“I am a Minnesotan, born with appetite for food and life.”
With those words, Patrice Johnson opens her “Land of 10,000 Plates: Stories and Recipes From Minnesota” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $24.95), a just-released collection of essays and recipes that focus on the multicultural food rituals celebrated across the state as well as in Johnson’s own kitchen.
In a recent phone conversation, Johnson, the author of “Jul: Swedish American Holiday Traditions,” discussed Tater Tot hot dish, wild rice, climate change and her passion for church cookbooks.
Q: This book is a big change from your Nordic foodways work. Why the switch?
A: Minnesota is my first love. When I’ve done the Nordic stuff, that’s all about my cultural history and how I connect with my family. But Minnesota, it’s more than culture, it’s my people. Minnesota means so much to me. Living here is such a blessing.
Q: Isn’t every place special, in its own way? Floridians probably feel that way about Florida, for example.
A: I suppose, if you live there. I’ve lived somewhere where there wasn’t much in the way of changing seasons, and it was so boring. You can’t appreciate a 90-degree day if you also don’t have 30 below. We have grasslands, hills, rivers and lakes, and we have all the good food, too.
Q: It’s refreshing to see a cookbook that addresses the effects of climate change. Why did that important topic make it into your book?
A: Climate change is such a huge issue for me. Minnesotans — unless they’re farmers — probably don’t realize how close we are to losing what we take for granted. That thought triggered, “Gosh, I’ve got to document some of this stuff,” because I didn’t realize that so much of it was going away. I want people to be grateful for what we have, and keep Minnesota as clean as we can, and keep it cold.
Q: Are Minnesotans’ culinary habits ruled by seasonal rituals?
A: I wish we were, because there is so much celebration in that. Everything is available now. You can get a strawberry in January, although it’s not a good strawberry. In the old days, you could only get a strawberry in June and July. In my house, yes, we are absolutely ruled by the seasons, because it’s best to eat things when they’re at their peak. But if you’re a family with four rowdy kids and a heavy schedule, do you even have time to think about the seasons? Or is it just about getting dinner on the table as quickly as possible
Q: On the subject of dinner, you’ve got four Tater Tot hot dish recipes in the book. What is it with you — and Minnesota — and Tater Tot hot dish?
A: I have to admit that I don’t make a lot of hot dish, and it wasn’t until I started writing this book that I really dove back into the hot dish realm. Then I judged the Minnesota congressional delegation hot dish competition, and, I mean, come on, that’s amazing.
Q: Do you have a favorite among the four recipes?
A: I have to say that Rep. Ilhan Omar’s hot dish is so delicious. Don’t tell Yia [Vang, chef/owner of Union Hmong Kitchen] that it’s my favorite one, because his is really good, too; it’s the one that he first served to the public at the State Fair. But Rep. Omar’s is actually relatively healthy, as hot dish goes.
Q: The most traditional hot dish recipe in your book embraces the “no-can” concept. Why?
A: I hate it that I’m such a snob in this way, but I just can’t do it when it comes to canned soup. There have been times when I’ve had to buy it, and I go to a store where they don’t know me. Isn’t that awful? For me, it’s a way to control what goes into hot dish — the salt, for example — and the no-can alternative tastes better.
Q: How did you develop your Spam-topped lefse pizza?
A: I’m pretty sure that I started making lefse pizza because I was inspired by something I ate at Aquavit [the former Minneapolis restaurant], and it was possibly [Aquavit] chef Marcus Samuelsson being inspired by Wolfgang Puck, because it’s crisped lefse topped with crème fraîche, pickled vegetables, capers, gravlax and caviar. I was demonstrating at the State Fair, and I like to challenge people, because Minnesotans have a reputation of not eating outside the box. So I decided to replace the gravlax with Spam, and fancy it up with roe. People were skeptical, but then they were, like, “This is the best Spam I’ve ever had.
Q: Your work is usually focused on other people’s histories, so what was it like to write about yours?
A: Easy. Too easy, really. When I first pitched this book, it felt so unfocused. I’ve got too much to say, and growing up in a family of four older sisters and a mom who is super-vivacious, well, there is never a quiet moment when we’re together. I felt like I had to find a way to have myself heard. There are too many stories, and not enough ears. Plus, I loved growing up in my family, so it’s very easy to tell those stories
Q: The book has a recipe for a shrimp-mayonnaise-shredded carrot-potato sticks salad and it’s named for Jan Doerr. Who is Jan Doerr?
A: She was our neighbor. That salad is fantastic. I realize it’s probably an acquired taste, but it’s so Minnesotan, it’s the salad equivalent of hot dish. I mean, whoever thought to put a funny shaped potato chip with carrots, shrimp and mayonnaise — or, in my mother’s case, Miracle Whip — in a bowl and call it dinner? It has crunchy, and sweet, and creamy, but you really need to eat it with biscuits, pickles, baked beans and colby cheese.
Q: That recipe has to be a church cookbook classic, right? What’s the origin of your vintage church cookbook fixation?
A: It’s because it’s about forgotten voices, and that’s so fascinating to me. We see a lot of women’s history in those old church and community cookbooks
Q: How big is your collection?
A: Maybe a couple of hundred, and I’m always looking for more. Shoes and books, whoever dies with the most wins.
Q: Connecting with a woman named Hope Flanagan at a wild rice festival is the book’s final essay. Why did you end it this way?
A: I wanted to have some hope, and meeting a woman named Hope, who happens to be Native, felt like the right note. Even when things are dire, she has a way of lifting up above it, and I find that helpful and hopeful. Chef Yia, he has that same tone. These two really made me feel hopeful. They taught me that there is something that each of us as individuals can do in our community.