Spirit in the skyway

In Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Pillsbury Co. and the Mall of America set the tone foodwise.


Burt Wolf
July 12, 2000 11:44PM (UTC)

It was Mark Twain who first called Minneapolis and St. Paul "the Twin Cities," but they are clearly not identical twins. St. Paul was born first. In 1840, a bootlegging saloonkeeper started a settlement that he called "Pig's Eye." About a year later, a priest by the name of Lucien Galtier arrived, built a church and dedicated it to St. Paul. The locals recognized a brilliant opportunity for a public relations move and changed the name of the area to St. Paul. In 1858, the territory of Minnesota became a state, and St. Paul became the capital.

The population of St. Paul is about 272,000, but it has managed to hold on to the charm of a small town. Its Grand Avenue is a busy shopping street, but the shops are tucked into old houses that give the neighborhood a friendly hometown feeling. St. Paul contains many preserved and refurbished buildings, many of which date back more than 100 years.

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The heart of the city, however, has always been the Mississippi River. The Dakotas called it "the place where the waters meet," a reference to the spot where the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers come together. For hundreds of years the river has been the primary means of transportation, and the route for all commerce and communication. It's interesting to explore the mighty Mississippi in the state where it begins, and visitors can do so by taking a trip with the Padelford Packet Boat Co. It's Minnesota's oldest and largest riverboat company, founded by Capt. William Bowell, whose ancestors came to America in 1630.

One of the things you'll see from the river is the St. Paul skyline, which is dominated by the Cathedral of St. Paul and its large Renaissance-style dome. The dome represents the idea of a portal to heaven. The interior is painted with gold leaf and bright colors designed to draw your eyes heavenward. The church houses the local bishop's chair, known in Latin as a cathedra, which marks it as a cathedral. No matter how big or small the building, a church with a bishop's chair is always a cathedral.

As in most cities, the saintly citizens of St. Paul have been balanced by a fair number of sinners, especially during Prohibition. Ironically, it was the push by politicians to enact the tough legislation forbidding the importation, manufacture or distribution of alcoholic beverages that did more to encourage criminal behavior than anything ever produced by drinking in moderation.

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During the early 1900s, St. Paul was notorious as a safe haven for gangsters. At the time, the chief of the St. Paul Police Department was John "the Big Guy" O'Connor. His brother, Richard "the Cardinal" O'Connor, was an alderman and the head of the St. Paul Democratic Party. They decided that it was not fiscally responsible to spend city money on catching gangsters. So they came up with what they called "The O'Connor Layover System." Crooks who came to St. Paul and abided by three simple rules would not be arrested; extradition papers from other police departments would mysteriously get lost and the FBI would not be informed. The three rules were: 1) Do not commit any crimes within the city limits of St. Paul. Go over to Minneapolis all you want; we do not care. 2) Give a little kickback to the policeman's fund. 3) Check in and tell us where you're staying so we can call and warn you of any trouble. The system was very effective. In fact, the good citizens of St. Paul were so safe that if a purse snatcher stole from someone, the gangsters would take care of him.

These days, St. Paul is the center of state government, devoted to the no-frills, straightforward preservation of its past. Minneapolis has become the center for big business and the immediate introduction of everything that is new.

Minneapolis grew up around St. Anthony Falls, using the water as a powerful source of energy. Water power could run mills -- the mills that ground wheat and made Minneapolis the flour-milling capital of America.

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One of the first millers to tap into the power of St. Anthony Falls was Charles Pillsbury, who set standards for innovation and efficiency. Today his company is still in Minneapolis; it has 16,000 employees and more than $6 billion in annual sales.

For most Americans, Pillsbury is famous for creating the annual Pillsbury Bake-Off. It was first held in 1949 -- and the changes that have taken place in the contest clearly reflect the changes that have taken place in American society. The first contest was held to mark the return of family life after World War II; Eleanor Roosevelt was the guest of honor. The economic boom of the '50s was a return to "the good life," reflected in contest recipes that were rich and sweet. One of the winning entries in 1951 was a French silk pie.

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The '60s and '70s were marked by a rising divorce rate, single-parent families and women returning to the workforce, attending college and building careers. The theme of the bake-off in 1966 was "Busy Lady"; and one of the prize-winning recipes was the tunnel of fudge cake, with only six ingredients.

The '80s and '90s saw the return of fancy desserts and cakes, but they were considered entertainment. Cooking and baking had become hobbies, something people did to relax. And for the first time, men and teenagers were winners. The changing ethnicity of the nation was also reflected in the bake-off entries -- two of the winners were spicy Cuban stir-fry and salsa couscous chicken. The first bake-off prize was $25,000; today it is $1 million.

Minneapolis is also famous for its skyway system, a five-mile-long series of glass-covered passages that connect the second floors of nearly 100 buildings. It gives Minneapolis an entire second street level with shops, department stores and restaurants. And the weather inside is always perfect.

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Minneapolis also has the Guthrie Theater, internationally famous for its creative performances, and the Walker Art Center, one of the nation's most important contemporary art museums. Both buildings face out on the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which is the largest urban sculpture garden in the country -- 11 acres with more than 40 modern sculptures.

A tour of the Twin Cities wouldn't be complete without sidetracking to Bloomington, Minn., for a visit to the Mall of America. This is not your average suburban mall. For one thing, it has attracted more than 40,000 visitors each year since it opened in 1992. That's more than Disney World, the Grand Canyon and Graceland put together. It covers over 4 million square feet and the first three floors have more than 500 retail outlets and more than 50 places to eat. The top level is for nightclubs and movies. In the center is the Camp Snoopy theme park, built in honor of Charles Schulz. Snoopy and the rest of the Peanuts gang were born in St. Paul.

There are also things for grown-ups, including an 18-hole miniature golf course, and the Y2K version of bumper cars, featuring the most realistic NASCAR simulators in the world. For just a few dollars, you and 14 other daredevils can race one another on an amazingly lifelike speedway where what each driver does affects other drivers in the race.

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And underneath this vast megamall is UnderWater World, filled with 1.3 million gallons of water, 3,000 sea creatures and experts to tell you what you're looking at. It will take you through re-creations of the Boundary Waters National Park, an ice-covered Minnesota lake, the bottom of the Mississippi River and a coral reef.

Most surprising of all the attractions at the mall, however, is the Chapel of Love, where 450 weddings are performed each year. For some, it makes perfect sense: Have the ceremony, celebrate at one of the restaurants, receive the gift certificates and start shopping -- all in the same hour, under the same roof. What could be more efficient?


Burt Wolf

Burt Wolf's TV show, "Travels & Traditions II," appears on almost 300 public-television stations weekly. His column appears every Wednesday in Salon. For more columns, visit his archive. He also writes regularly about food and cooking equipment for Burt Wolf.com.

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