post contains some interesting rhetorical maneuvers. The Minnesota-cred of the “heiress” said to be the source of the NY Times grape salad recipe is questioned (“note that she’s not Minnesotan, but ‘Minnesota-born'”) while her own Minnesotan antecedents are linked to “10 winters as a resident”; she decries the anecdotal nature of the entry (“Read every entry you have and think to yourself, “Am I basing this on actual information, or am I basing this on something droll I read in The New Yorker?””) but her own denial of the existence of the dish is entirely anecdotal (“I have never in my life heard of a “grape salad.”) And it’s not even really the existence of grape salad that’s at stake anyway, it’s this:

So please understand: The New York Times has examined the entire state of Minnesota and said, “You know what evokes your state? A bowl of grapes mixed with sour cream, covered with sugar, and heated up, and then chilled again. That’s you. That’s how you are.” After this, I imagine them laughing, high-fiving, and refilling a glass of chardonnay.

There is, I think, a bit of a class narrative in play here. Unlike grape salad, some of the other unlikely dishes on the NY Times list do evoke diners refilling glasses of chardonnay or flaunting more sophisticated palates: grape salad has none of the worldly glamour of DC’s garam masala pumpkin tart; nor were we flattered like Utah with caramel budino or given the ethnic chic of New Mexico’s “slow-cooked red chile turkey”. As Holmes asks, “Don’t those things sound delicious?”. Indeed, if the piece had plucked an entirely untraditional, unrepresentative dish from one of the hotter Twin Cities menus to represent Minnesota (as is the case with some of the other states) it’s hard to imagine as much fuss.

To repeat myself, it’s not that grape salad isn’t (also) Minnesotan, it’s that it’s the wrong kind of Minnesotan. What’s happening in much of the #GrapeGate response, as in Holmes’ post, is not merely a richly deserved mocking of the NY Times’ partial vision of the rest of the country (I don’t disagree with Holmes in this regard) or the stretched premise of the piece, but also the airing of a particular kind of grievance: we want you to acknowledge that we’re cool like you and once again you’ve failed to do so. What’s exposed, I think, is a sort of anxiety about the local food scene, a need for recognition from the outside. While this is not surprising, and is certainly understandable, it’s when our food scene is strong enough that we won’t care so much what some torturously conceived feature in the New York Times assigns to us that we will really have begun to arrive. Plus, keep in mind, Minnesotans: tater-tot hotdish wouldn’t have made us feel so much better.

2 thoughts on “#GrapeGate 2014: Some Annoying Opinions

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