Bob Dylan grew up in Hibbing, Minnesota- a few miles from Chisholm, Minnesota where my mom was born to Italian immigrants. I wrote about the north country in Part 3 of The Shoemaker’s Wife, which was a fictionalized version of my grandparents (both from the Italian Alps in the Lombardy region of bella Italia) love story.
A couple weeks ago I attended a performance of Conor McPherson’s The Girl from North Country, a theatrical narrative woven with the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan. I am as interested in Bob Dylan the thinker as I am Bob Dylan the artist. An artist that blooms and grows on the Iron Range of Minnesota is going to have something to say about human connection, the family, romance and cold weather. Mr. Dylan does all of it- and as his life unfolded, wrote about deeper truths and the spirit with the same enthusiasm he embraced the lives of working people, often in dire circumstances or hopeless situations. When I read Chronicles 1, the first installment of Dylan’s autobiography, his sense of humor shone through the hardship.
Bob Dylan is truly funny. I imagine he could be a stand-up- as he has an original way with a yarn- set to music or not. I imagine him hanging out with Lewis Black and talking shop. They have many similar irritants.
The Girl From North Country takes a few of Dylan’s live wire ideologies about love, work and family and spins them into an arresting story. The cast is so gifted, that unlike other plays with music that have taken the work of a particular artist and used their canon as the musical ribbon, you aren’t waiting for the next hit song to find its way into the play. Instead, I sat back and experienced the story- the music became its wings- but it wasn’t the whole story- it was the river upon which the show sailed.
Since attending the play with my dear friend Sheila, I have been thinking about my mother. The letters she left behind from her mother are loving, there are weather reports with how many feet of snow came down on the range that month and requests for my grandmother to make my mother a particular outfit she had seen in a magazine. My grandmother was a storefront couturier who made her living sewing and altering. She created wedding gowns, maternity clothes, trousseaus and wardrobes for Iron Range ladies- including her twin daughters. When her grandchildren were born, she sewed and sewed. Playclothes. Pajamas. Dresses. It seemed to me there was nothing Lucia Bonicelli could not create with a needle and thread.
Bob Dylan, or Robert Zimmerman as he was known before his music career exploded, came from the same place of origin as my mom. On the face of it- you’d think that they would have nothing in common. But, folks from the Iron Range of Minnesota have similarities. They are gutsy, thrifty, hardworking, kind and funny. They survive long winters and revel in cool Minnesota summers that make all the shoveling worth it. The lakes are navy blue mirrors, and the sky turns the color of carnival glass when the sun sets. You will never eat a better doughnut- or taste a pastry better than the ones made on the Iron Range. They are good people- now a melange of middle European, Slovak, Yugoslavian (when my mom was a girl!), Finnish and Norweigan- Italian and Jewish. I remember magnificent summers with my cousins, aunt and uncle. My grandmother’s shop on West Lake Street in Chisholm overlooked over Longyear Lake- she had a wringer washing machine and skylights that, when they were left open, let in that Minnesota breeze off the lake.
Bob Dylan had the northern Minnesota experience- the long winters of isolation and the glorious summers around the lakes. I bet he even loved Povitica, the great signature pastry of the Slovaks, a sweetbread filled with buttery walnut filling between layers of thin dough, baked to perfection. I provided a shortcut recipe here- (I am sure if you wanted the long version, Betsy Brazis, who was raised in nearby Buhl, and delivered povitica to me on holidays would be happy to oblige you. Or, you could order it from the Povitica Bakery in Chisholm- which happens to operate out of my grandmother’s old shop on West Lake Street.)
Ingredients for the dough
1 lb. premade sweet, yeasted dough
2 sticks of Butter
2 cups of chopped walnuts (or 2 cups of poppyseeds your choice)
One cup of honey
Blend one stick of butter, 2 cups of chopped walnuts and one cup of honey in a mixing bowl. Mix well and set aside.
Sprinkle flour on a pastry board. With your rolling pin, roll the premade dough paper thin. Keep working it. Get it so thin, you can almost see through it. Spread butter, honey and walnuts mixture over the thin sheet of dough. Roll up the sheet of dough tightly in pinwheel formation with the filling.
Cut it into long logs- allowing the dough to rise. Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes or until they are golden brown. Remove from the oven, brush the golden povitica with butter. Serve!
You will make all the girls and boys from North Country very happy!