The summer I moved to the Midwest to live on my now-husband's family farm was the summer that my perception of salad was turned upside down, held firmly by the ankles, and shaken free of all the vegetables that were hiding in its pockets.
It happened quickly and unexpectedly in a buffet line outside of Fargo, North Dakota. I inspected a pale glob of what I was told was salad. It was white and fluffy and came from a plastic bucket; what appeared to be chocolate bars peeked out at me like the curious small-town friends I hadn't yet made.
Cookie salad, I later learned, is a Midwest specialty: a mix of crushed cookies and mandarin oranges, held together by Cool Whip and pudding and not an ounce of shame. It has nothing to do with vegetables. I couldn't tell you what that first cookie salad tasted like because I didn't eat it out of fear that I would like it and would one day have to buy Cool Whip in public.
At the end of this first semester of my new Midwestern life, the final exam came in the form of lefse, a Christmastime flatbread that's practically sacred to the Norwegian descendants who populate this region. Making it requires multiple days and a very long wooden stick, preferably one that was whittled 100 years ago by an ancestor named Thorvald. To help me with my first attempt, I called on my now great-aunt-in-law Ethel, who calmed me down when I questioned my potential to be a Midwest farm wife and sobbed over my makeshift lefse grill, which I had fashioned out of an upside-down cast-iron pan. Turns out I just wasn't adding enough flour.
As word spread across town that I had used sweet potato in lieu of the standard red potato for my first-ever lefse, I felt the burn of the Midwest's subtle side-eye. But that lefse got Grandma's seal of approval, and an engagement ring came soon after. Suddenly my future as a Midwesterner didn't feel so out of reach.
One winter evening right before our wedding, my soon-to-be husband came home with freshly ground venison from our neighbor Tom. As I browned it and piled it atop a cauliflower fritter, I got the rundown on our supper: The deer was shot one day prior, in the thick of hunting season, by Tom's 11-year-old granddaughter. Its flavor was as clear as a perfect harvest day.
What stunned me most wasn't that an 11-year-old had shot the deer; it was how unfazed I was by all of this, how words like “hunting” and “venison” had snuck into my everyday vocabulary. I soon decided that if this young girl can hunt a deer with her grandpa, then surely I can make and enjoy a vegetable-less salad.
I pored over church cookbooks to learn the ins and outs of the beast that is cookie salad. A small triumph came when I realized it is not terribly different from an Eton mess, and that its signature texture can be achieved with pastry cream and fresh whipped cream, not just boxed pudding and Cool Whip. In the end, the largest triumph of all came when I told my husband to save room for dessert: We're having cookie salad.