WASHINGTON - The Minnesota delegation "Hotdish Off" competition is only in its second year, but it's fast becoming legend in a polarized Congress looking for some semblance of normalcy and bipartisan cooperation.

This year, CNN showed up, putting the eight Minnesota politicians who took part on a national stage as examples of down-home Midwestern folksiness transcending political boundaries.

Who can resist Sen. Al Franken and Rep. Michele Bachmann, from opposite solar systems in the political universe, donning aprons and good-naturedly trading casserole recipes?

The event was Franken's brainchild, a way to foster a modicum of personal camaraderie in Washington -- and perhaps soften the edges of his pre-Senate image as an acerbic satirist of the left, the guy who railed against right-wing "lies and the lying liars who tell them."

It's part and parcel with Franken's Secret Santa strategy in the Senate, where he has gone out of his way to swap gifts and sponsor bills with Republicans. At the same time, he still recoils at journalistic conventions that he insists produce a "false equivalence" between his idea of a just fiscal policy -- which he believes is right -- and theirs -- which he usually finds lacking in intellectual honesty.

But all that was set aside for an hour in a Capitol meeting room where most of the Minnesota delegation gathered Wednesday for a friendly cooking competition focused on hotdish, that famously plain comfort food from the Heartland.

"If there's one thing that can bring a bunch of Minnesotans together, it's hotdish," Franken said.

That the Hotdish Off got the warm embrace it did (only Reps. John Kline and Betty McCollum skipped it) speaks volumes about a Congress with approval ratings in the low teens and desperate to connect with the "real" America outside the outer loop of the Capital Beltway.

Of course, amid the exaltations of bipartisanship a few subtle, electoral messages slipped in. Freshman Republican Chip Cravaack, who tied for top honors with Franken, was careful to note that his "Minnesota Wild Strata Hotdish" featured wild rice harvested by the Fond Du Lac Band of Chippewa in his northern Minnesota district. Southern Minnesota Democrat Tim Walz mentioned the salient point that his recipe used Spam, a product of Hormel Foods in Austin.

Bachmann showed less political inhibition. She called the event "a bipartisan opportunity to celebrate our great state and last week's bipartisan success on passing the St. Croix River Crossing legislation."

McCollum, who opposed the bridge bill, wasn't there to argue the point.

For some veterans of the Minnesota scene in Washington, including Master of Ceremonies Denny McGrann (an aide to ex-Congressman Gerry Sikorski), the show of unity served as a reminder of a bygone era when the Minnesota delegation actually did function as a unit.

But that harkens all the way back to the days of former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1949 to 1964. Humphrey was said to hold sway over a state delegation that met regularly and parceled out assignments according to committee memberships.

Now that kind of intra-state cooperation is limited mainly to -- hotdish.

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

A look ahead

A proposed "right to work" constitutional amendment will get its first hearing at 8 a.m. Monday in the Minnesota Senate.