Winter can be a great time to visit Minnesota’s Mississippi River valley, if you aren’t already sick of cold weather. Snow softens the rough edges of rocky bluffs. The floodplain is decorated like cake frosting with piles of snow sculpted into graceful formations by unforgiving winds. The inviting waters of the Mississippi River and its sloughs are transformed into vast ice plains. When Mark Steven Johnson wrote a screenplay based in a small town in Minnesota, he could hardly have imagined it would one day spawn a festival that attracts visitors to this landscape instead of the more typical instincts to avoid or escape it.

The Grumpy Old Men movies penned by Mr. Johnson cast Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau opposite each other as lifelong friends who treat every interaction as a chance to compete for affection, esteem, a woman, anything, really. Set in the town of Wabasha, Minnesota (but filmed in the Twin Cities) the winter scenery and small town atmosphere were just as important to the movie’s success as its famous cast. At least, that seems to be the belief of the festival promoters. And who can really argue with them?

While the story’s main ingredients were the two famous leads, the story received its depth and texture from ice fishing, a fictional bar called Slippery’s, Ann Margaret, and lots of great one-liners. The festival is built on these same ingredients – minus the famous actress. You can compete in an ice fishing contest, have a beer at the now real Slippery’s Bar, and exchange one liners with festival goers. You can even experience a few things that were unavailable to the grumpy men themselves, like marching your dog in a parade, watching motorcycles race on a frozen lake, cheering on your favorite minnow to victory, and sampling a range of classic and nouveau Minnesota Hot Dish.

1st Annual Northwoods Hot Dish Luncheon/United Church of Christ
Hot Dish. If you’re not from Minnesota, you probably don’t know about hot dish. Some contend that it is nothing more than casserole hiding behind a sexy name. Don’t be fooled. Hot dish is its own special mélange of leftover extending goodness prepared in a single oven-to-table pan. I conducted a thoughtful survey of a broadly representative sample of three people at the luncheon to learn about hot dish. Based upon my extensive interviewing, I learned that authentic hot dish has the following ingredients:
• Starch: usually noodles or rice; for that extra special something use tator tots;
• Meat: ground beef is probably the most common – never use fish, except maybe tuna from a can;
• Cheese: most any cheese will do; use whatever is on sale that week;
• Cream of something soup: this is the critical ingredient – without it, you’ve only made a casserole, not hot dish.

Stick to these ingredients for success. You’re inviting trouble if you add flavor to it, like thyme or cayenne pepper. Don’t go there. Renee made a hot dish with curry and no one, except me, ate it. I managed to sample most of the dozen or so varieties that lined the front table, and, even though the hot dish smorgasbord filled me up, I couldn’t resist tasting a couple of the multitudes of desserts that filled another row of tables. Yum. Next time I’ll try to save some room for one of those jello cream cheese things.

The folks at the UCC Church were fantastic hosts. Fill up your plate, grab a seat at a communal table, and let the conversation and polka music keep you entertained. My thanks to Pastor Mark and the rest of the gang for a memorable lunch. Here is a recipe from their congregation’s cookbook, A Pinch of Yeast and a Mustard Seed, to get you started on the path to hot dish bliss.

Busy Day Hot Dish
1 lb. hamburger
1 (10 ¾-oz.) can cream of chicken soup
1 (15-oz.) can mixed vegetables, drained
1 c. milk
1 small onion, chopped
Tater tots

Brown hamburger and onion and place in a 2-quart casserole dish. Add the mixed vegetables, soup, and milk. Cover with tater tots. Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour or until browned.

Minnow Racing/VFW Hall
If a more perfect bar game exists, I have not found it: minnow racing – competitive, thrilling, and silly, plus it goes great with Miller Lite. Six minnows line up in tracks that look like three PVC pipes cut in half, with tiny little gates that separate them from fame and fortune. At the sound of ‘Go!’ the gates rise and the minnows shoot out – or sometimes they just swim back and forth looking confused. Some races are over in seconds, while others take a lot of time and coaxing. Spectators pick their favorite minnow and loudly cheer it on. For the minnows, winning is no reward, as some sort of weird tradition dictates that the person who picked the victorious fish is supposed to swallow it, wholly alive. Lucky for me – and the fish- I was a lousy judge of minnow athletic ability.

Ice Fishing
I have to admit, I don’t totally get the ice fishing thing, which made me a minority of one in the crowd of 200 or so ice fishing devotees. For the other 99.9% of the crowd, Saturday was a perfect day to drill a hole in the 6-12 inch thick ice and try to snag a fish or two. (It’s amazing how warm 25° can feel when the sun shines.) The festival sponsors an ice fishing contest, targeting unlucky sunfish, crappies, northern pike, and something else that I can’t remember. The person who gets the biggest fish wins. I didn’t stick around to find out who won. As a spectator sport, ice fishing rates somewhere just above a snail marathon, I think, and, compelling as that may sound, I still wanted to check out the frozen motorcycle race and grab a beer at Slippery’s before the day was over. For the record, I heard later that the fish were luckier than the people.

Today’s Bad Decision: Eating breakfast on festival morning. I thought I was going light by ordering apple pancakes, but the three Frisbee-sized flapjacks were so good, that I had trouble exercising self-control. I ate more than I should have, especially with the hot dish lunch just 2 ½ hours away. Next time I’ll eat a granola bar to tide me over to lunch.

**Wabasha is covered in Road Tripping Along the Great River Road, Vol. 1. Click the link above for more. Disclosure: This website may be compensated for linking to other sites or for sales of products we link to.

See more pictures from the Grumpy Old Men festival here.

© Dean Klinkenberg, 2008

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