Divorcing the Midwest

Minnesota is having an identity crisis. And it’s time you picked sides.

Hat courtesy of Askov Finlayson

I don’t mean to ruin your life. But while you’re at the Minnesota State Fair this month, swelling with regional pride and trans fats, I want you to think about getting a divorce: divvying up the hostas, the hot-dish recipes, and the box set of A Prairie Home Companion and calling it a time with the Midwest.

It was an arranged marriage, anyway. The U.S. Census Bureau rounded up 12 states in the country’s ample midsection—Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin—and called us the Midwest to simplify accounting. It wasn’t official until 1984.

What do we have in common? In a Buzzfeed article called “29 Things Only People from the Midwest Understand,” Minnesotans would understand only 15 or 16, depending on how you feel about ranch dressing. Steak ’n Shake? Not around here. Cottonwoods? I don’t know, Missouri? College football? They must be thinking of Mindianapolis, as a customer-service rep I was on the phone with—in Atlanta—once called Minneapolis, conflating it with that eastern city where they probably have a Steak ’n Shake.

Look, this isn’t about being a cad. We want a good plural marriage—to like-minded states. Heavy Table, the Minneapolis-based food-and-drink website, recently coined “North Coast” as an alternative regional appellation encompassing Minnesota and Wisconsin and potentially other Great Lakes states. “Coasts are tolerant and polyglot and curious about the world,” says Jim Norton, Heavy Table’s editor. Missouri, Nebraska—this is why we haven’t been intimate lately.

“Top Coast” is another contender, conceived by Minnesota Public Radio for its recent Top Coast Festival of ideas. “It’s evocative of the spirit of the region, a little sassy,” says Ali Lozoff, an MPR marketing manager who helped hatch the name. “We’re not East Coast or West Coast, but the coast at the top of the country.”

The name we really fell for, long ago, was Northwest, as in the Northwest Territory, which included about a third of Minnesota. Although it only lasted until 1803, we loved it so much—and Easterners loved to think of us as still out on that frontier—that long after its demise we came up with Northwest Airlines, Abbott Northwestern Hospital, and 300 other northwesterly businesses that still exist, from Northwest Anesthesia to something called Northwest Swiss-Matic. You could be born, have surgery, and do something-or-other Swiss all in the context of a place that hasn’t existed in 211 years.

Tapping that legacy, the simplest sobriquet emerged this year from Askov Finlayson, the Dayton brothers’ store: “North.” As in the states with wool hats. In fact, AF has been selling knit and baseball hats emblazoned with “North,” the first logo wear of a breakaway region. “The idea is that maybe we shouldn’t be part of the Midwest,” a store manager told me, “that we have something going up here that’s different.” Not Kansas, then, or anywhere else in “flyover country.” It’s about latitude not longitude, or perhaps just attitude. They’ve been getting a lot of orders from Northern California—a place we wouldn’t kick out of bed.