Al Franken Whispers the Tea Party, Minnesota-Style

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Photo: Ellen Knuti

A career that has spanned Saturday Night Live and the U.S. Senate got a new addition on Sunday: judging a food-on-a-stick competition for Minnesotan expat hipsters. A standing-room-only crowd blonder, huskier, and more genial than one usually finds in the bowels of Brooklyn gathered at the Bell House for “The Minnesota State Fair Affair.” It was Gowanus’s attempt to replicate a midwestern tradition, complete with butter sculptures, daytime drinking, and all things fried. Minnesota's own funnyman turned senator Al Franken dropped by to gently admonish the culinary experiments of some of his New York–transplanted constituents. As food-on-a-stick judge, Franken decreed that the sangria-soaked fruit nubs had a wonky aftertaste and wondered if the curried matzoh balls would be more palatable with a chicken soup chaser. After sampling a chocolate chip cookie, also delivered in stick form, Franken weighed in with faint praise: “It is what it is. It’s good that it’s a cookie and not something stupid.”

Franken embraced a politician's reluctance to offend anyone — also a noted Minnesotan virtue — in his role as judge, shying away from naming an outright winner. But he was willing to go out on a limb and award the matzoh balls “hands down, the most Jewish.” The sangria on a stick "was the closest to being something that would actually work. And most alcoholic. So the kids would love it."

Before he left, Franken reminisced about his favorite Minnesota State Fair moment, which took place during the great health-care debate of 2009, when a gaggle of tea party protesters swarmed his booth. "Really all you have to do is embrace them. I just talked to them and they calmed down.“ Franken recalled, "At one point I criticized the death panels and then — only in Minnesota would tea party people do this — they apologized and admitted ‘yeah, those were bad.' Someone called me 'the Tea Party Whisperer'.”

Oh, and a note to all those tempted to reject Facebook friend-requests from long-lost high school flames: Homegrown connections can actually prove useful. Although Garrison Keillor gracefully declined an invitation to judge, Franken felt compelled to attend because he dated one of the organizers’ aunts growing up in Minnesota. Or in his words, “I went out with her once. It went okay.”