Q. You know why the Iowa Hawkeyes don't have grass on the field at Kinnick Stadium?
A. Because the cheerleaders can't graze on artificial turf.
That's a Minnesota joke. To many Minnesotans, their Iowa neighbors look like the joke Grant Wood made them out to be in American Gothic. I'm an Iowan. Maybe our neighbor's derision should make me dislike them. Sorry, I don't.
The shot above is a Sinclair Lewis 1/3 pound cheeseburger served up by the Palmer House, downtown Sauk Center, an old hotel that's not changed its features for a half century, I'm sure, and fronts at Sinclair Lewis Street. I'm not kidding. Just down the way a few blocks, you can find the Sinclair Lewis home, in fact; and on the south side of town, the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center.
All of which is really hilarious--and sad. There is, methinks, nothing more "Sinclair Lewis" than a "Sinclair Lewis 1/3 pound cheeseburger." Lewis didn't much care for the codgers who peopled his hometown, nor any Midwestern small towns, for that matter. The book that shot the moon for him, Main Street (1921), sold phenomenally and led, eventually, to Lewis's receiving the Nobel Prize (1930), the first American to win.
In high school, I was forcefed Main Street. Hated it. Made no sense to me, largely because the book is acidic satire. What I remember best is how much "Red" Lewis despised small town folks not unlike all those around me. Perhaps he had reason: small towns can be death on those individuals who are individuals. Lewis was tall, gangly, unathletic, and, well, ugly. His old man, the town doctor, never quite understood him. Not a good recipe for success.
Next week Saturday night, Garrison Keillor will celebrate his 30th anniversary show in Avon, Minnesota, a small town just about as close as you can get, he says, to Lake Woebegone. The public is invited. Bring your own lawn chairs and picnic baskets. Admission is free.
The whole idea of lawn chairs and picnic baskets would be anathema, methinks, to Minnesota's only Nobel Prize winner, Sinclair Lewis. He'd rip and tear at the souls of those who show up. He made a literary life by making fun of the people in Sauk Center.
Now Garrison Keillor, another Minnesota writer, is not above taking some shots at Lake Woebegone's silly cast of folks, but he's nothing at all like Lewis. Some fine Minnesota critics have already parsed out the differences between them, I'm sure, but it seems to me that both writers have made a good living carving out Minnesota bumpkins, with this appreciable difference: when push comes to shove, Garrison Keillor likes 'em; Red Lewis hated 'em.
Today, or so it seems to this Iowan, Minnesota can laugh at itself and love itself, and that's why I admire the place. Look, anyone who can be at home with the tag "Gopher State" can't lack for a sense of humor. Minnesotans buy truly Minnesota gear--caps, jackets, vests--at Bemidji Woolen Mills and wear them with pride, just like some ancient, dorky Sven or Olie. In Fargo, the Coen brothers, themselves Minnesotans, worked the archetype beautifully with their unforgettable small-town cop, Marge Gunderson, who, like a good stout cap with earmuffs, is just corny enough to be loveable. One gets the sense--at least "up north"--that Minnesota's self-image is in fine shape, despite their Nobel Prize winner's hearty disdain.
Maybe I'm just now, a day later, catching the joke. That cheeseburger wasn't bad at all, believe me, served on a hard roll. But what I'm thinking is that maybe it's poetic justice that Sauk Prairie honor its famous Nobel Prize winning son/writer with a big fat 1/3 pound cheeseburger.
Sort of Minnesotan.