With Thanksgiving safely behind us, I am still puzzled by #grapegate

About a week ago, the New York Times published a cute feature called “The United States of Thanksgiving,” which profiled a signature dish for the Thanksgiving table from each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

And then Minnesota lost its damn mind.

Among the glazes and the pies, the sauces and the stuffings, someone identified as a “Minnesota-born heiress” recommended her family’s grape salad.

It was quickly and unimaginatively labeled an “epic fail” — because Twitter is too awesome for thoughtful vocabulary — and, let’s be honest, this is obviously a super-important story. Instantly were born the hashtags #grapegate and #embracethegrape and a fake Twitter handle for @MNBornHeiress.

It was all very fun. But the mild-mannered vitriol was served up with a side of willful misinterpretation and a dash of wounded pride. It seemed clear to me that the Times piece was not meant to be a comprehensive review of the singular food items that encapsulate the totality of any one state.

To be sure, many of them are linked strongly to ethnic and regional culinary traditions. Alaskan chef Kirsten Dixon makes a lovely salmon pie. Times food editor Sam Sifton added lobster, the flavor of Maine, to a previously published mac & cheese recipe. And Michigan cookbook author Priscilla Massie likes a nice baked German potato salad at her Thanksgiving table.

But some are just traditional dishes dressed up with local flavor. Take Arizona’s cranberry sauce (it has chiles!) or Florida’s citrus-flavored roast turkey.

More than a few have nothing at all to do with geography or tradition; they are simply recommendations from people who live there. Fair enough: There are only so many things you can do to adulterate a turkey.

So Nevada’s dish is a turkey French dip sandwich. (No one in Las Vegas seemed bothered.) A chef in the District of Columbia recommends a garam masala pumpkin tart. And apparently all the weed-toking Coloradans are supposed to go for “Pecan pie bites with gravy” when they get the munchies. (Pennsylvania, incidentally, was offered brown-sugar-glazed bacon — which we cooked yesterday — an inclusion for which I shall be eternally grateful.)

But when a mysterious heiress offers up her family’s grape salad recipe … THE WORLD FUCKING COMES TO AN END.

Now, Minnesota is known for — in fact, it simultaneously reveres and makes fun of itself for — goofy Lutheran church basement potluck fare. So I can’t say I was surprised, exactly, by the recommendation.

Minnesota, like many states, has a carefully crafted identity. And Minnesotans like the joke only when they tell it, not when some high-falutin’, rooty-tootin’ outsider does. Anything that challenges the accepted narrative must be dealt with swiftly — and, in Minnesota, nicely.

Plus any excuse for a Midwestern state to prove it’s superior to New York City (and there are many) is pretty hard to pass up.

NPR’s MonkeySee blog sure felt pretty good about itself with its castigation, written by a former Minnesotan.

“I have never in my life heard of a ‘grape salad.’ Not at Thanksgiving, not at Christmas, not during a Vikings game, not during the Winter Carnival, not during the State Fair, and not during the greatest state holiday: the annual hockey tournament of the Minnesota State High School League.”

I am from Michigan, and I lived in Minnesota for seven years. In all my 38 years on this earth, I hadn’t heard of grape salad either until my mom introduced it to me last summer. But of course all of this is irrelevant. The dish was not presented as a sacred statewide tradition, cherished and esteemed through the generations. No one said the recipe was etched into the walls of the Minnesota Historical Society. It was presented as a family recipe — one family’s tradition. But I suppose it’s easier to kick up a fury when you bend the truth to suit your argument.

The Times‘ public editor offered up a pretty good, fair-minded explanation for how this happened.

The Times‘ food editor recognized that the problem lies in food traditions being regional, not defined by state lines. Coming up with 52 recipes to assign, he said, “turned out to be devilishly difficult.” Two obvious Minnesota dishes, lefse and wild rice, went to other nearby states. What’s Minnesota to do besides offer up its tired old lutefisk? As the public editor rightly points out, a phone call to someone in the Land of 10,000 Lakes might have yielded some better ideas, but grape salad is not exactly obscure; it’s just a couple of decades out of fashion.

Unfortunately, an addendum from a Times food section reporter did its best to undo the apology by blaming the readers.

“We didn’t make stupid errors, or fail to check our facts with perfunctory phone calls. We worked hard — writers and especially editors — to generate a mix of 52 recipes that would not be cliched, repetitive, unhealthy, or unappetizing.”

I happen to agree with her, but then her conclusion — “it is frustrating to have the project so thoroughly misunderstood” — seemed unnecessarily defensive. I say: Simply stand by your work. You did a good job, and you know it? Cool. On to the next thing.

Though it seems the Times can’t quite give up the ghost. With some research help from Google, they produced a report on the most popular recipes in every state as evidenced by search traffic.

As if to quell another Midwestern uprising, they adroitly included this disclaimer:

You should not interpret the dishes here as the most iconic Thanksgiving recipes in each state, or even a state’s favorite dish. It’s possible that some dishes are so central to a state’s culture that people there don’t need to search for them on the web, for instance. But academic research – on everything from voter turnout to flu epidemics– has found that Google searching can be a meaningful indictor of behavior and attitudes.

For Minnesota: wild rice casserole. Vindication? Perhaps. Though, I doubt many Minnesotans will let this go any time soon. (It is a nice distraction from #pointergate, yet another dumbly named, though far more serious, scandal.)

Unsurprisingly, grape salad was not on there. Though I’m sure it was madly and desperately searched for in the last two weeks — seeing as not a single blessed soul in Minnesota has ever, ever heard of it (What is grape salad? I must examine this strange, alien substance!) — it was wisely removed from the analysis.

The Times went further with a rather large correction on November 26, widely cited in the spirit of Internet schadenfreude. Never mind the grape salad “error”:

  • The recipe from Connecticut omitted directions for preparing a central ingredient (quince).
  • The illustration for West Virginia’s pawpaw pudding was, in fact, a papaya. A Google search for “pawpaw” makes clear that many, many others have made the same mistake before Thanksgiving was a glimmer in the Times‘ eye. Sometimes Google just isn’t enough.
  • The bit on Arizona’s afore-mentioned spicy cranberry sauce misidentified the origin of the chiles (which are grown in New Mexico, not Arizona).
  • The bit on Delaware got some historical facts wrong about the du Pont family.
  • And — my favorite — the label for the D.C. illustration misspelled the federal district as “Colombia.”

Good lord. How many #____gates is that? Get busy, Twitter.

If anything, the brouhaha revealed to me how boring Thanksgiving has become. Tradition is one thing. And as we see, tradition means a lot of things to a lot of people. Whether grape salad is Minnesotan or not, whether it’s a salad or a dessert, it is delicious. But there is a whole heck of a lot more you can do on this most gustatory of holidays. Why not have some fun? Fifty-two ideas for something new, America. Few of us have enough Thanksgivings left to try them all. But we can try. What is more American than excess? So, for that, New York Times, I thank you.


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