I never realized how marketable an upbringing from North Dakota can be. Until very recently, I thought that my whole life, no matter where I go, I’d be plagued with having to say, “I’m from North Dakota,” and getting the looks of disbelief and the 20 questions:
“So it does exist!”
“Oh, so you’re from Canada?”
“Oh my gosh! Say “roof” again! Haha! Now say “flag” or “bag.” Haha!” (I still don’t hear that I say “flag” and words that rhyme with it weirdly.)
“What’s it like to live without electricity?”
Or just plain:
“Oh wow, you’re far from home.”
I got my first taste of the world outside the Midwest when I was 16 — I took a 36 hour bus trip to Atlanta, GA, for the National Catholic Youth Conference. (Mhm. Go ahead.) I got all of the questions I mentioned earlier and more. I was honestly really embarrassed by it. I even began working on reducing my “Nort’ Dakohhtan” accent. (By the way, I’m fascinated that link exists.) I distinctly remember starting to dream about living in New York City (but I wasn’t opposed to the idea of any big city outside of the Midwest) at age 8. At age 16, I still thought I’d have to get rid of all traces of my roots (pronounced rhyming with “foot,” the way it should be) to make it anywhere else.
But now, I totally embrace my background. Sure, I still can’t wait to move somewhere “big” and see what the world has to offer me. But come on, what’s a better conversation starter anywhere else in the country than telling someone you’re from North Dakota? My boyfriend is originally from the East coast (first Pennsylvania, then Maryland, now his family is living in Virginia) and on my first visit to his family’s house, his mom used my background to our advantage. During the long wait for a table at a restaurant, she mentioned I had come all the way from North Dakota to visit. Here’s something I’ve learned: People who are not from North Dakota are generally fascinated to meet someone who is. It’s like we’re mythical creatures or something. We talked with the hostess briefly about what the state is like, and I answered her questions about it. It may have just been that the conversation made time pass more quickly, but it seemed we were seated shortly after.
This wasn’t the only time something like this has happened. I recently learned that a North Dakota background is not a bad thing to bring up when applying to universities or jobs out of state. So, in an effort to bridge the gap between the “North Dakota doesn’t exist” jokes (Very funny. Can we be any more unoriginal?) and the roughly 640,000 North Dakotans who feel like the rest of the country wouldn’t care if we didn’t exist, here are a few things you can bring up on either side of the issue to get the conversation started.
Things North Dakotans Like:
- We like talking about North Dakota.Especially in places where North Dakota is nonexistent in the minds of the residents. The first time I ever saw the ocean, I was 19. I was wading and splashing and getting knocked over by waves alongside little kids at the beach. I was silently competing with a five year-old to dig sand fiddlers from the shoreline. Nearby sunbathers must have thought I was just a weirdo, but if I had yelled out, “It’s ok, I’m from North Dakota!” all would have been understood. Striking up conversations with vendors on the boardwalk, it seemed they thought I was from another planet, but in a good way. They had a lot to ask about and say when they found out where I was from.
- Our cuisine. You may not have realized North Dakota has a cuisine. I didn’t fully realize this either until I was having a conversation with a few professors of mine.
Hotdish: We like hotdish. (You may know this as a “casserole” in other parts of the country.) Hotdish is funny and delicious simultaneously. Even the word alone can provoke giggles. There is, however, a strong divide between those who support corn in their hotdish and those who despise it. Peas, however, are almost always taboo.
Pie: North Dakotans have an appreciation for a good slice of pie. We often make pies out of ingredients that sound like they’re made up: juneberries, chokecherries, rhubarb, buffalo berries, and crab apples, to name a few. (Fun fact: The chokecherry is North Dakota’s state fruit, thanks to some kids from Williston, ND.)
“Ethnic” Food: Ethnic for us is German and Norwegian. Some desserts we like are krumkake (kroom-cacka – kind of like the cone part of an ice cream cone), lefse (potato flatbread smothered with butter and sugar), and my personal favorite, kuchen (koo-kin – the German word for cake — There are a lot of varieties, but the link shows one closest to my Grandma’s neighbor’s secret recipe, which is to die for).
We’ve also been known to love knoefla soup, (nef-la, not ka-na-ful-la, as I’ve sometimes heard it pronounced) a creamy potato soup with dumplings.
A controversial part of North Dakotan cuisine is lutefisk — Cod soaked in lye for several days until it becomes gelatinous in texture. Williston, ND’s, First Lutheran Church holds one of the largest lutefisk dinners in the country every February. (I’ve never been one to partake.)
- Nice weather. And talking about the weather every day, good or bad, for that matter. Don’t assume that just because we live here we all love arctic temperatures. The summer is just so hot and full of storms that it distracts us from how terrible the winters are. Then it starts snowing again in October, and we wonder why we live here. But we also take pride in our hardiness.
- County fairs: We don’t have amusement parks around here. (Can you imagine why, with our winters?) I think the closest one is either Nickelodeon Universe at the Mall of America or Valleyfair in Shakopee, MN, which are both anywhere from 4-12 hours away, depending on where in North Dakota you live. So, as kids, we lived for the county fair in the summer. I can’t believe I ever trusted the rides they put up, sprayed puke off of, and took down in the course of 3 or 4 days, but it was something my friends and I looked forward to all year. I think parents like them, too, because it gives their kids something to do in the summer besides sit in front of the TV and drive them crazy.
- Hunting and fishing: Kind of a given. The weekend of deer season opener especially is a statewide holiday. The school system used to plan “fall breaks” around it, so kids would have an extra day to go hunting. Kids in North Dakota have been around guns since they’re small. (My younger brother would tag along on hunts when he was 4 or 5.) Yet, there’s never been a school shooting in the state. Kids here are raised to respect the danger of firearms.
Bringing up any of these things will ensure an enriching conversation between North Dakotans and non-North Dakotans. I’m sure there are countless more things we North Dakotans like, and maybe I’ll talk about those later on, but this will do for now. Anything particular you’d add?