7 Wonders of MN

A handful of the wonders that Minnesota has to offer, curated by a handful of local luminaries.

1. SPAM – The meat that matters

by Tim Gihring.

“Everything about SPAM is important and should be carried in your heart always,” says a video voiceover in Austin’s SPAM Museum, which sits on SPAM Boulevard across from Johnny’s Spamarama restaurant just down the road from Hormel’s mammoth pork processing plant, where several billion cans of SPAM have been cranked out since the luncheon meat’s debut in 1937. “Not all hogs make it to Sturgis,” reads a T-shirt in the museum’s gift shop. Clearly.

SPAM is important. Especially to the people who’ve posted SPAM haiku on the product’s fan-club website (“Consumed by sadness / Alone, I fry it until brown / One minute per side”). Especially to, well, all of us, who might be eating spaetzel if it weren’t for all the SPAM rations consumed by American soldiers during World War II. The meat deserves its capital letters.

SPAM has inspired the good (Monty Python’s Spamalot, the current Broadway musical smash), the bad (all that unsolicited e-mail, called Spam after Monty Python’s legendary skit about a restaurant that annoyingly serves SPAM with everything), and the ugly (the SPAMALYMPICS in Austin, Texas, featuring SPAM disc shooting, the SPAMBURGER eating contest, and SPAM calling—something like hog calling: SPAM-EEE!).

Still, how many of us know what SPAM is? “Whatever you’ve heard is in SPAM probably isn’t,” reads a display wall at the SPAM Museum. SPAM, it clarifies, consists of pork shoulder and ham. And that’s it. No snouts, no tails, no naughty little children. (And no, meathead, ham and pork aren’t the same thing—ham is the pig’s thigh, pork is everything else.) Of course, SPAM is short for spiced ham (not Something Posing As Meat, as some rascals have suggested), but, this being Minnesota, the “spices” are just sugar and salt. Now you know.

2. Ordinary People – Celebrating 30 years with Judith Guest’s Jarretts

by Lorna Landvik

Judith Guest and I belong to a secret society of which I’ve already said too much. We are a merry bunch, but our conversations are not restricted to requests to pass the cheese tray or refill the wine glass; often our discourse asks, “What’s going on in this world and what can we do about it?”

Judy’s already done the world a big favor by writing Ordinary People. Good books are the lighthouse beams cutting through the fog; they shine a light that helps us get where we need to go, or out of where we shouldn’t be. How many teenagers, how many mothers and fathers, how many siblings have followed the light in this book that showed them they were not alone, that made them think, Yes, that’s how it is for me, too?

Conrad. Beth. Calvin. Buck. A family like so many, stitched together by blood and unraveled by life. The fabric will never be whole again, and yet we turn the pages, hoping that somehow these people we’ve come to care so much about will figure out how to patch the remaining pieces together. We are invested in these people, and their lives shine a light back at our own, making us see more clearly what is ours.

Everything about Ordinary People is extraordinary, from the story it tells in its pages to the story of its 1976 publication. A housewife (and, of course, all of us who’ve been called a housewife know the true size of that word) sends her manuscript to New York, where it is dug out of the slush pile, published to great acclaim, and made into an Oscar-winning movie by the reigning king of Hollywood, Robert Redford. The book and the movie are classics—and how many writers get to be a part of that fairy tale?

But bigger than the fairy tale is the story, the one Judith Guest told, the one we keep wanting to hear. Thanks, Judy.

Lorna Landvik’s next novel, The View from Mount Joy, will be published in April 2007.

3. Kirby Puckett – All of Minnesota rides on his back

By Anne Ursu

In 1997, The Late Show with David Letterman did a Minnesota-themed episode with a studio audience filled with people from the Twin Cities. The Top Ten List for that night was “Ways to Mispronounce Kirby Puckett,” and when Letterman announced that Puckett himself would deliver the list, the crowd went crazy. The applause for Kirby lasted for nearly a full minute, and upon seeing the tremendous reception Letterman’s face registered first surprise, then wonder, then something very close to joy. “That right there was a real thrill,” Letterman said when the applause finally began to die. “That made you tingle a little bit.”

No one from Minnesota would have been surprised by that crowd’s reaction.

Kirby Puckett was more than a star player, more than a celebrity; he was a folk hero. And a particularly Minnesotan one at that. Our star athletes don’t look like Michael Jordan; they’re 5-foot-8 with the body of a bowling ball and mien of a teddy bear. I credit two people with teaching me to love baseball—my father and Kirby. The first explained the joy of the game, the second embodied it every time he stepped on the field. Kirby was everything that’s good about baseball—he played it like a kid living out a dream, and through him we got to live out our dreams, too.

Then the unthinkable happened. A year after his Hall of Fame induction, the allegations hit. Infidelity. Harassment. Abuse. We’ve always known that athletes are human, that they are flawed, that we turn them into heroes at our own peril—but Kirby? We learned a lesson: there are no heroes, there are no myths, there are only men, and men can be so terribly small.

And then Kirby died last March, and we found that we do need heroes after all.

“Hop on my back, boys,” he told the Twins before Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Whether we knew it or not, we’d all been riding his back for years, and now that he’s not here anymore we have to go it on our own. But we can close our eyes and see him flashing his Kirby smile, legging out ground balls, leaping improbable heights to rob someone of a home run, chugging around the base paths pumping his fists, while all of Minnesota rides on his back.

Anne Ursu has been a Twins fan since she was 5 years old. She founded the Twins blog bat-girl.com in 2003. Ursu’s latest novel, The Shadow Thieves, was published earlier this year.

4. The Lost Forty – This old-growth forest towers above the rest

By Rachel Hutton

For nearly a century, the great north woods buzzed with logging camps and thundered with toppling trees. But the lumberjacks missed a spot: the Lost Forty, a small acreage of old-growth trees in what is now the Chippewa National Forest, just northwest of Grand Rapids. In 1882, surveyors mistakenly classified the Lost Forty as a wetland; the parcel was never sold, and its trees were spared the saw. Today, 350-year-old white pines tower nearly 200 feet over the DNR-designated preserve. Just 1 percent of Minnesota’s remaining forests contain such ancient trees, and the Lost Forty’s silent pines pay homage to the other 99 percent.

Rachel Hutton is associate editor of Minnesota Monthly.

5. Fraser Child & Family Center – Abating Autism

by Carol Ratelle Leach

William John was 2 years old in 2002 when he, along with thousands of other children in the United States that year, was diagnosed with autism. He was lucky. Because William lived in Minnesota and not, say, Arkansas, he was able to get the intensive therapy he needed at the Minneapolis-based Fraser Child & Family Center—one of only a handful of comprehensive, multidisciplinary programs for toddlers and preschoolers with autism and related disorders in the country. This month, thanks in large part to Fraser, the now-engaging 5-year-old will begin kindergarten in a mainstream classroom at his neighborhood school.

Fraser has been a pioneer in helping children with developmental disabilities achieve their potential since 1935, when Louise Whitbeck Fraser opened her Home Study School—the first of its kind in the state. The widowed former teacher was inspired by her daughter, Jean, who had few educational opportunities after suffering from spinal meningitis as a baby. The school’s visibility and viability were boosted in the 1960s with the enrollment of Muriel and Hubert H. Humphrey’s granddaughter, Victoria, who was born with Down syndrome on election night in 1960. Renamed in honor of its founder, the $17 million nonprofit provided education, housing, health care, and other support for some 68,000 Minnesotans last year.

But it is its leadership in autism diagnosis and treatment that has earned a national reputation for Fraser, which in 1994 rescued the ailing Exceptional Children with Communication and Interaction Disorders program started by an area hospital. “It was losing money and no one wanted it, but we felt it was a key program in this community,” says Diane S. Cross, president and CEO of Fraser since 1989. As a result, Minnesota was one of the few states even remotely equipped to deal with the 15-fold increase in autism diagnoses recorded between 1995 and 2005.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 175 children under age 10 now are identified as autistic. The impact of the estimated $3.2 million lifetime cost of caring for each one is difficult to overstate. Yet intensive early intervention can reduce that cost by as much as two-thirds. “The earlier we can start working with a child and his or her family, the better, because there’s a real chance to build a lasting foundation of healthy relating, communicating, and thinking, rather than just deal with specific behaviors,” says Dr. Stanley Greenspan, clinical professor at George Washington University Medical School and author of, most recently, Engaging Autism.

Recognizing that no one regimen has proven universally effective, Fraser provides an individualized continuum of psychological, medical, educational, and social “best practices” (including components of Greenspan’s “Floortime” technique) to children as young as 11 months. “We believe in making the program fit the child, not the child fit the program,” says Cross. “We also want to be sure we don’t duplicate what is being done at home or school.” The Autism Society of America named it Program of the Year in 2000.

Alice Seagren, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, has a son with developmental disabilities and has served on Fraser’s board of directors (as has this writer). “I lie awake at night thinking about how many families need this support,” she says. “I think sometimes the public thinks these kids are never going to be able to do anything. But if you talk to parent after parent, you see how much they, with Fraser’s help, can contribute to our wonderful, wonderful world.”

Carol Ratelle Leach is senior editor of Minnesota Monthly.

6. Passive Aggressiveness – A joke (with truths)

By Al Franken

Everybody’s heard of “Minnesota nice.” And it’s true that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Minnesota perennially ranks among the top five nicest states in the union.

In most states, it’s okay to be a jerk. In New York, if you’re not nice, that’s fine—you’re a New Yorker. If an old-timer in New Hampshire isn’t cantankerous by the time he’s 70, there’s something wrong with him.

But in Minnesota, not being nice carries a social stigma. That’s why the tens of thousands of Minnesotans who aren’t nice pretend that they are. And that’s why passive-aggressive behavior has reached epidemic proportions here in the Gopher State.

I called Dr. Leif Thorsgaard, a professor in behavioral sciences at the University of Minnesota, who is a noted authority on passive aggression, and asked if he’d mind giving me a little perspective on the phenomenon.

“Sure,” Dr. Thorsgaard said in a chipper voice. “I’d be happy to.”

“Great,” I replied. “Should we do this over the phone or could I meet you in your office?”

“Whatever’s best for you,” he said cheerily. “Have you read my research on the subject?”

“Ah, no,” I replied sheepishly.

“No, no, that’s okay. How would you know it’s easy to find online?”

“Oh, should I read it before we…?”

“No, no. I guess I can walk you through it,” Dr. Thorsgaard said in a reassuring, but slightly miffed tone. “You know, it’s funny.” Then he paused.

“What’s funny?” I asked.

“Oh nothing,” he demurred. “It’s just that they asked you write this instead of me. But I guess that’s because you’re a big star.”

“Yeah. I guess so.” I don’t consider myself a big star. But I didn’t want to argue. “Look, I can just find the article and…”

“No, no, no. I’m delighted to help,” he said wearily. “It’s just that you couldn’t have caught me at a worse time. Even us non-stars have busy lives.”


“Look. I really gotta run. Why don’t you just call back tomorrow, and I’ll walk you through the whole passive-aggressive thing. It’s actually quite complicated.”

That’s the last I spoke with Dr. Thorsgaard. He never returned my calls. I just kept getting his machine.

Al Franken’s latest book is The Truth (with Jokes). His Air America Radio show is broadcast locally on KTNF-AM.

7. Mayo Clinic – World-class care with a healthy dose of Minnesota nice

By Paul Scott

At any given time, the 87-year-old Mayo Clinic has more than 3,000 doctors on staff, is training another 3,000, employs some 50,000 allied health personnel, and deploys way more guys (and a few gals) sweeping the sidewalks and buffing the marble than one would think possible, given the great American health-care crisis. Five billion dollars passed through its hands last year, and in the process it conducted nearly $400 million worth of medical research and treated 513,000 people from across the globe—hospitalizing 132,000 and operating 114,000 times. Do the math on a napkin, and, let’s see…carry the one…that’s some 500 surgeries a day.

Mayo is stocked with enough mad-scientist toys to make Lex Luthor blush: more MRI machines than can be found in all of Canada; a ginormous 12-Tesla magnet-equipped mass-spectrometer (dropped through the roof with a crane); a dedicated power plant. With its new gene research center and University of Minnesota campus, Mayo is making a play to become a global biotechnology hotbed. And it specializes in everything. Neurofibromatosis (commonly known as “elephant man disease”)? Five thousand cases a year. Bone cancer? They can turn your ankle into a knee. Conjoined twins? That would be the media camp erected in front of the $75-a-night motel across the street.

This feels like a place you can trust. In an age where the Nick Lachey look passes for business casual, Mayo still works coat and tie. Everyone’s on salary, which means no one is too hurried, and everyone, even the CEO, wears a name tag. It is the largest private employer in the state, and arguably the most recognized medical-services brand in the world. And it runs like a manor at the height of the British empire. Its founders, Drs. William and Charles Mayo, were said to have written physicians letters chastising them for mowing their own lawns.

As the blue-chip destination for health care swarm service, Mayo has attracted patients as diverse as FDR, George Harrison, King Hussein, George H. W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and the blond guy in the Backstreet Boys. It’s where Lou Gehrig learned he had Lou Gehrig’s disease, where Rep. Patrick Kennedy recently rehabbed after crashing his car, and if we are to believe The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening, where C. Montgomery Burns learned he had every disease known and unknown to man (they cancelled each other out).

Mayo’s research is unparalleled. Currently, Eva Galanis is shepherding clinical trials to use the measles virus as a vector for genetic engineering against ovarian cancer. James Levine is designing a standing treadmill-based workstation. Aynsley Smith is finding the neurological underpinnings that explain why a person could miss a three-foot putt. And the clinic is all over that bird flu thing.

The place isn’t perfect. Mayo couldn’t prevent a young JFK from developing debilitating back problems or an old Ernest Hemingway from leaving its psych ward to go home and commit suicide. Their publications can make a person sleepy, and their vending machines don’t always reflect stated wellness guidelines. But those who call the clinic a haven for the wealthy have failed to notice the Midwestern farmers and immigrant families in the waiting rooms. Mayo is for all of us, and it treats all of us in the same way—special.

Paul Scott is a Rochester-based freelance writer.