By now, Christopher Ingraham should have learned not to insult Minnesotans.
After all, it was his flippant dismissal of a Minnesota county he wrote about for the Washington Post that turned his life upside down.
For those who missed the hullabaloo surrounding Ingraham’s infamous column, here’s a recap:
In 2015, Ingraham, a data reporter for the Post, wrote a story about a U.S. Department of Agriculture ranking of American counties by natural beauty. Coming in dead last was Red Lake County, in far northwest Minnesota, some two hours northeast of Fargo.
The county was, he wrote, “The absolute worst place to live in America.”
Needless to say, residents of the county were offended, albeit politely — this is Minnesota, after all. Plenty of people were outraged and let Ingraham know. They also invited him to visit and see for himself all the natural beauty that this remote pocket of the state had to offer.
Ingraham made the journey and was so taken by the welcome — and so burned out by his daily commute to work in Washington, D.C. — that he didn’t just visit: He and his family uprooted themselves and moved to Red Lake Falls, the county seat.
Ingraham is still living out his rural fantasy in the northern Minnesota town of 1,400 people.
He’s also written a book about it: “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home by Now: Why We Traded the Commuting Life for a Little House on the Prairie,” which debuted this week.
The book is a deeply personal story about his family life (he moved with his wife and young twins), his work and the inner turmoil he’d faced trying to survive in an expensive and crowded metropolis. It’s also peppered with objective, data-based factoids, which are Ingraham’s Washington Post reporting wheelhouse.
Above all, it’s a testament to the many reasons small-town Minnesotans have to be proud. Natural beauty is only the start of what Ingraham discovered in Red Lake County.
So, Ingraham knows he’s taking a risk partway into his book when he critiques Minnesota cuisine.
He complains about hot dish, comparing it to casseroles he ate in his childhood, which were “always something to be served with an apology,” he writes. Lutefisk (low-hanging fruit in any culinary analysis) gets bashed, as does lefse, “a bland flatbread whose primary appeal is that it isn’t lutefisk.” Walleye is “cherished by Minnesotans simply because it’s here.”
“The sad truth,” he writes, “is that northwest Minnesota may be one of the most culinarily impoverished regions of the nation.”
But that region is also his home now. Since moving, Ingraham and his wife, Briana, had a third child, and Briana got elected to the City Council. Ingraham has no immediate plans to leave, whether his lutefisk-loving neighbors like it or not.
Besides, he learned something important about Minnesotans after he published his very first article about Red Lake County: They’re nothing if not forgiving.
The Star Tribune caught up with Ingraham to talk about small-town life, writing about one’s neighbors and how a data reporter became an accidental memoirist.
Q: What made you decide to turn your move to rural Minnesota into a book?
A: We decided to move out here, and we told people and it just went nuts. The thing that surprised me was just the sheer amount of feedback I got from people all over the country — and even all over the world — who really seemed interested in this idea of moving out of an urban area and back to a rural or small-town area.
It was one of those big “What if?” questions. In the wake of all that, I was like, “Wow, this is an idea that people really connect with and there’s something here that needs to be explored further.”
Q: How did you balance documenting your experience in Red Lake Falls with trying to become a part of the community?
A: When we got here, I would make jokes with people when we were hanging out, like, “Oh, the news media is here, everything is on the record,” and people kind of laughed. I was a little worried that people might be wary about opening up to us and spending time with us, but that never actually happened.
The big thing for us is that this wasn’t just an extended reporting trip. We came here because we wanted to live here, and we’re living as residents of the community first.
Q: It seems like you have become pretty invested in the community.
A: That is definitely much more true of my wife than me. She is on the City Council now. People made yard signs for her and everything. She’s fully enmeshed in this community and she’s making decisions that are going to affect the trajectory of this community for dozens of years.
It’s funny to think back on how contingent so many of these things are because it all sprung out of a story I just tossed off one summer afternoon.
Q: When you were writing this book, did you worry about offending anybody?
A: Oh, God, yeah. There’s a little bit of diplomacy you have to do. It’s tricky writing about the people that live around you that you have to see every day. In traditional reporting on small towns, where you send somebody into the town for a day and then they leave, those reporters don’t have to look at those people every day, so you can kind of just say whatever you want to say without fear of repercussions.
But in this memoir situation, you have to be more cautious, which is very different from the kind of writing that I’m used to, where people are basically reduced to data sets and spreadsheets, and one cell in an Excel file is a stand-in for 10 million people.
Q: When you became a data journalist, did you ever think you’d write a memoir?
A: No, not at all! And it was so hard to write for me, because I’m used to thinking in 800-word bursts. Stopping, taking a step back, and doing a much longer, more thoughtful, more meditative process was a challenge.
Q: You take pains in the book to show your humility and that you aren’t just this city person who is going to come in and criticize everything. But there is one part that really stands out.
A: Let me guess …
Q: Your critique of Minnesota food is pretty scathing.
A: You would think I would have learned to not make sweeping generalizations about Minnesotans by now, but I couldn’t help it. For it to be a true chronicle of our experience, that food section absolutely had to be in there. And I feel like now that I’ve been here for three years, I have some authority. I lived this, I have the experience, I’m at a place where I can speak about this.
I’m sure people will object to it, but that’s OK. I’ve made peace with that beforehand. And I kind of know what I’m getting into now.
Q: So when is the moving truck coming?
A: That’s one thing that a lot of folks have joked about, too. “Now that the book is out, you’re going to be getting out of here.” But no, we’re not going anywhere. We’re staying here. We’ve been here for three winters now. The kids are growing up in school here. So, this is home.
Sharyn Jackson • 612-673-4853