When I write about food here, I usually delve deep into Southernism with all of its greens and shrimps and peanuts and okra and whatnots. The stuff on which I was reared and raised, for better or worse. Tonight, however, I look north and west, and sing of the praises of the dish which in our household has come to be known as “Minnesota Hot Dish.”
Way back in my bachelor days, I realized that the women in my life really enjoyed it when I made them spectacular, extravagant meals, so I got pretty darned good at cooking, since at the bottom line, I’ve always been all about doing all the things that the women in my life really enjoyed. (What else is there to aspire to, really?) I was a cooking snob, for the most part: very persnickety about fresh ingredients and sauces made from scratch and the like. When Marcia and I met and then began dating (nine months later), we lived in Washington, DC, where I could get all sorts of arcane ingredients for the Southeast Asian and Italian dishes that were my particular culinary strengths at the time. I did some traditional Low Country South Carolina cooking as well, since proximity to the Chesapeake Bay and Eastern Shore meant we could get decent, fresh seafood and corn.
Fast forward to 1989, when Marcia and I got married in Minneapolis, where she was raised. At our wedding, one of her aunts gave her a copy of a cookbook called Vaer Saa God, which is Norwegian for “Come and Eat.” The book was compiled by the Fron Lutheran Church Women’s Auxiliary from Starbuck, Minnesota. Our copy was inscribed by her aunt as follows: “I don’t know if you are into cooking, Marcia, but if you are, this cookbook is almost a Bible in these parts.”
Marcia wasn’t into cooking, but I was, so the book passed to me. It contains 320 pages of recipes submitted by the women of Fron Lutheran Church over its 100 year history. (Our edition is the special “Fron Centennial Cook Book.”) The book didn’t interest me much at the time, what with all of its simple recipes involving ground beef, potato chips, ketchup, chow mein noodles, and that great staple of Midwestern cooking: Cream of Mushroom Soup. But fast forward again a couple of years, when Marcia and I found ourselves suddenly relocated to a small town in Idaho, with a mortgage in Washington and a rent payment in Idaho due, a single income available where once there had been two, a four month old child, and me facing a 60-mile one-way commute to and from work, where I put in 8-10 hour days every day.
Suddenly, my fancy pants cooking days seemed like the self-indulgence of a pampered dilettante, as Marcia and I really needed less imported Chon Buri fish sauce and Thai Basil leaves and more hearty, quick, easy, affordable, satisfying food. Toward that end, we glommed onto a particular recipe submitted by Mrs. Russell Lundell, found on page 215 of Vaer Saa God, called “Hot Dish” and featuring the following ingredients: noodles, hamburger, chopped onion, mushrooms, cream of mushroom soup, milk, American cheese and salt and pepper to taste. I simplified it further by eliminating the onion and mushroom. Rather than refer to page 215 of Vaer Saa God and Mrs. Lundell every time we shopped for or made it, we just started calling it “Minnesota Hot Dish.” It became the staple dish of the early days of our married life.
What made me think of it, nearly 20 years later? We cooked hamburgers on the grill last night and had about half a pound of ground beef left, so we decided to make a little Minnesota Hot Dish tonight with the leftovers. It’s been a long time, but it was as tasty and satisfying as I remembered it. Sometimes the simplest, easiest dishes really are the best ones, be they made in Minnesota or in the Low Country of South Carolina. That’s an important lesson to learn and retain, along with knowing the proper food groups.
In closing, I should note that the dedication of Vaer Saa God reads “To the pioneer women whose warm hospitality and the good food they served; and to our daughters and granddaughters whom we hope shall carry on these same traditions.” They didn’t specifically dedicate it to the grandsons-in-law who carry on the traditions, but I consider that it applies to me anyway.