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Plains Folk: A Sustaining Encore

By Tom Isern, Professor of History North Dakota State University, March 9, 2000.


Recent columns discussing beverages in the culture of the northern plains prompted responses from several thirsty readers across the region. In the first place, Nels Peterson from the extension office in Lakota, N.D., disputes my remark about Norwegians being to blame for weak coffee--he says it's the Germans. (Nels, I still think the majority sentiment is against you on this. But since just about all of us make bad coffee in this part of the country, what's the difference?)

Then there was the column about red-eye sometimes called wedding schnapps, a cultural fixture among Germans from Russia and some other ethnic groups. I mentioned that I liked to make a nightcap by putting a shot of the anise-flavored red-eye into a hot cup of tea with milk, but that I needed a name for this wonderful concoction. Lorraine Fairfield from Eldridge, N.D., following up on my observation that the drink looked like Little Missouri River water, suggests "Misery Tea" as a name.

She also says--and this was a new one to me--"My drink of choice on a cold winter night is International Swiss Mocha coffee laced with peppermint schnapps. I have a good night's s-l-e-e-p." Is this common, I wondered? So I asked my Great Plains history students, and they said the thing to have was peppermint schnapps in hot chocolate. Sounds to me like a prescription for hibernation.

Back to the red-eye tea drink--Art Henderson of Greenbush, Minnesota suggests calling it "Northern Comfort." That's a good one, but my favorite suggestion comes via Jim Meier from New Salem, N.D., way. He writes, "Seems to me your invention of hot tea, milk and red-eye should be called a Shut Eye particularly for the soporific effect you ascribed to it." Shut Eye it is!

What reminded me of all this was watching the new documentary on German-Russian foodways called "Schmeckfest: Food Traditions of the Germans from Russia." This will be shown again on Prairie Public Television on Wednesday, March 15, and I recommend it highly. (I'm sure it will make its way into public television in other reaches of the region, so watch local listings.)

This video piece has a lot going for it, beginning with the obsessive passion of Mike Miller, executive producer, for every aspect of German-Russian culture. Producer Bob Dambach sees that production aspects meet the usual high standards of Prairie Public, and given his notorious love of good food, I'm sure this project got special care! The best thing the documentary has going for it, though, is those faces--mostly women, mostly older women, in whose faces every line, every knowing line, every knowing nod, every mischievous glance is a historical document unto itself. The effect is transfixing.

The name "Schmeckfest" might cause some to think the focus is on Eureka, S.D., but the scope is regionally broad. The project travels to Rugby, Horace, Beulah and Fargo in North Dakota; St. Paul, St. Louis Park and Plymouth in Minnesota; Aberdeen and Eureka in South Dakota; and Wheatridge, Colorado in search of the mysteries of Kaseknoephla, Kranz, Pfeffernuesse Brot, Knoepfla soup, Fleischkueckle, Kuchen, watermelon pickles, and of course, red-eye.

A review of this Prairie Public documentary cannot close without mention of the wonderful narrative voice of Ron Vossler, who wrote the script. This boy from Wishek is a great interpreter of a deep ethnic culture. His gift for deft description gets full play in this script, and the lyric quality of his prose is inimitable. Ron is an accomplished, but not broadly known, writer. Let me venture here the prediction that he will become a significant figure in regional letters whose work will be studied and anthologized. Let's hear more from him.

Reprinted with permission of Tom Isern and Plains Talk.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
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