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A Quick Trip to Europe

Gauper, Larry. "A Quick Trip to Europe." The FM Extra, June 26, Volume 8, Issue 26, 3.

This essay originally appeared in The Wordchipper, a column in the F-M Extra a weekly newspaper published in eastern North Dakota.


A “knoephla” is a type of dumpling used in a soup popular among families and communities of the “Germans from Russia” heritage in parts of North and South Dakota and Minnesota. I have a special lust for this soup, especially the way they make it at the Wentz Cafe in Napoleon, North Dakota. My craving caused bowls of the stuff to appear in my dreams as the time approached for the 125th anniversary of the establishment of the city of Napoleon. This was an event not to be missed in my spouse’s hometown.

Arriving in Napoleon about noon on Thursday, June 11, I made a beeline to the Wentz Cafe. I didn’t really need the menu; I knew what I wanted: “Please give me a big bowl of knoephla soup!” This I stated in my clearest “TV/radio” voice. But the style of the waitress’s Prussian-like reply promptly reminded me that a visit to the Wentz Cafe is like a quick trip to Europe: “No! Tomorrow!”

Oops-de-soup! Sorry—Thursday is definitely /not /knoephla soup day; that honor is reserved for Fridays. So, today I would order my next favorite item on the cafe’s menu: their “German burger.” This is a unique and tasty concoction of sauerkraut and käse (the German word for cheese) on a generously made hamburger patty, folded together with a fresh bun. This excellent consolation prize temporarily soothed my raging appetite for my primary objective. Needless to say, I returned the next day to enjoy two bowls of knoephla soup at $2.50 each. Aah, yes—desire satisfied is a wondrous thing (sigh).

Besides the menu items at the cafe, there were, of course, other memorable highlights of my visit to Napoleon’s well-produced anniversary celebration. The greatest of these was a visit with a young lady who I believe is North Dakota’s answer to Minnesota’s Garrison Keillor: Napoleon’s own Debra Marquart.

While Keillor writes and talks about his mythical Lake Wobegon, there’s nothing “mythical” about Marquart’s tales of growing up as a “farm kid” (vs. the “city kids”) in the Napoleon area. Of her book about her childhood on the Dakota plains, /The Horizontal World: Growing Up in the Middle of Nowhere/, one reviewer wrote: “…a wry, moving memoir about a family farm, a father, and a daughter, and why it’s so hard to go home again.” Personally, I think Marquart’s work matches the depth, quality and readability of another Northern Plains biographer and tale-teller, Kathleen Norris (/Dakota: A Spiritual Geography/ and others). Whether or not you grew up in a Germans from Russia community in North Dakota, you’ll enjoy Marquart’s /Horizontal World/. Although she doesn’t bring a laugh to every page, Marquart is close to meeting that standard—again, similar to Keillor’s Lake Wobegon yarns. More importantly, this writer brings a /realness/ only possible from someone who has lived the story.

Marquart is currently a professor of English at Iowa State University in Ames. She teaches in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa and in the Stonecoast Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts program at the University of Southern Maine. In the 1970s and ’80s, Marquart was a touring road musician with rock and heavy metal bands; her writing has received numerous national and regional awards. Learn more about all of the author’s work at www.debramarquart.com.

I enjoyed my visit with this nationally-known author at the *Germans from Russia Heritage Collection (GRHC)* display, temporarily set up in Napoleon. The GRHC Library is located within the Main Library building on the campus of North Dakota State University in Fargo and is open to the general public. Director and bibliographer of the GRHC Library is Michael M. Miller, who was born and raised in the Germans from Russia community of Strasburg. Incidentally, Strasburg was also the hometown of Lawrence Welk, whose memorable speech patterns—throughout his highly successful career—reflected his south-central North Dakota heritage.

In 2008, Miller received the North Dakota Library Association’s “Librarian of the Year Award” for his many years of service to the GHRC, the NDSU libraries and education. He is assisted by four professional staff members and numerous volunteers. The easiest way to access the GRHC’s outstanding and very deep website is to Google “Germans from Russia Heritage Collection.”

Marquart’s writings and the GRHC Library illuminate and preserve a significant part of North Dakota’s culture, history and heritage. Whether or not you’r of German ancestry, you’ll be greatly enriched by these resources and—as a delicious bonus—you just might come across a recipe for knoephla soup. However, I recommend you sample it the easy way: stop by the Wentz Cafe in Napoleon— but make sure it’s on a Friday.

Reprinted with permission of Larry Gauper.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller
North Dakota State University Libraries
Germans from Russia Heritage Collection
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