Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Honoring Howard Mohr, author of “How to Talk Minnesotan” September 8, 2022

Image source: Goodreads

MINNESOTA SEEMS, TO ME, a hotbed for writers. And five days ago we lost one of our most beloved, Howard Mohr. He was perhaps best-known for his wildly popular, at least in Minnesota, book, How to Talk Minnesotan: A Visitor’s Guide, published in 1987. The book was later updated and adapted into an equally popular musical.

Many years have passed since I read my copy of this entertaining, humorous, and, yes, truthful, summary of Minnesota life. In honor of Mohr, who died September 4 of Parkinson’s at Fieldcrest Assisted Living in Cottonwood, I pulled my book from the shelf and reread it.

A corn field in southwestern Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

That Mohr, 83, recently moved from his Lyon County farm home of 52 years to a facility called Fieldcrest seems especially fitting. He lived in farming country, my native southwestern Minnesota, the place of small towns defined by grain elevators and land defined by fields of corn and soybean. He understood the people and place of the prairie. So when I read the sentence in his book declaring the produce of Minnesota writers to be as valuable as a crop of soybeans and corn, I felt he nailed it.

A harvested field and farm site in my native Redwood County, Minnesota, where the land and sky stretch into forever. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’ve long celebrated writers rooted in the prairie like Mohr, Bill Holm, Robert Bly, Frederick Manfred, Leo Dangel… My friend Larry Gavin of Faribault, too, poet and writer who studied under those writers and lived for 15 years on the prairie. Some shared their knowledge, their talents, by teaching at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. That’s near Cottonwood. Mohr taught English at Southwest State. He also penned Minnesota Book of Days, How to Tell a Tornado (poetry and prose) and wrote for “A Prairie Home Companion,” also appearing on the show.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

I’m most familiar with How to Talk Minnesotan. The content reflects my rural upbringing. The dairy and crop farm of my youth lies a mere 15 miles to the south and east of Cottonwood, thus rereading Mohr’s book is like traveling back home, a reminder of that which defines me as a native of rural Redwood County. Even after nearly 40 years of living in Faribault, in town, I still call the noon-time meal “dinner” and the evening meal “supper.” My adult kids don’t, so I/they, always clarify when invitations are extended to a meal. To me “lunch” will always come mid-afternoon or in the evening before guests leave.

This huge, hard-as-rock snowdrift blocked our Redwood County farm driveway in this March 1965 photo. I’m standing next to my mom in the back. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Mohr’s references to the noon whistle, Jell-O (once popular, not so much now) winter survival kits, snowbirds (those who leave Minnesota in the winter and return in the spring), hotdish (casserole), pancake feeds, seed corn caps, lutefisk, Lutherans, bullheads (smaller versions of catfish), the “long goodbye” all resonate. I especially understand his point that Minnesotans are obsessed with the weather. We are.

Bars made by Lutherans. ( Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo)

Some 10-plus years ago, when my now son-in-law moved to Minnesota from Los Angeles after falling in love with my eldest daughter, I gifted him with Mohr’s How to Talk Minnesotan. I figured this would help him adjust to our language and state. Whether it did or didn’t, I don’t know. But Marc hasn’t moved back to his native California. And he never commented on Mohr’s statement that Californians struggle to adapt to life in Minnesota. Marc fits in just fine. I do recall, though, his comment on “bars,” a word with duo meaning here in our state. “Bars” are both a place to gather and drink alcohol and a baked or unbaked sweet treat (made with lots of sugar and often topped with chocolate) pressed or spread into a 9 x 13-inch cake pan.

Maybe I really ought to make a pan of bars, cut them into squares, plate and serve them with coffee for “a little lunch” as a way to honor Howard Mohr, writer, satirist, humorist. He yielded a mighty fine crop of writing.

FYI: I encourage you to read Mohr’s obituary by clicking here. Be sure to read the insightful and loving comments. And if you haven’t read How to Talk Minnesotan, do. If you’re Minnesotan, it will be a refresher course in our life and language. If you’re not from here, you’ll better understand us upon reading this guide.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

I am distinctly Minnesotan and proud of it January 5, 2015

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SEVERAL YEARS AGO, before my son-in-law married my daughter, I gifted him with How to Talk Minnesotan by Howard Mohr. It’s a rather humorous, but truthful, volume of Minnesota Speak.

 

The original version of How to Talk Minnesotan was published in the 1980s. This is the version I've read.

The original version of How to Talk Minnesotan was published in the 1980s. This is the version I’ve read.

I thought Marc might need a Minnesota “dictionary” given he grew up in California, where bars are drinking establishments and not also a sweet treat baked in a cake pan.  And, yes, he now lives in Minnesota with his wife, my eldest.

Having ever only traveled as far west as one mile into Wyoming, never down South and to the East Coast only once, during college, I am mostly unfamiliar with regional differences in dialect.

Apparently we Minnesotans draw out our “o”s and possess a distinct accent. No, not like the “sure, ya betcha” voices of Fargo.

The son noted this on his recent arrival home from Boston for holiday break. “Listen to yourselves,” he advised his dad and me.

Apparently friends at Tufts University have ribbed him about his incorrect pronunciations of “bag” and “sorry.”

Before my son transferred to the East Coast college from North Dakota State University in, yes, Fargo, two years ago, I phoned the Tufts financial aid office. The woman who answered had a Boston accent so strong that I could not understand her. I requested that she please slow down. If ever there was an accent…

An updated version published in

An updated version published in 2013 by Penguin Books.

Continuing along his Minnesota differences theme, the son noted also that we use the word “supper” to reference our evening meal. My husband and I explained that this is a carry-over from our rural backgrounds. The noon meal was dinner. Lunch was served at 3 p.m. to the men in the field and a “little lunch” around midnight, when you had company (aka visitors). Supper was served either before or after the evening milking.

After nearly 60 years of identifying meals as breakfast, dinner, lunch, supper and a little lunch, we’re not going to change our dining terminology.

That brings us to after meal clean-up. As the 20-year-old and I were doing dishes after supper (not dinner) recently, he noted that, “You know they don’t wash dishes like this in Boston.”

I paused mid swirl of dishrag upon plate, confused. “What do you mean? That everyone has a dishwasher?”

He shot me that c’mon Mom look youth sometimes reserve for parents, then explained. Rather than filling the sink with water, each item is washed individually with a squirt of soap under running water.

“Makes no sense to me and seems mighty wasteful of water and dish soap,” I chided. “Are you sure that isn’t just a college kid thing rather than a Boston thing?”

He didn’t respond.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling