FARGO — You’ve heard the old joke: How do you know a Norwegian couple has been married a long time?
Punchline: When they have to buy their second bottle of Tabasco sauce.
That’s the closest I can come to explaining our region’s relationship with spicy food, which hit the international spotlight this week after a tweet from a patron at a Fargo Thai restaurant went viral. Twin Cities visitor Jason Wittenberg’s tweet included a photo of a sign posted at every booth in Fargo’s Leela Thai, which read: “Spice level warning: Level 0-5. We will no longer issue refunds when you order your food spicy and can’t handle it.”
Not since Olivegardengate of 2012 has our state’s dining culture received so much buzz.
Some replies on this spicy thread mentioned that cashiers at Thai restaurants across the world will sometimes note "white people" on food orders so the cooks know to dial back the peppers and ginger.
I would go so far as to suggest that they go one further and make note of "North Dakota spicy." You see, while the rest of the world may operate according to the Scoville scale to measure the pungency of chili peppers, many of us North Dakotans (this writer included) operate according to a whole new scale that I like to call the "Tollefsrud unit." This ranges from a mild “uffda” for when Ole Tollefsrud gets heartburn after wife Phyllis slips a bell pepper into her sloppy Joe mix to a passionate "Fyda!" when she tries to spice up things with a teaspoon of Sriracha in the hotdish.
You see, to most others, spicy might be an authentic Phaal curry or a blistering Carolina Reaper mac and cheese. But for generations of North Dakotans, with our preponderance of Scandinavian (38%) and German (43%) ancestors, our palates are accustomed to the safe, the easy-to-digest and the bland.
While we’ve certainly grown more diverse in recent years, the majority of North Dakotans descended from stout, stalwart folks who didn’t want their taste buds to work as hard as they did. They wanted cheap, reliable, filling food, which would sustain them as they prepared the bottomland by pulling tree trunks out of the earth with their bare hands or walking 11 miles uphill to school every morning while carrying their sisters.
Today, we still rely on plain, hearty food to sustain us. After all, we need three solid squares to fuel us as we clear 6 feet of snow off our 20-foot-long driveway or jump a car in 40-below weather.
Our ancestors survived off milk, flour, butter, potatoes, cabbage and cream. Germans from Russia managed to feed their families of 17 by adding great dollops of white dough to everything. Like knoephla soup, kase knoephla, fleischküchle and kuchen.
And then we have the Scandihoovians, known for their love of rice pudding, lefse, klubb, rommegrot, kransekake and other white foods. Heck, even their sausage is non-spicy. Have you ever had potato sausage? It has nutmeg in it. Nutmeg. The Ed Flanders of spices.
I can remember eating Thanksgiving in a Norwegian/Swedish household as they raved about the potato sausage that had been given to them by their neighbor Lars. They offered it to me as if serving the rarest beluga caviar, then gazed on expectantly as I tried it.
With my outside voice, I murmured the ultimate Norwegian compliment — “”Hmm, that's not too bad then," even as my inside voice said: “Who is this Lars and why is he making his potato sausage from spackle?"
Of course, in more recent years, our whole population’s palate has grown more adventurous — partly because we have greater diversity in dining options locally, people travel more so are exposed to different cuisines, and the phenomenon I call “The Taste-tosterone Factor.”
The latter is the ability to tolerate blistering mouth pain — especially if you are male — as if one’s ability to swallow the food equivalent to a flaming porcupine is proof positive of one’s masculinity.
But if ghost-pepper chili isn’t your bag, don’t get down about it.
If, deep down, your idea of “hot” is pad thai seasoned with Mrs. Dash, just own it.
Go ahead and order that spice Level 1.
This bland is your bland.
Tammy Swift can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.