We supposedly represent all that is wholesome in America. That may be true, but "friendly and hard-working" is so ... bland.
If you think I'm being a tad harsh, ask anyone who isn't from the Midwest to describe someone born and raised in America's Heartland.
My favorite definition came from a colleague raised in Florida. She struggled to describe us at first, then said, "Simple."
"No," she said, flustered.
Even my fellow Midwesterners have a hard time coming up with interesting descriptors. CNN legal analyst Danny Cevallos is a proud native of North Muskegon, Michigan. First thing out of his mouth, "Friendliness!"
After that, he struggled, too. "Boy, let me see...um...not easily agitated?"
I rolled my eyes. "That is so bland, Danny."
He paused, then said, "I'll take bland over the rap Florida gets any day."
Even my new friend, Jared Zak, from Wisconsin struggled. The best he could come up with was "hearty."
Someone else's definition
I asked these questions after interviewing Eric Dayton, who wants his native Minnesota to divorce itself from the Midwest. "We're Midwest if you're looking at it from New York City or from anywhere on [the East] Coast," Dayton told me. "But then again, that's someone else's definition. I think it's time for us to claim our own."
Dayton and his brother, Andrew, whose father is the state's governor, are Minneapolis businessmen
whose clothing store and restaurant have a decidedly local flavor. Eric Dayton, after touring Scandinavia (many Minnesotans are of Norwegian descent), became enthralled by the region's strong identity. It proudly embraced its chilly weather, its food, its culture, its... Northiness.
So why, he questioned, didn't Minnesota?
When Dayton got home he hired a Minnesota company to make stocking hats for his clothing boutique that said, "North." They sold out and Dayton's idea headed, well, north.
Minnesotans just got it, he said.
I admit, I didn't get it, until I thought more about it. Minnesota -- or should I say Minneapolis -- is criticized, by some of my compatriots, for being "Minnesota nice," the sort of "nice" (fake) that isn't remotely the kind of "nice" (sincere) for which Midwesterners are renowned.
But, hey, I have an open mind. You could argue that Minnesota, along with North Dakota, parts of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan, are in the Northern region of the United States. And, you could argue Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia are Eastern states. The only truly Midwestern states are Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Go ahead, argue among yourselves, but know that Mr. Dayton isn't talking only about geography when it comes to labeling Minnesota -- "The North." He's talking about image and, although he won't say it, branding.
"The New York Times had done an article
highlighting different Thanksgiving side dishes," Dayton told me. "For Minnesota, they named grape salad as our signature side dish. And no one in Minnesota had ever heard of grape salad... it was kind of a harmless example, but if we don't tell the rest of the country who we are, we end up with grape salad."
That story got under my skin, especially when I looked up the NYT idea of Ohio's signature side dish: English pea and onion salad. It gets worse. The Times extolled the salad's "deliciousness" by saying it "calls to mind the processed-food delights that, for decades, characterized the cooking of the Midwest."
The New York Times isn't solely to blame for the Midwest's image problem. Politicians are, too. Andrew Cayton is a distinguished professor of history at Miami University in Ohio. He wrote a book called "The Identity of the American Midwest: Essays on Regional History."
"The Midwest," he told me, "has always been a dynamic and diverse place, but that image doesn't fit with what people want to believe."
And, by people, Cayton means politicians who routinely use the Midwest as code for a place in time that never actually existed: crime-free and populated with hard-working people who all look and worship the same. "Arguing about the Midwest," Cayton says, "has become arguing about America as a whole."
Bowling and corn dogs
So, listen up, campaigning politicians! Stop trying to bond with the Midwest with your bowling prowess (or lack thereof) and for goodness' sake, stop eating corn dogs at state fairs.
And while I'm at it, political reporters, please stop interviewing voters in diners! I'm not maligning bowling (my dad, Tony, is in the Amateur Bowling Hall of Fame) or corn dogs, but those things don't represent the modern Midwest. It is so much more dynamic and, yes, diverse. Chicago is not like Detroit. St. Louis is not like Pittsburgh. Indianapolis is not like Columbus, or Dayton or Cleveland or Cincinnati. And, Minneapolis is not like any of them, either.
Minnesota boasts 10,000 lakes and a corresponding love of cold-weather sports, such as pond hockey. Yet, I'm from Canton, Ohio, and I have never touched a hockey stick (although those other "Northern" states certainly have excellent puck-handling abilities).
Minneapolis also has a thriving cultural community, is home to 19 Fortune 500 companies and has a cuisine all its own that is not based on processed foods. And, at the moment -- it has what many polite Midwesterners can't abide by -- attitude. You know, Minnesota nice. Definition? As my pal from Wisconsin puts it, "sarcastic, pretentious and exclusionary."
"I know. Arrogant Minnesota," Dayton joked. "That's what everyone thinks of when they think of Minnesota. Right? No, again, this isn't about being better. It's not a relative thing. It's just I think there are a lot of great things happening in Minnesota. It's not being recognized. I think it's important for the reasons we've discussed that there is recognition of what we have to offer. And so it's just putting forth our story. It's not trying to make it look better than it is. It's not comparing ourselves to anyone else."
I don't know if Dayton will be successful, but I do understand why he wants Minnesota to define Minnesota. You don't attract the best and the brightest with "friendly."
"There is a competition for talent," Dayton said. "And it's a national competition, even an international competition."
Maybe Ohio should join the rebranding club and become "The East."
'Cause you know what? I may be friendly and hard-working, but I'm not simple. So stop asking me if I've ever gone "cow tipping." Or I just might go all Minnesota on you.