"The New York Times has examined the entire state of Minnesota and said, "You know what evokes your state? A bowl of grapes mixed with sour cream, covered with sugar, and heated up, and then chilled again. That's you. That's how you are." After this, I imagine them laughing, high-fiving, and refilling a glass of chardonnay. We all have our preconceptions, after all." -NPR's Linda Holmes
When the NYT asked me to illustrate 52 dishes for 50 states (plus PR and DC) for their United States of Thanksgiving article, I was thrilled. Who wouldn't want to illustrate the Thanksgiving article for the Food section of one of the most respected publications in the country? Little did I know that a nationwide internet controversy was lying in wait for this innocent illustrator. More on that later, in the meantime, a bit about the project:
This project was so much fun! I was given 52 dishes to illustrate the 50 states plus Puerto Rico and Washington DC, to be the full cover feature story of the Times Food Thanksgiving Issue entitled "The United States of Thanksgiving". The Times chose a dish to represent each state- interesting dishes with local ingredients and maybe an accompanying story- that for the NYT, seemed to represent a compelling addition to each state’s Thanksgiving table. They included each individual recipe both in print and online (a fantastic interactive feature!). Some classic recipes were covered like New York's Double Apple Pie, and Kansas' Candied Sweet Potatoes. Some states' dishes were from regional chefs, or used regional ingredients like Vermont Cheddar Mashed Potatoes or Maine Mac & Cheese. And other states’ recipes were a bit more ...“outside the box”. As Times Food Section editor Julia Moskin later wrote, “The recipes were not intended to be traditional, popular, or fully representative of the state’s traditions — agricultural, Thanksgiving, or culinary,”
While I was illustrating, I found myself intrigued by some of the dishes- but I didn’t expect any to be major sources of contention. I especially didn't foresee the massive internet firestorm a little something called "Grape Salad" would cause across the state of Minnesota and beyond. Apparently there are a great many Minnesotans who have never heard of, and would not care to associate themselves with this particular dish- which consists primarily of grapes, nuts, and sour cream, cooked to perfection.
My first hint of that the middle of our country was about to explode, was when a radio show, My Talk with Colleen & Bradley, in Minneapolis called me to see if I would go on the radio and talk about why I picked Grape Salad for their state. "WTF is up with the Grape Salad??!! We want to know!”, they asked. I quickly set the record straight that I was not the one to choose the dishes, and especially not the Grape Salad. But that was just the beginning. With #grapegate and #embracethegrape going viral on Twitter, the story made the front page of the Star Tribune, picked up by NPR, and the Times has since actually issued a response entitled "A Recipe for Wrath (Grapes Optional) in Minnesota”. The entire Mid-Western state of was (and might still be) totally FREAKING OUT over Grape Salad!!!
As the illustrator on the project, I feel I need to set the record straight, about my role in the project, and about the nature of the project as well. I was charged with illustrating the dishes provided by the NYT- I did not have anything to do with their selection. But- while I don't think Grape Salad sounds so enticing, I do want to point out that the NYT article never meant to make any one dish define everything each state’s culinary history has to offer. I think they just wanted to present a series of compelling dishes from around the country, and I think they did an incredible job of that. Of course I hope we didn’t really offend anyone!
That said, amidst all this uproar, the Times may have just CREATED a Thanksgiving tradition for some. With all the recent exposure, I wouldn't be surprised if many MANY friends and families have Grape Salad on their tables this Thanksgiving. Who knows, maybe Minnesota will soften their views once they try it themselves? Or maybe not.