Sky Blue Water: Great Stories for Young Readers is a one-of-a-kind collection of short stories that celebrate Minnesota’s vibrant storytelling tradition. A rich and often under-appreciated part of this tradition is youth storytelling. This collection celebrates young adult and intermediate fiction from some of Minnesota’s most beloved authors, emerging talents, and many more. In this two-part series, we feature short, diverse, meaningful reflections on various places and traditions, within and beyond Minnesota, by Sky Blue Water‘s contributors. Here are writers’ reflections on place and tradition plus experiences with food and the chilly seasons. See also Part 1: Writers’ favorite places to read, write (and not-write), and think.
I think my most unique dining experience in the greater Twin Cities area took place some years ago, when friends invited me to visit a Wisconsin “pizza farm” with them one Friday afternoon. We drove maybe 45 minutes until we crossed over “to the other side,” found ourselves winding through various country roads and passing quaint towns, until we came to a beautiful and bucolic farm overflowing with people and cars. The food was so good there that people had come from two states (Wisconsin and Minnesota) to sample it! We spread out our blankets on a patch of grass, and then ordered our pizzas, whose toppings were all fresh ingredients from the farm, such as basil, tomatoes, mozzarella, and even bacon (Food of The Gods!). It took about 45 minutes to get our crispy, piping hot, wood-fired pizzas. Needless to say, they were gone in less than ten.
KAO KALIA YANG
I remember my very first apple. We lived in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp. My parents had gotten clearance for our little family of four and a large group of cousins to venture to a small provincial town. For many of us, it was the furthest we had ever traveled. Armed with just a few bills, their entire life savings in the camp, my mother and father took us on our faraway adventure. There, we saw a glistening red apple on a street vendor’s cart. We’d never seen the fruit before. In the camp, the fruit we knew best were the ripe bananas that Thai farmers sold to the refugees from the gates. The apple was 100 baht, more than half of what my mother and father had in their hands, but my sister, my cousins, and I looked, we yearned to touch, we said we smelled flowers we had no name for emanating off the red fruit. My mother and father bought us the single apple. We all took a bite. I remember the mushiness and the guilt of eating the expensive apple. To this day, I cannot tolerate soft apples. It brings to mind, too clearly, the taste of our yearning.
Every ethnicity has dishes that can be traced back to the homeland, and many of them are ethno-specific in the extreme. Balut, for example.* Or chipolines.** Or lutefisk.*** If you’re from Minnesota you’ve heard of lutefisk, although most of you probably haven’t tried it. I hadn’t . . . until I wrote Opposite Land, which concerns lutefisk and its Scandinavian proponents. In the name of research, I partook. I will say this: it was a memorable dish that no amount of white sauce or melted butter could redeem. Perhaps, in fairness, I should try “lutfisk,” the Swedish iteration—but I think I’ll pass.
*A duck fetus boiled and served in the shell (Philippines).
**Fried grasshoppers (Mexico).
***Salted, lye-soaked, dried, re-soaked, and boiled cod (Norway).
There is something celebratory and festive about eating outdoors, and I try to indulge in this custom as often as the Minnesota summer will allow. I look for restaurants with patios and invite myself onto people’s porches. I walk long distances in the heat in search of ice cream. One of my favorite outdoor venues is Sandcastle, an elegant shack-like restaurant on Lake Nokomis, where you can order food and drink at the little window, and then eat by the water with your toes in the sand. It is almost a requirement that customers at Sandcastle bring a dog along when they dine, so there are many silver bowls of water available at snout-level. Signs warn against feeding the many ducks, but the ducks are probably getting fed; otherwise they wouldn’t be so aggressive. The dogs and the splashing bathing-suited children usually keep the ducks in check. All in all, it is thoroughly charming. I was thinking about Lake Nokomis when I wrote my contribution to Sky Blue Water.
Lutefisk gets a bad rap and it should. It’s a horrible, horrible thing. Eating it is not a rite of passage. It won’t earn you any Minnesota street credibility. Anyone who says different is a liar. When I was 12 years old my dad encouraged me to eat some at a Scandinavian buffet my grandparents dragged us to before a Christmas concert. Everyone cheered me on. How could I say no? This was clearly going to be a cherished family memory and I’d be the star! I should have known better. Just one year before my grandfather Warren had tricked me into trying some mustard-slathered chitlins and didn’t tell me what they were made out of until it was too late. Grandparents may seem kind and innocent. They’re not. I cut into the fish jello. I took a bite. Pain. Horror. Betrayal. Beware the lutefisk!
One of my favorite travel stories is actually about a trip that someone else took. Many years ago, a photographer friend was making plans to embark on her first trip to Iceland. Before she left, I shared with her a poem by one of my favorite Minnesota writers, Bill Holm, along with one simple challenge. It was a short poem about a single tree in a single county on the northern edge of the country. My challenge? To find that tree and photograph it.
Here’s the poem:
A Grove in Kelduhverfi
by Bill Holm
Here in this almost treeless district
a single Rowan tree stands next
to the south wall of the farmstead,
almost grown into the house itself.
This old one is taller than the house
and seems likely to survive its ruin
when the farmer quits to move to town.
That tree was watered, guarded, humored
probably given a name and loved.
It was a forest of one tree,
and not another one for miles.
One is enough; you do not need
a jungle to teach you what a tree is,
or a teeming city to teach you what is man.
A quick Google search will tell you that Kelduhverfi sits between a mountain and a river in a region of Iceland that has been vastly transformed over the centuries by shifting tectonic plates. In particular, there was apparently a real wild stretch of earthquakes in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Now, one would think this might make finding a lone tree a bit of a challenge. Who knows? Maybe it was a challenge. All I know is that, sure enough, she found it. And she returned from her trip with this beautiful photograph.
I’m 100% a place kind of person, and my favorite place on earth is the Big Island of Hawaii. But it might be the North Shore of Lake Superior, in our own lovely state. And it might be western Nebraska, where I grew up. I can’t quite decide. What do all these places have in common? Space. Beautiful natural surroundings. A lack of people. A calm but intense energy. A distinct sense of being away from it all. Visiting cities is pretty great, too—I loved Athens, Istanbul, London, Dublin, New York, Los Angeles—but I’m always going to want to come home to the quiet peace of uninhabited land. There’s nothing more soul-nourishing than communing with oceans (inland or otherwise), trees, and hills instead of screens and people caught in the frenzy of the twenty-first century. Old-fashioned? Of course. But give me that rural life any time. Give me my nature. Give me my space.
I love the day I wake up and know that the ice on the nearby lake is walkable. Like discovering an amazing book or a secret room, I am allowed into a place that was formerly forbidden. It is full of clues to a hidden world: leaves, frozen in place; trapped bubbles; abandoned nests. The world looks different from this new perspective—the sky closer, and the shore far away. There is a delicious hint of danger as well—perhaps I’ve gauged it wrong and might fall through. So I walk slowly and carefully over the clear, black ice like a brave pioneer, thrilled to my boots.
KAO KALIA YANG
When I was a child and my grandmother was alive, we celebrated the shift from fall into winter with a Hmong new year spirit calling ceremony. I have memories of seeing my older cousins, holding huge wooden pestles, pounding rice cakes in a communal bin in Uncle Chue’s old, unfinished basement. My mother and my aunts wrapped the sticky rice cake in pieces of foil paper. We grilled them on hot pans. Ate the sticky off our fingers with the sweet taste of dark corn syrup. I can still smell the scent of incense throughout the house, leading to the open doorway and the stretch of Minnesota’s gray dawn. My grandmother, her round, soft body, was the separation between our warm world and the cold outside. After she called out our names into the dark to return to the safety of those who loved us, we feasted on chicken drumsticks and bowls of steaming jasmine rice. We dipped the chicken into bowls of spicy Thai chili and fish sauce. The turn of the seasons still bring me back to those many years in America, where we entered from fall into winter, upon the call of our grandmother’s voice.
As an adopted Minnesotan, I noticed a winter ritual right away when I moved here in 1992: winter itself! My favorite thing about this state (aside from our exceedingly beautiful nature) is the fact that Minnesotans go outside, in all weather, even in the winter. I have joyfully participated in our winter party since I arrived. In fact, the first package I received from my dad at my new Minnesota address was a pair of Cabela’s long johns (I still have them!). Though I’m not as brave as people who bike to work in February, I own a pair of snowshoes and a pair of skis, and I use them as often as I can. I do refuse to take a vehicle on a frozen lake—that’s a firm boundary—but I’ll do just about anything else outside in the winter. It’s too gorgeous to stay inside!
The writers here are contributors to Sky Blue Water: Great Stories for Young Readers, a collection that embodies passion for fostering literacy in young readers. Sky Blue Water celebrates young adult and intermediate fiction from some of Minnesota’s most beloved and award-winning authors to emerging talents and many more. Featuring primarily never-published stories, this anthology beautifully captures the essence of Minnesota adolescence in twenty short stories and poems. A portion of the proceeds from Sky Blue Water will go to the Mid-Continent Oceanographic Institute, a Twin Cities organization offering free tutoring and writing assistance for students ages six to eighteen.