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The Brigadoon of North Dakota

Over the years I have devoted quite a bit of attention to the idea of a Great Plains cuisine, toward defining and extending the foodways of our region. Often this has involved introducing more spice into regional life--Asian and Hispanic influences.

Thinking today about my Sunday dinner of meatloaf at the Wild Rose Cafe in Ashley, and savoring a plate of snowpeas and shallots from the prairie garden, with a pinch of summer savory--I recognize that the heart of the culinary identity does not lie on the fiery edge. It resides in our comfort foods, enriched by subtleties.

Cruising Highway 200 through the valleys of the Jim and the Sheyenne, kissing the face of the Missouri Coteau, I realized the same observation applies to my taste in landscapes. When I came to North Dakota in 1992, the regional landscape that fascinated me was the West River, with its buttes and badlands.

Over the years I have been more drawn to the rolling country in the middle, with its lazy rivers, its shapely hills, and its ephemeral lakes. So I speak today in praise of the Middle Landscape of our state, with its comforts and subleties.

I drove over to Manfred, the Brigadoon of North Dakota, to take part in its Heritage Festival, organized by Manfred History and Preservation. Let me tell you how I acquired my personal connection with Manfred.

Way back in the last century I was driving home from the farm in Kansas after Christmas, and the usual thing happened. The weather got surly in South Dakota, coming over the Prairie Coteau. I was gripping the wheel and four-wheeling through the blowing snow, when through the swirl of white I discerned a nimble wraith at roadside.

It was a breakdown under bad circumstances, so I took the shivering woman aboard and transported her to the nearest oasis, where she was able to make connections for help. We exchanged names, and that was that.

Until years later this snowy woman, Wanda Melchert, and her husband, Richard, turned up on my screen in Manfred, where they had settled. She was leading the local movement to restore Manfred’s Vang Lutheran Church. Over the years one thing has led to another--restoring more buildings, gathering more history, involving more people in the restoration effort, until today Manfred is this amazing time capsule, preserving the heritage of country town life from the early twentieth century, allowing visitors to transport themselves into that world.

Mingling with the many attendees, inspecting the vintage vehicles some had driven in, admiring the sweaty restoration work in progress on the old consolidated school, preaching a little heritage renewal in the Vang Church when called upon--I recalled that episode of winter freemasonry that brought Wanda and me together years ago.

I suppose what the antiquarians in Manfred are doing is restoring their own comfort landscape, their own remembered community. If I may extend my sermon just a bit more, let me say this sort of preservation is not merely retrospective, it is progress. Manfred stands as metaphor for the bankable heritage resources of our country today.

Our comfort landscapes, our heritage communities, our cultural experience on the prairies--these things not only ground us on the land but also draw visitors, custom, and newcomers to us. History here has a future of promise.

~Tom Isern

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