I have been a North Dakota resident for all 30 years of my life and I like to think I know the state fairly well. But during a holiday dinner that brought together 12 newly acquainted people from around the state of North Dakota (and one from S.D.), my confidence in the state’s food traditions was shaken and I felt like an outsider.
When the conversation turned to food and sisters Megan and Lindsey talked about Cheez Whiz Cinnamon Bread, a Dried Beef Ball and Hot Tang. I had never experienced – or even heard of – any of those menu variations.
“These are North Dakota classics,” Megan insisted, while she cut her steak, her sequins glittering under restaurant lighting. Some people had heard of the recipes, while others had not.
“A ‘dried beef ball’ – are you even listening to those three words?” the representative from South Dakota asked.
“If you only knew how amazing it tastes…” Megan sighed.
And so the idea of a ‘taste test’ was born.
One cold Friday afternoon, a few of us from the original dinner gathered at Megan’s office building to experience this food that the sisters grew up eating near Walcott, N.D.
On the menu: the Cheez Whiz Cinnamon Bread that they have at every church potluck and shower, (Google laughed at me when I typed this in); the Dried Beef Ball that makes it to every family gathering and never makes it out with leftovers; pickles wrapped in ham and cream cheese (now this, I have had before); and Tang, a drink mix that was originally formulated in 1957. I have had it cold, but never heard of drinking it hot.
The sisters say hot Tang is a comfort drink for them, as they used to drink that as little girls when they weren’t feeling well.
As the foodie extravaganza kicked off, Megan opened and slammed the fridge, delivering the first of the food to the table. Three of us sat waiting for this cultural experience for our taste buds.
Before us sat a platter of cinnamon bread slathered with a thick layer of Cheez Whiz. Our trio looked at each other and each took a bite.
“That’s not too bad,” one said.
“It’s interesting,” I said.
“I’ll have another one of those!” said the third taster.
We started with one of the tame dishes, but next up was the Dried Beef Ball.
“I did not put the Dried Beef Ball in a Tupperware, I put it in a Cool Whip container – that’s more North Dakota isn’t it?” Megan said as she hustled back to the kitchen to bring more food.
The large ball consisted of dried beef, cream cheese and a large bunch of chopped green onions. The sisters jumped in with Wheat Thins in hand and dipped into the giant ball of cheese.
“What’s not to like?” Lindsey said.
“I cut back on the onions for you people,” Megan said.
One of the other tasters whispered to me, “Breath through your mouth, then you won’t taste it.”
“Where do you get this dried meat?” I asked.
“Next to the Spam,” Megan said. “But Spam? Ew…gross.”
Once we were done sampling the snacks, Megan walked through her office building carrying the tray of Cheez Whiz Cinnamon Bread. I couldn’t follow her fast enough – I had research to do.
She offered up the tray to two men, one in his 30s and one in his 50s. They looked skeptical, but each took a slice. Continuing my research of this phenomenon I asked where each was from.
Neither had ever heard of this combination.
I was beginning to think maybe it was a Walcott tradition.
Then I got to thinking, maybe it’s a Megan and Lindsey tradition and no one else really eats this stuff at all.
My confidence in my knowledge of North Dakota food traditions returned but my taste buds were altered when I left the building: I could still taste the onions from the Dried Beef Ball and I had a craving for Tang.