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I rise in defense of the humble fruitcake, whose reputation was so casually slandered on the Dec. 29 Opinion Exchange page (“It’s not the flavor of odd holiday foods we crave, but the taste of home”). The author would have us believe that certain holiday foods are perpetrated merely through sentiment rather than good taste.

I dissent. The author lumps fruitcake, lutefisk and hog jowls as time-consuming, tasting terrible, smelling disgusting, and avoided by the most discerning palates at the table — 5-year-olds.

Pamela Hill Nettleton, meet my granddaughter, Eve, not yet 5. This was her second year of crafting fruitcakes, which are assembled in the bright interval between her preschool nap and dinner. We measure and she dumps. She keeps count to make sure I have the correct eight eggs called for in the 1900 New Orleans Picayune cookbook from which I’ve culled my constantly evolving recipe. In go the currants, craisins, almonds, dates, apricots, sultanas, and so on. This year she discovered the wonders of figs, cadging a few on the side. She also graduated to supervised operation of the electric mixer. Maybe next year she’ll get to chop a few dates.

But get this, Pam. Preschooler Eve loves the finished product, the dressing of brandy notwithstanding. She loved it as soon as it was baked, and she eagerly took me up on it at Christmas dinner.

In my opinion, fruitcake suffers from its reputation. People love to disparage it because they grew up hearing it disparaged, much like the accordion or the banjo. But have they tried a citron-free fruitcake that combines the healthy ingredients we sprinkle into our menus year-round — the raisins we consume with our bran, the craisins we fold into our trail mix, the apricots we cook into our oatmeal?

Haven’t we learned by now as a society to walk in someone else’s shoes before we condemn? It’s time to taste before we judge. I’ll try your lutefisk or pig jowls if you indulge my fruitcake.

Steve Brandt, Minneapolis

The writer is a former Star Tribune reporter.

GOV. MARK DAYTON

His legacy will be that he fought for the common person. An anecdote:

As Gov. Mark Dayton’s time in office winds down, I feel compelled to share my personal observations about his leadership and why this wealthy and powerful politician will always be remembered as a “man of the people.”

I was fresh out of college when I landed a job as a staffer working for then-U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton. I couldn’t believe it. A girl born in a Thai refugee camp to parents who were never formally educated and spoke little English was walking the halls of the U.S. Capitol. After needing help most of my life from publicly funded programs, I was now in a position to help others.

By day, I staffed Sen. Dayton’s health care help line, helping families in crisis navigate the health care system. By night, I came home to our three-bedroom house in East Side St. Paul that was shared by my parents, four younger sisters and my brother’s young family. After my parents were sworn in as new U.S. citizens, Dayton threw a party for them. My parents were grateful for the party, but were genuinely touched when he listened intently to my mother’s tearful story about our journey to the U.S. Eventually, I left the senator’s office for graduate school. As Minnesota’s greatest cheerleader, he lobbied me to stay and attend the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. I did so and then settled into a quiet life.

Seven years after I left Dayton’s office, my father passed away. His funeral was set for Jan. 8, 2011. On a whim, I informed the office. The office initially told us that was the same day as Gov. Dayton’s inaugural ball, and we understood that he was busy. Then they informed us that the governor wanted to stop by the funeral before heading to the ball. He didn’t do it for the TV cameras. He didn’t do it to impress others. Our family has never publicly shared this story, but this act illustrated the kindness and decency that have defined Mark Dayton’s tenure in public service.

My father died thinking he was a “nobody” in this country. I wish he would have known that the highest-ranking elected leader of this state thought he was a somebody. To be clear, it wasn’t just my father. Gov. Dayton, through his policies and leadership, has worked tirelessly for all Minnesotans, like my father. Beyond balancing the state budget, it was critical for him to increase health care coverage and expand early childhood opportunities so that Minnesotans now and into the future will have better opportunities and lives. While his background and upbringing are far from common, his legacy will be that he fought for the common man. Gov. Dayton, thank you for your service. You will be missed.

Seng Vang, Oronoco, Minn.

RESPECTING BELIEFS ON RELIGION

It goes both ways, of course, and nonbelievers deserve toleration, too

A Dec. 28 letter writer makes a good point that “religious beliefs, like politics, deserve a more civil discourse, tolerating and respecting the beliefs of others.”

I’m 65 and I’ve been an atheist since I finished Catholic grade school. In that more than 50 years, I haven’t noticed much effort on the part of the public to tolerate and respect my beliefs, rather it seems that something I read years ago is true, that public opinion polls show atheists to be the most reviled religious minority in this country. It is an easy minority status to hide, of course, but in recent years many atheists have gotten out of the closet and even in your face. Some, but not me, would even say we’ve become trendy.

If the letter writer had taken his own recommendation for civil discourse to heart, he wouldn’t have called the original letter, the one he responded to by the atheist, “a nonbeliever’s raging rant,” or have said “the letter writer insults everyone who has ever believed in God.”

One thing that should keep this discussion humble and civil is that whatever my or your specific religious beliefs are, the vast majority of mankind believes both I and you are wrong. Working from numbers in my 2011 World Almanac, world religious adherents are about 35 percent Christian, 24 percent Muslim, 15 percent Hindu, 8 percent Buddhist, 7 percent Chinese folk religionist, 10 percent nonreligious and 2 percent atheist, among many others. There’s a good reason we have freedom of and from religion in this great country, and we ought to discuss the topic because it is important, and we ought to do so civilly.

Tony Stemberger, Mendota Heights

• • •

To those letter writers who proclaim their Christian faith: You are welcome to your beliefs, and no one is trying to take your faith away from you. The thing is, every person of faith, with the possible exception of Buddhists, believes that his or her religion is the one and only true religion. You cannot all be right, but you certainly can all be wrong. Not believing in all the thousands of gods that have been worshiped throughout human history makes you atheists with respect to those gods; I am simply an atheist about one more deity than you.

Enjoy your faith, if it brings you joy and solace. No one will deny you your religion; but, please, keep your religion out of the public sphere, respect the constitutionally mandated freedom of conscience, and respect those of us who do not share your beliefs.

Joyce Denn, Woodbury