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Sauerkraut, and the cultural heritage that comes with it, is at the center of numerous festivals in the upper Midwest. (Sue B. Balcom photo)

Food: How we celebrate culture, community and heritage

What food instantly connects you with certain people, places or events? We all have those special favorites, forever tied in our minds to fun, family, friends or special times.

Here in the Midwest we don't just produce a lot of food — we also celebrate it. Food not only fills our bellies; it's also one way we preserve and celebrate heritage and traditions. Festivals and special days are devoted to the foods we love.

Take lutefisk (say "LOOT-eh-fisk") — fish preserved in lye. That's right. L-Y-E. (We have to wonder if some of these foods came to be when somebody said something like, "How much ya wanna bet I can get Joe to eat that [odd item or food that something weird happened to]?") But that's another story.

For years, one of us resisted even trying the tiniest bite of lutefisk, while the other's heritage demanded cooperation. Neither one of us is impressed to this day.

But some folks love it. You go anywhere in the upper Midwest, particularly where lots of Scandinavians settled in Minnesota, Iowa or North Dakota, and each spring and fall, you'll find a surfeit of places to get your fill of lutefisk. Churches, cafes, fundraisers, you name it — lutefisk is just about everywhere.

Sauerkraut is another favorite. It's the best-known and most documented of the fermented cabbage dishes, dating back to Roman times. Whole festivals are planned around the humble green orb that makes kraut.

Want a good German time? Wishek, N.D., does it up right. Now in its 93rd year, Wishek hosts an annual Sauerkraut Days complete with German music, costumes, dancing, sausage (can't have kraut without sausage), contests and more. Dust off your dancing shoes and get ready to polka, schottische and bunny-hop.

And then there's the food of the ranchers. That's right — we're talking about a tradition that reaches from the Northern Great Plains right down to Texas, and comes straight from the "waste nothing" resourcefulness of early cowboys and pioneers. Known by many names — cowboy caviar, huevos de toro, bull fries, Rocky Mountain oysters — every branding we've ever been at includes a pan kept hot on the fire for these babies.

Rocky Mountain oysters are a prairie states favorite -– “feeds” and “fry” events are common throughout the region. It's great fun to order a basket of "fries" without telling your not-from-here friends what they're in for. It's pretty easy to do, too, since some places serve them in very thin strips that resemble calamari. Kinda sorta.

We could tell you some hysterical stories about Katy's first foray into cooking them up, but we won't. Instead, we'll share her favorite fried "prairie oyster" recipe that always brings a giggle.

First, find a bull. Talk to it nice and gentle. Gain its trust. Do what you gotta do to get the "oysters." Apologize and run like hell. Don't drop anything. Catch your breath.

Remove outer membrane and cut the oysters into two or three pieces, depending on their size.

Do NOT laugh. You have already caused enough injury.

Roll in flour. (Not you. The oysters.)

Heat olive oil or lard in skillet. Place oysters in skillet. Fry until meat is golden brown. Remove from skillet. Drain off excess oil.

Feelin' fancy? Garnish with bacon bits, chopped egg and parsley before serving.

Eat fast. Keep a sharp eye out. Be ready to move at a moment's notice. Avoid using a red tablecloth. (Red just makes bulls madder.)

Hope Katy's "recipe" tickled your funny bone as much as our favorite foods tickle our tummies. We've only covered a few, and there are plenty more out there from aebleskiver to zucchini schnitzels and everything in between. Happy eating!

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