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
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.