Three years ago my best friend from high school, my son, and I went to the Deerwood Summerfest. My friend and I saw that this small town street fair was happening on our way to pick up my son from day camp. To be more precise, my friend saw that it was happening. What I noticed was a table from which Lutheran ladies were selling Swedish meatballs. On the way back to the cabin, we stopped, got out of the car, and walked around; I with single-minded plans of scoring some of those Swedish meatballs.
We got to the table that had had Swedish meatballs on it. It was empty. There was a woman there packing up the sodas (well, actually, she was packing up the pops because if you call soda soda in Minnesota it takes people a minute or two to know what the hell you’re talking about; if it’s fizzy and it’s in a can or bottle and it’s not beer, it is pop). I asked her what happened to the Swedish meatballs.
“Oh, well now,” she said, “those were only for sale until four.”
“What time is it?” I asked, thinking that it was, maybe, barely four o’clock.
She looked at her watch and sharply drew in her breath, “Oh, yeah, it’s four-oh-three.”
“Oh,” I said, clearly disappointed and adopting my native accent, “and so I guess you’re all out then?”
“Well I don’t know about that,” she said, “but it’s four-oh three.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is an interaction that has haunted me for three years. Three years of three minutes keeping me from my dream of Swedish meatballs made by small town church ladies. And you just know those Lutheran church ladies of Deerwood, the town in which the hardware store sells not one but two models of lefse makers, know how to make a Swedish meatball right. A lady who was that judgmental about my thought that she might sell me meatballs just because there were meatballs left to sell when the sign plainly stated “10-4″ is just the kind of lady who is going to know how to make a Swedish meatball. She is going to make it old school and there will be plenty of cream in the mix and butter in that gravy because that is how you make them, cholesterol and newfangled ideas be damned. These meatballs will be bought and eaten by her neighbors and she knows what she would think about them if they didn’t make the very best meatballs possible, so she’s going to make that extra effort to make sure the meatballs are perfection. Church-centric cooking and baking in Minnesota are competitive sports as much as charitable activities.
So when my mom and I took my son to Deerwood Summerfest last week you know I was looking for those meatballs. We walked past the Lutheran church and my heart sank. Nada. No table, no church ladies, no meatballs Swedish or otherwise.
Luckily my son wanted to play the carnival games in the park, a spot from which we could see that there was something going on behind the church. While my mom got my son a corn dog, I hightailed it to the tented tables in the parking lot of the Salem Lutheran Church, traded my cash for tickets, walked right up to the lady overseeing the crockpot, and came into the possession of two Swedish meatballs on a stick, a small cup of gravy for dipping, and a baggie full of homemade lefse – not to mention change from the five I handed over to pay for the lot of it.
The meatballs were tender and moist and light. The gravy tasted as much of butter as it did of browning meatballs, just as it should. The lefse was still warm and thin enough to see through plus I managed to snag one that hadn’t had Parkway margarine out of squeeze bottle smeared all over it.
Best of all, and this goes without saying to all the transplanted Minnesotans out there, was, of course, that the meatballs were served on a stick. As every Minnesota State Fair goer knows, putting food on a stick, while seemingly just a practical way to serve food to people who are aimlessly milling around, has the unintended consequence of making said food taste better. Is it the woodsy flavor imparted by the stick? The attention one needs to pay while eating to make sure the whole thing doesn’t tumble onto one’s clothes? The knowledge that food-on-a-stick means you’re at a fair of one sort or another? These are questions I leave greater minds to answer. All I know is that now that my food fantasy of scarfing down Swedish meatballs on the mean streets of Deerwood has been fulfilled my next Minnesota food goal is to try some of that walleye-on-a-stick at the ballpark everyone is talking about. That fish has got to be delicious.