Those Poor Drowned

Matthew Gavin Frank

This has everything to do with desperation, imagination, blowing bubbles into our Cream of Mushroom soup not because we’re feeling playful, but because, in this cold, the snow fine as dust, it hurts to take air in, so we extend our exhales as long as we can, pretend that history and nostalgia are the same thing.
This has everything to do with a tater tot crust as blanket in our hotdish, as some golden brown storm cloud cresting the baking pan, yanked from failing oven after failing oven in the church basements of Arrowhead, along the shores of Lake Superior, in International Falls, Minneapolis, St. Paul.
This winter has depth, layers. This is winter as casserole, as the French word for saucepan. This is a season so freezing, it doubles back on itself and simmers. Sometimes, our bodies get so cold, they burn. Sometimes, in the blizzard, we overflow the pan’s lip, stiffen on the element. Sometimes, like the drowned with ice in their lungs, we stick to the bottom.
In this weather, unlike the tater tots in our hotdish, we don’t golden, but redden.

Uncle talks of his years harvesting sugar beets, raising turkeys in Todd County (now the poorest goddamn county in the state, he says) before he was forced by General Mills, Cargill, Hormel, and Schwan to retire, these same companies now producing the processed hamburger and frozen string beans and potato buds we heap into our hotdish, use to feed congregations. He lost so much of his body to the cold and to the thresher, he has a single finger left, the important one, he says, as he struggles to wrap it like a boa over the stem of his fork, sink it into the hottest middle part beneath the tater tots.
According to Hallie Harron’s article, Heating up the Heartland: Minnesota’s signature hotdish combines heartiness, great taste, and adaptability, our state casserole retains no official recipe, or rules, beyond economic and gustatory desperation. As such, we have our hamburger-mashed-potato-string-bean-Cream-of-Mushroom-soup-La-Choy-fried-onion hotdish, and our hotdish made with canned tuna and Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, with canned peas or canned corn, topped with potato chips crushed to dust, or shoestring potatoes, or anything crunchy and sharp enough to remind us that we still have some fight left, even in all of this cold, that we’re not all—just mostly—soft.  
Harron says, hotdish was birthed out of hardship when “budget-minded farm wives needed to feed their own families, as well as congregations in the basements of the first Minnesota churches,” and she says that the Cream of Mushroom soup soon became so favored, so ubiquitous, that it became better known, in early hotdish circles, as “Lutheran Binder.”

Uncle finishes his hotdish, keeps breathing out. He stares at the palms of what he once called his “big Minnesota Mitts,” at what once killed so many turkeys without additional weapons, and if he permitted himself an inhale, however cold, surely the obscenities would drown out Martin Luther, proselytizing from the Great Beyond, “I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all.” Somewhere beyond this town, Lake Superior roars over a record number of drowned bodies this year, and its icebergs—even the little eyelet ones—creak against each other in the sound of steam escaping through some thick blanket of potato product. Uncle cracks his knuckle against the casserole dish, burns himself, finally breathes in, as, over his head, above the couch, the print of Matisse’s Goldfish, painted in 1911, shudders against the sheetrock.  
We imagine the goldfish are the peas. All of those poor drowned as the mushrooms with cream in their gills.  

Uncle mentions hanging something from every fruit tree in the yard that now, in this kind of weather, bears no fruit. He wants, we think at first, to remind himself of bounty. But, because he’s muttering through a mouthful of hotdish, we can’t tell if he wants to hang a can of soup, or a can of corn, or the last piece of unground meat he saw years ago, or the last fresh potato, or his own dumb body from the boughs of the tree that once bore things named Lady and Delicious.
In 1911, Minnesota abolished the death penalty. The Republican representative from Gaylord, George MacKenzie, championing the abolition bill, said, “Let us bar this thing of Vengeance and the Furies from the confines of our great State; let not this harlot of judicial murder smear the pages of our history with her bloody fingers,” and Uncle says, what does blood have to do with any of this? and we don’t know if he’s speaking of hotdish, or ovens failing in so many cold Lutheran basements, or, of Lake Superior, which, in 1911, sensed perhaps a disruption in equilibrium and subsequently claimed more lives that year than it ever had before.
Martin Luther says, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” Uncle stares out the window, and the land is untilled and overgrown and undergrown and white, and there are no birds, and the goldfish on the wall breathe neither in nor out, and Uncle says, in the presence of no birds, swallowing the thick last of the amalgam, a crumb of perfectly gold tater tot holding to his bottom lip, That’s because that motherfucker never lived in motherfucking Minnesota.