When the temperatures plunge, Minnesotans don’t hibernate—they put the party on ice. For rib-sticking cold-weather comfort food and warming winter celebrations, need we say it? Go north.
One of my fondest memories growing up in Minneapolis was spending winter afternoons dragging my red plastic toboggan behind me as I shuffled down the winding frozen creek to Peppermint Park, my favorite sledding hill. The squeal of the wind whistling between the branches and the thud of my sled bouncing on the uneven surface were nearly drowned out by the piercing sound of my snowsuit rubbing against itself with each step.
To 10-year-old me, Peppermint Park hill was Mount Everest. My friends and I would struggle to the top, loaded down with layers of long johns and corduroys and snow pants. The ascent always seemed to take an hour, followed by a race down that lasted a split second. We would peel off layers with each climb and lose a hat or a glove with each trip down. We kept going until supper and then began the long slog home in the pitch black, blowing on that bare hand, trying to keep it warm.
Every Minnesotan has some version of this classic winter memory, and it is a reason why we identify as Northerners. Many think we are part of a Midwestern stew that has a Kansas base with some Indiana and Ohio thrown in, but they would be wrong. We are our own main dish.
As Minnesota history goes, Paul Bunyan chased Babe, his blue ox, all around the entire state, their footprints creating our 10,000 lakes. While some geologists dispute this story, no one in Minnesota disputes that come November, we anxiously watch as each and every lake develops those six inches of safe ice so we can pull out our winter gear and get out there and be all up in it.
In the North, winter is an actual season. Compare that to the unpredictable winters of the Midwest, which basically consist of a smattering of unpleasant climate assaults equivalent to a string of surprise ice bucket challenges that happen between bouts of seasonal depression.
If I seem like I have chip on my shoulder, I’m not alone: Eric and Andrew Dayton, sons of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, are even trying to pull off an official rebrand as “the North” in an attempt to extricate our state from its Midwestern reputation. (I mean, they have hats that say “North” and everything, so it is real, y’all.) They own The Bachelor Farmer restaurant in Minneapolis, and Eric is an especially ardent promoter of Minnesota’s cold-season charms. His newest project, The Great Northern festival, invites visitors to get in on the fun with 10 days of outdoor revelry. But from where I sit, this isn’t so much a relabeling as it is a reaffirmation of who we are.
Basically, we Minnesotans live on an activity continuum that consists of adding a hat, a flask, and the words “ice” or “snow” to our favorite activities—ice skating, snow skiing, or ice fishing. But let’s be honest, while the first two are actual things, “ice fishing” is just a made-up term for winter drinking, because “winter drinking” just sounds sad.
But to me, the biggest thing that differentiates Minnesotans from the rest is that our winters teach us early on that you cannot go it alone. We must always be ready to help. We learn to make value judgments by looking at the winter boot choice of every person we meet: We know that a good person wears a Sorel or a Columbia boot at all times in the winter. That shows they understand they may be called upon to push a car out of a snowbank or to help a stranded traveler change a tire. Anyone who wears their good shoes to get around is not only looked upon as thoughtless and unhelpful, but they are also a definite swipe-left on MNder. (OK, that would be Minnesota Tinder, and it’s not a thing, but it should be. We need a dating app where people with chapped lips and hat hair can find each other.)
In “the North” we also count down to the foods of the winter season, like rib-sticking beef pot pie; pillowy, pull-apart monkey bread drenched in honey-bourbon sauce); and pork meatballs. And on any given Sunday, we thaw out the frozen venison steaks we’ve been storing on the porch, put on our “Look, I’m helpful” boots, pull the Weber out of the garage, and grill up those steaks on the driveway.
Best part about being from Minnesota: Unlike the rest of the country, after we celebrate our fall harvest, we don’t hunker down for the winter—we Northerners hunker up.