'That Midwestern Mom' shares Minnesota traditions through TikTok

A woman poses by a large turkey statue
Amber Estenson is a TikTok creator who shares her own Minnesota salad recipes and the stories of her community with the world.
Courtesy of Amber Estenson

What do you get when you mix Cool Whip, Snickers bars, vanilla pudding mix, chopped apples and marshmallows? The recipe for a popular Minnesota salad — a staple at potlucks across the state.

A Minnesota based TikTok creator is sharing her own Minnesota salad recipes and the stories and traditions of her community with the world. Her name is Amber Estenson from Frazee, Minnesota. With more than 700,000 followers on TikTok, Estenson’s most popular video is her Snickers salad recipe with more than 3 million views.

Estenson joined host Cathy Wurzer to talk about her journey on TikTok and what it’s been like to share her life in Minnesota with viewers.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

I have never heard of the Snickers salad, who is eating this thing?

Anybody and everybody? Well, you know, Snickers salad and cookie salad — cookie salad I actually think is the most viewed one — that's with the Keebler Elves’ cookies and mandarin oranges. And those two were ones that my mom never did because they had so much sugar in them, which is hilarious because all Minnesota salad have too much sugar in them. But you know, Uncle Kevin would bring the cookie salad and somebody else would bring the Snickers salad. But it's extremely popular. There's it's always at a potluck. It doesn't matter if it's in a church basement or if it's at a community event.

Tell me how you got started on TikTok.

I've kind of lived all over the country and all over the world, and I remember when I was going to school at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore I had a bunch of friends come over that were in town for Thanksgiving. You know, they weren't able to travel. And I did the whole shebang, the whole Thanksgiving spread. And I put raspberry pretzel salad on the table with the dinner course.

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And my friends from Korea and my friends from Taiwan, and then even my friends from Philadelphia were like, “Why are you calling this a salad. This is not normal, Amber.“ And I did know that. Like in the back of my head, I knew it wasn't normal outside of Minnesota. But it also didn't really dawn on me either. Because it was just so much part of my culture and my family, and everything that we've done. But then they ate it and they're like, “oh my gosh, this is so this shouldn't be so delicious. But it is.” And so it was just one of those things that I had to bring to every gathering otherwise I get in trouble.

These are dessert salads for people who are not sure.

Dessert salads or fluff salads. Everybody wants to know from all over the world, when do you serve these? We serve with the main course. There's a whole table of salads and some of them are vegetable salads. But most of them are fluff salads.

So how far have your videos reached?

I've got lots of people in Australia that are rather concerned with what we're doing, but absolutely fascinated by it. And just, for example, I was at Pride yesterday and I couldn't go more than three feet and people would recognize me and say hi and want a hug. And it's humbling, just because I do it from behind a screen out of my kitchen and then I go out into the world and get recognized all of the time. And it’s thrilling and exciting.

I'm presuming you're also talking about Frazee, which is a pretty small place.

I think our current population is around 1,100. I was born and raised there. My mom has a hair salon on Main Street so you know honestly, I was small town famous before TikTok because everybody knows my mom.

It's Grand Central Station at my mom's hair salon and she's very involved in the community as well and so a lot of my TikTok is based off of my mom's interactions with the public and what she's done. It’s so much part of our culture up north in Minnesota to feed everyone. You know, the food might not be pretty, but it tastes a taste really great and it feeds a whole army. So you know, the Minnesota way to say “I love you” is “have you eaten yet?”

You’re a former opera singer and now you’re a teacher?

Well I think you never stop being an opera singer, but you stop getting paid to be an opera singer. But yeah, I teach music at Frazee Elementary School. And I still continue to perform when I can.

So fortunately, an opportunity came up this weekend, I'll be singing the national anthem at the Minnesota Twins game on on Friday night. I appreciate it when things like that happened through TikTok because, you know, it brings all aspects of my artistic degrees together, you know, the acting and the singing and just as my mother would say, generally being dramatic.

This is a perfect outlet for you.

It really is. I tried previously to do a blog about it, because I knew that there was something special about my town, I knew that there was something special about small town Minnesota and the way we interact with each other and the way we help each other.

How we stop our cars in the middle of Main Street, when it's 20 below out and still roll down the window and say hi to each other. I knew that there was something special about it. But for me, I'm actually dyslexic and ADHD, and so a blog was just was not my format.

And that was 10 years ago, and then TikTok happened. And I downloaded it during the pandemic, like most of us did, and just kind of watched for a long time. And then remembering how people had reacted to those salads when I had been in other places other than Minnesota, it was like, “oh, I should post this for St. Patrick's Day, because we always make this on St. Patrick's Day, and people probably think it's funny.” And then it just blew up from there.

And you know, the Jason Show called and then WDAY out of Fargo did a bid on it. And then viral videos happened. And it just it's kind of been a fun roller coaster ride and it just keeps going forward. The most fun is really talking about my community and talking about the people who helped raise me.

What's the reaction in town? Because some Minnesotans don't appreciate being out on the world stage.

Well, mom, for example, does not want to be involved. I wish I could do a whole series on the hair salon, because that's super entertaining. And I made her promise that we would do some sort of cameo when I got to a million followers on TikTok. And so she's a little reluctant. But mostly everybody thinks it's great. Getting to do things in the community is one of my favorite parts. I participated in the Polar Plunge for the first time ever for the Boys and Girls Club. And raised over $8,000 in just 10 days. It's amazing to be part of the community like that in a way that I never even dreamed possible.

Turkey Days in Frazee is coming up at the end of July. So what do you plan on doing?

Well, it's the 29th, 30th and 31st. There's the street dance on Friday night. There's the Miss Frazee pageant on Saturday evening, I believe I'm co-emceeing. I'm out of town right before Turkey days happens so mom was nervous to have me emcee the whole thing. But then there's the parade on Sunday, which of course is the big thing and I'll be in the parade. And the demolition derby afterwards. I’ll be just filming videos and letting the world see how we do it in tiny town Minnesota.

Can you give me a quick salad recipes that’s one of your favorites?

Watergate Salad, or pistachio fluff salad. It's really just pistachio pudding, a can of crushed pineapple with the juice. You whip that together add cool whip and marshmallows and that’s it!

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Audio transcript

INTERVIEWER: What do you get when you mix Cool Whip, Snickers bars, vanilla pudding mix, chopped apples, and marshmallows? It's the recipe for a popular Minnesota salad, a staple at potlucks across the state. A Minnesota-based TikTok creator is sharing her own Minnesota salad recipes and the stories and traditions of her community with the world. Her name is Amber Estenson, from Frazee, Minnesota, just east of Detroit Lakes. With more than 700,000 followers on TikTok, Estenson's most popular video is her Snickers Salad recipe, with more than 3 million views. Let's take a listen.

AMBER ESTENSON: Why am I up so gosh darn early? Well, there's a potluck at school today. And I have to do the apples the morning that you serve them because otherwise they turn brown. So we're going to start with a box of instant vanilla pudding. Add 1 cup of buttermilk, and only one cup because otherwise your salad would be soupy. And we don't want soupy salad. And mix!

Usually, I do this at midnight when the kids are asleep. Since we're doing this for a potluck, we're doing eight apple. Granny Smith and honey crisp apples because we're in Minnesota, and they were developed at the University of Minnesota in 1960. Lots of people take the skins off their apples, but I leave them on. I mean, for Pete's sake, this is a salad. We've got to have something healthy in there, doncha know.

INTERVIEWER: [LAUGHS] Thank you, Amber. Amber is with us right now to talk about her journey on TikTok and what it's been like to share her life in Minnesota with folks from around the world. Hey, Amber, how are you?

AMBER ESTENSON: I'm great. Thanks for having me.

INTERVIEWER: Good. Thanks for being here. Now, I'm a native Minnesotan, native of South Minneapolis. So I may have missed the boat on the Snickers Salad in my family. I have never heard of the Snickers Salad. Who is eating this thing?

AMBER ESTENSON: Anybody and everybody.

INTERVIEWER: What?

AMBER ESTENSON: [LAUGHS]

INTERVIEWER: What?

AMBER ESTENSON: Well, you know, Snickers Salad and Cookie Salad. Cookie Salad I actually think is the most viewed one. That's with the Keebler Elves cookies and Mandarin oranges and Cool Whip and pudding. Those two were ones that my mom never did because they had so much sugar in them, which is hilarious because all Minnesota salads have too much sugar in them. But Uncle Kevin would bring the Cookie Salad, and somebody else would bring the Snickers Salad. But it's extremely popular. It's always at a potluck. It doesn't matter if it's in a church basement or if it's at a community.

INTERVIEWER: I'm going to have to get out more, obviously. Amber, you're back, aren't you? There you are.

AMBER ESTENSON: I am.

INTERVIEWER: I can hear the background.

AMBER ESTENSON: Yep, I can hear you.

INTERVIEWER: OK, I'm going to have to come up to your neck of the woods then. You're going to have to maybe take me on a little taste tour through your potlucks.

AMBER ESTENSON: Well, the perfect opportunity would be Turkey Days at the end of the month--

INTERVIEWER: It would be.

AMBER ESTENSON: --of July.

INTERVIEWER: In Frazee, for sure.

AMBER ESTENSON: In Frazee, yep.

INTERVIEWER: So tell me how you got started on TikTok.

AMBER ESTENSON: Honestly, I've kind of lived all over the country and all over the world. And I remember when I was going to school at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, I had a bunch of friends come over that were in town for Thanksgiving. They weren't able to travel. And I did the whole shebang, the whole Thanksgiving spread. And I put raspberry pretzel salad on the table--

INTERVIEWER: Yes, you did.

AMBER ESTENSON: --with the dinner course. And my friends from Korea and my friends from Taiwan and then even my friends from Philadelphia were like, why are you calling this a salad? This is not normal, Amber. And I did know that. In the back of my head, I knew it wasn't normal outside of Minnesota. But it also didn't really dawn on me either because it was just so much part of my culture and my family and everything that we'd done. But then they ate it, and they're like, oh my gosh, this shouldn't be so delicious, but it is. And so it was just one of those things that I had to bring to every gathering. Otherwise, I'd get in trouble.

INTERVIEWER: These are like dessert salads, we should say to people who are not sure. They're like dessert salads, in a sense.

AMBER ESTENSON: Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah.

AMBER ESTENSON: Yep, dessert salads or fluff salads. But everybody wants to know from all over the world, even on TikTok, like, when do you serve these? Oh, we serve them with the main course.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, yeah.

AMBER ESTENSON: Well, what do you mean you serve them with the main course? Well, there's a whole table of salads. And some of them are vegetable salads, but most of them are fluff salads.

INTERVIEWER: With the main course, the more Cool Whip you have, the better.

AMBER ESTENSON: Absolutely.

INTERVIEWER: And Jello. And Jello. Absolutely.

AMBER ESTENSON: Yep.

INTERVIEWER: So how far have your videos reached?

AMBER ESTENSON: I would say, I've got lots of people in Australia that are rather concerned with what we're doing, but absolutely fascinated by it. And just for example, I was at Pride yesterday, and I couldn't go more than three feet and people would recognize me and say hi and want a hug. And it's humbling just because I do it from behind a screen out of my kitchen, and then I go out into the world and get recognized all of the time. And it's thrilling and exciting, but also, wow, this is great.

INTERVIEWER: Isn't that amazing? It's amazing.

AMBER ESTENSON: Yeah.

INTERVIEWER: So I'm presuming you're also talking about Frazee, which is a pretty small place.

AMBER ESTENSON: It is a very small place. I think our current population is around 1,100. I was born and raised there. My mom has a hair salon on Main Street. So honestly, I was small town famous before TikTok because everybody knows my mom. It's Grand Central Station at my mom's hair salon. And she's very involved in the community as well. And so a lot of my TikTok is based off of my mom's interactions with the public and what she's done.

It's just so much part of our culture up north in Minnesota to feed everyone. The food might not be pretty, but it tastes really great and it feeds a whole army. So the Minnesota way to say I love you is, have you eaten yet, or did you eat yet?

INTERVIEWER: That's absolutely true. Absolutely true. I bet your mom's hair salon could be the scene of almost like a movie--

AMBER ESTENSON: Oh, it could be an absolute reality show, for sure.

INTERVIEWER: Yeah, exactly.

AMBER ESTENSON: Yes.

INTERVIEWER: Reality show. I can't even imagine how much fun is in that little salon. I know you're a former opera singer and now your teacher?

AMBER ESTENSON: Yep. Well, I don't think you ever stop being an opera singer, but you stop getting paid to be an opera singer. But yeah, I teach music at Frazee Elementary School. And I still continue to perform when I can. So fortunately, an opportunity came up. This weekend, I'll be singing the National Anthem at the Minnesota Twins game on Friday night. So--

INTERVIEWER: Nice.

AMBER ESTENSON: --I appreciate it when things like that happen through TikTok because it brings all aspects of my artistic degrees together, the acting and the singing, and just as my mother would say, generally being dramatic. [LAUGHS]

INTERVIEWER: Then this is a perfect outlet for you. I mean, really.

AMBER ESTENSON: Yeah, it really is. It really, really is. I mean, I tried previously to do a blog about it because I knew that there was something special about my talent. I knew that there was something special about small town Minnesota and the way we interact with each other and the way we help each other, how we stop our cars in the middle of Main Street when it's 20 below out and still roll down the window and say hi to each other. I knew that there was something special about it.

But for me, I'm actually dyslexic and ADHD. And so a blog, which is what I tried, it just was not my format. And that was 10 years ago. And then TikTok happened, and I downloaded it during the pandemic, like most of us did, and just kind of watched for a long time. And then remembering how people had reacted to those salads when I had been in other places other than Minnesota, I was like, oh, I should post this for St. Patrick's Day. Because we always make this on St Patrick's Day, and people will probably think it's funny.

And then it just blew up from there. And The Jason Show called, and then WDAY out of Fargo did a bit on it, and then viral videos happened. And it's kind of been a fun roller coaster ride, and it just keeps going forward. The most fun is really talking about my community and talking about the people who helped raise me, and that's been the most fun.

INTERVIEWER: So what's the reaction in town? Because some people, some Minnesotans don't appreciate being out on the world stage. They get a little kind of little weird about that.

AMBER ESTENSON: Well, Mom, for example, does not want to be involved. I wish I could do a whole series on the hair salon because that's super entertaining. And I made her promise that we would do some sort of cameo when I got to a million followers on TikTok. And so she's a little reluctant. But mostly everybody thinks it's great, the things that she does in the community. And I wanted her to do a cameo when I got to a million followers on TikTok, and she reluctantly agreed.

INTERVIEWER: Good.

AMBER ESTENSON: Yeah, I could do a whole series on her hair salon. She's like, no way, Jose. But getting to do things in the community is one of my favorite parts. I participated in the Polar Plunge for the first time ever for the Boys & Girls Club and raised over $8,000 in just 10 days. And it's amazing to be part of the community like that in a way that I never even dreamed possible.

INTERVIEWER: Well, you did mention Turkey Days, and that's coming up, what, at the end of July. So what do you plan on doing for Turkey Days?

AMBER ESTENSON: Well, it's the 29th, 30th, and 31st in Frazee, Minnesota. There's the street dance on Friday night. There's the Miss Frazee pageant on Saturday evening. I believe I'm co-emceeing. I'm out of town right before Turkey Day happens, so Mom was nervous to have me emcee the whole thing. But co-emceeing the Miss Frazee pageant. And then there's the parade on Sunday, which, of course, is the big thing--

INTERVIEWER: Of course.

AMBER ESTENSON: --and I'll be in the parade. And the Demolition Derby afterwards. Just filming videos and just letting the world see how we do it in tiny town Minnesota.

INTERVIEWER: Oh, it's just the most perfect thing. OK, so before you go, because obviously you schooled me on the Snickers Salad, thank you very much. I'll have to go ahead and make it. And sorry, obviously, my roots are over in Northeastern Minnesota. So can you just give me a really quick salad recipe that's one of your faves?

AMBER ESTENSON: Well, Watergate Salad or Pistachio Fluff Salad. It's really just pistachio pudding, a can of crushed pineapple with the juice. You whip that together, add Cool Whip and marshmallows, and that's it.

INTERVIEWER: Perfect. OK. We'll have to try it. Amber, you were a good sport. Thank you for joining us, and just best of luck with everything.

AMBER ESTENSON: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

INTERVIEWER: It was fun. Amber Estenson is a TikTok creator from Frazee, Minnesota, on Highway 10. Check it out. We'll have more of her videos online, nprnews.org. That was a lot of fun.

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