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March 2, 2006 • Volume 14 Number 12

Boston College's native Minnesota population includes (L-R) faculty members Jeffery Howe, Crystal Tiala and Harold Petersen: "You never realize you have a culture," says Tiala, "until you leave it."

Ice Fishing? Hot Dish? You Betcha.

As New England eagerly awaits the coming of spring, BC's steadfast Minnesotan community wonders, 'When does winter start?'

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Her students may not realize it, but Assoc. Prof. Crystal Tiala (Theater) has a skill that seems unlikely for an expert in theatrical scene design: cleaning and gutting fish.

"I don't think my students would be that impressed if they knew," says Tiala. "Actually, they might be kind of appalled."

But Tiala is hardly apologetic about her fish-gutting prowess, which she cites as a hallmark of her Minnesota childhood. Nor is she alone in the Boston College community when it comes to fond reminiscences for the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

In a relocation-happy, cosmopolitan age where regional identity is diminished - or overshadowed by major urban areas like New York and Los Angeles - Tiala and her fellow North Star State expatriates, who include College of Arts and Sciences Dean Joseph Quinn, Prof. Jeffery Howe (Fine Arts) and Assoc. Prof. Harold Petersen (Economics), feel gratified to have a strongly developed sense of homeland.

They describe Minnesota as a place of simple pleasures like "hot dish" and Jell-O with marshmallows, and of plain speaking, reserved people for whom modesty is perhaps the defining virtue.

How do you tell an introvert from an extrovert in Minnesota?

An extrovert in Minnesota looks down at your shoes when he talks to you. You betcha.

"I guess you never realize you have a culture until you leave it," says Tiala, who was born in Pennsylvania but moved as a young child to Sauk Rapids - her father's Minnesota roots affirm her credentials as a Gopher State denizen.

"We three are a very diverse bunch: Crystal's Finnish, Jeff is Swedish and I'm Norwegian," says Petersen, composer of odes to Minnesotan staples such as ice fishing and Alberta Clippers [see separate story]. "I never imagined I could identify with a Finn and a Swede. But once we all discovered one another, the Minnesota thing just took over, and we had to stick together. It's our version of an ethnic enclave."

Meanwhile, as the BC community looks forward to the start of spring in a few weeks' time, the University's Minnesota natives are wondering when winter is supposed to start. They scratch their heads at the Boston area's melodramatization of snowstorms, notably the panic-stricken shopping sprees and deployment of TV news reporters in Arctic gear to verify what seems obvious: It's snowing.

Of course, there's snowing, and then there's snowing. Minnesota - home to International Falls, regularly cited as having the lowest temperature in the continental United States - is visited regularly by Alberta Clippers, which often quickly produce wind-driven heaps of snow and severely reduce visibility. (The Alberta Clippers that occasionally pass through New England are shadows of the real thing, according to the Minnesotans.)

Don't expect snow days if you're a kid in Minnesota, either. Howe, a native of Grand Rapids - "Are there rapids, and are they really grand?" Petersen asks rhetorically - says his school used the "60-60-60" standard in deciding whether or not to close: 60 mile-an-hour winds, 60 inches of snow, 60 below zero temperature.

Quinn, who grew up in Duluth, recalls only one weather-related closing - a half day - in his elementary school years, and it was because of a tornado threat.

Given the climate, Minnesotans not surprisingly have a different sense of the equinoctial year, "In Duluth, you'd get 10 months of really good outdoor skating," says Quinn, "and two months of pretty crummy outdoor skating." As Tiala puts it, words like "spring" and "autumn" are not particularly meaningful in Minnesota: "In terms of seasons, there's 'winter' and 'road construction.'"

In truth, the Gopher State natives say summers are glorious in Minnesota, a great time to "head up the lake" to fish, walk along the beach in search of attractive agate stones or try water-skiing in back of a sailboat.

But to boast about such things would be to violate the protocols of "Minnesota nice," cautions Howe. "It means that you don't brag, and you don't criticize. For example, if you saw somebody about to insert a stick into a large fan blade, you wouldn't say, 'Stop, you idiot!' You'd say, 'Well, don't know if I'd do it quite like that.'"

"Minnesota nice" also means "that when you're asked to stay for lunch or dinner, you refuse twice before you say 'OK' the third time," explains Petersen, who hails from the intriguingly named town of Fertile - its local newspaper has featured such headlines as "Former Fertile Couple Celebrates 50th Anniversary."

Accepting such an invitation might mean the opportunity to sample Minnesota's most popular form of cuisine, "hot dish," which usually comprises crumbled meat, macaroni and vegetables with cream of mushroom soup and topped with the piece de resistance, tater tots. After the Jell-O con marshmallows, the ideal meal concludes with "bars" - brownies or other similar baked treats.

Minnesota's neighbors seem to look askance at times at the state's minor celebrity: North Dakotans, for example, are quick to point out that their state tops Minnesota for honors as the coldest in the lower 48.

Iowa native Rev. William B. Neenan, SJ, vice president and special assistant to the president, notes that his grandfather regularly traveled into Minnesota as an engineer for the Great Northern Railroad. "After 50 years of going to Minnesota, the only thing Grandpa Neenan had to say was, 'Don't bother going north. There ain't nothing there.'"

A transplanted Minnesotan might cook up hot dish, listen to Garrison Keillor's tales of Lake Wobegone, or watch the cult movie "Fargo" - "Finally, a movie without funny accents," says Howe - to recall the land of their youth, but living in New England definitely has meant adjustments.

"New England's pretty crowded," Tiala and her cohorts agree. "The roads are not straight here. In Minnesota, when you head west, you head west; you could go clear to Montana before you realize it."

"The summer days are very long back home," says Petersen. "It's because you don't have all these mountains getting in the way of the sun like you do here."

Howe thinks a minute, then sighs. "There just aren't enough lakes around," he laments, "although I guess the ocean does kind of make up for it."

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