You may have seen the New York Times article that came out Tuesday, describing Thanksgiving dishes evocative of each state. Some of them make sense based on a state’s traditional culinary dishes – Idaho was assigned “Hasselback potatoes with garlic/paprika oil” and Maine got “lobster mac and cheese. Other states were assigned some generic Thanksgiving dish – Oklahoma got green bean casserole, despite, as NPR writer Linda Holmes notes, that people in basically every state eat green bean casserole.
My home state of Minnesota, on the other hand, was assigned “grape salad,” which is apparently composed of sour cream, grapes, and brown sugar all heated up, then chilled and sprinkled with (optional) pecans. Having grown up in Minnesota and lived there for over two decades along with my Minnesota-born, hotdish-eating extended family, I can safely say that I had never even heard of such a dish, much less one that is traditional holiday fare. Judging by posts and comments on my Facebook feed and various tweets, posts, and articles elsewhere on the internet (google “Grapegate”), neither have most other Minnesotans. I agree with Holmes assertion that the NYT must have given up, shrugged, and put down the first thing they found that seemed vaguely “Minnesota.”
But that’s the problem, and Holmes gets to it in the last paragraph of her article:
“A little advice for anyone making a 50-state map that touches on regional culture: Read every entry you have and think to yourself, “Am I basing this on actual information, or am I basing this on something droll I read in The New Yorker?” Because, yes, Minnesotans eat hotdish (not casserole, please), and there are church picnics, and we can say things like that about ourselves. But it already often feels like the entire middle of the country is swept aside as little more than a collection of Readers Digest anecdotes. Please don’t accuse us of being best represented by a tradition (?) of heating up grapes for Thanksgiving.”
Since moving from Minnesota to the East Coast, I’ve become sadly familiar with this phenomenon, particularly in respect to the field of sexuality. The Midwest is swept aside in an offhand phrase, usually related to close-minded or conservative attitudes, while the Coasts are praised: “You’d expect such close-minded attitudes in the Midwest, but not out here on the East coast or somewhere liberal like San Francisco.
The thing is, the US is not homogenous in that manner. Liberal attitudes and open-mindedness are not limited to the east and west, and conservative attitudes and close-mindedness are not limited to the middle of the country. There are liberal cities and states in the Midwest. From a sexuality-specific focus, Iowa was the third state to legalize gay marriage (Massachusetts and Connecticut were the first and second, respectively), and Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota both fall in the top ten most LGBT-friendly cities in the US. Only one of those ten cities lies on the East coast. Numerous states throughout the entire US do not require that sex education be taught in schools; New Jersey has a long history regarding the fight to include sex education in schools.
It’s not just a salad
“Grape salad” is relatively unimportant in the grand scheme of things, and it would be easy to laugh about it, shrug it off, and move on. It’s a pretty harmless stereotype. But laughing off or ignoring this grape-salad-eating stereotype fails to acknowledge that it is one of many stereotypes held about the Midwest, not all of which are as harmless as an odd recipe that you probably won’t ever have to eat. Assuming that everyone in the Midwest is conservative, close-minded about sexuality, and “uncultured” fails to acknowledge those who flocked to Iowa to get married in 2009, the thousands of people of all orientations and genders who turn out for Pride every summer, and those who are hard at work trying to make sexual health care affordable and available to everyone. It also implies that the coasts are somehow full of sexually open-minded and affirming individuals individuals, which, given a glance at articles on anti-LGBT hate crimes in NYC, is not the case.
Failure to accurately research and portray a population in question, and to dismiss that population as weird or insignificant because of the food they supposedly eat or some other characteristic only perpetuates negative or wrong stereotypes. “Grape salad” isn’t just a salad; it’s all the other negative, weird, or inaccurate stereotypes that are told about the Midwest, or any population in general. One anecdote from an anonymous individual gets written into a national publication and suddenly the country thinks that Minnesotans eat warm grapes and sour cream…or that [insert population of your choice] think/believe/do [insert weird idea/belief/activity]. So, before you stereotype or generalize about a particular population or community or region, take a moment to think about where you’re getting your information about those individuals, and if that information is reliable and accurate, and if your statement is beneficial or if it simply sweeps that population aside.