An Appetite for Memory: We Are Norwegians at Christmastime

Welcome back Alpaca Roamers!  The November An Appetite for Memory story comes from my friend and Food Symposium colleague Anna Sigrithur.  She is all around my favorite Canadian and I love her sharp mind and dedication to food sovereignty, story telling, environmental responsibility and adventuring.  Anna has an intriguing cultural background of Norwegian, Swedish, Icelandic and a sprinkling of UK.  On her Mother’s side, there is some Sami ancestry which are the Indigenous people of Northern Scandinavia.  Many people do not realize there are Indigenous communities in that part of the world and while the language, culture and traditions are very different in ways, it is still an ancient Indigenous culture that exists and should be recognized.

With that being said, Anna does not claim to have strong Sami bloodlines but she is actively researching the genealogy for Sami ancestry in her family.  Being the self educating curious minded woman that she is, she spent two Summers in a Sirges Sami community in Saltoluokta, Sweden with a Sami knowledge keeper.  There, she learned about Sami traditional foods, listened to stories and truly learned, “…how much capitalism [and] colonialism have affected Indigenous communities and their food sovereignty even in Europe, where we don’t think of those things as much.”

At the end of the day, Anna encourages, “…people to explore the land around them and its history, exploring the food traditions of their ancestors and learning those histories as well [as] learning to understand how drastically our ecological systems are changing in the face of climate change and globalization. [Furthermore] learning to cook and share food that nourishes the body, gives justice to the community and works in harmony with the earth!”  With that, I hope you enjoy Anna’s fun and quirky family story of a Norwegian Christmas.

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We are Norwegians at Christmastime

So the thing is, I didn’t really grow up eating many foods that I’d be proud to remember here now: My father was hardly ever home, working long shifts at the hospital, and my mother is a feminist born in the 1950s which tended to mean that she felt it her political right (and I agree with her) to not do unpaid cooking labour for the family, especially since she hated cooking. So we ate a lot of tinned soups, boiled no name spaghetti and pre-fab tomato sauce, kraft dinner, baked beans, hot dogs, and, peculiarly sometimes she’d allow us to have simple stove-top kettle popped pop corn with butter for dinner.

And this was true for all days of the year save for one: Christmas. Christmas was one time of year however that my mother’s political strike from all things domestic seemed to wane and was eclipsed instead by a folksy kind of reverence for all kinds of laborious hands-on cooking tasks. Because below that red blooded modern American feminist, my mother is a traditionalist at heart when it comes to her Norwegian and Swedish heritage. Normally, this passion comes out in the form of slightly screetchy fiddle playing, or going to Ikea to paint wooden horses with her octogenarian friends from the Cultural Centre. But at Christmas, she becomes the very embodiment of a Norwegian farm wife, performing with gusto the dual holy rites of cooking huge family meals and then spending the entire duration of the meal vocally disapproving of her own cooking. My father, sister and I usually sit in silence and let her carry on with it, interjecting sometimes to say, “Mum, it’s not terrible at all!” or “Martha, it’s tasty for goodness sakes” but she pays us little mind.  The truth is, the food really wasn’t very good, but it always tasted pretty good to me. It tasted like Christmas, which is probably because we ate the same thing every year, and so I guess that’s how memories and traditions and things like that are created.

Now, I want to tell you about my favourite food, but first a little context. Norwegian and Swedish dishes, like many European dishes, are meat and potato based. You have your köttbular (meat balls) cooked in gräddesås (cream sauce) and served over kertofflar (mashed potatoes). You have your lingonsås (lingonberry sauce) which is like cranberry sauce- a tart red berry cooked in sugar and eaten as a foil to meat. You will definitely have some steamed or butter-baked parsnips and turnips and then usually there is a bowl of pickled herring on the table. But by far my favourite, and perhaps the most unique and sophisticated to make is a delicate little tortilla-like thing called a lefse (pronounced LEFF-suh). Lefse is a Norwegian soft potato flatbread, made with potatoes, rye flour, salt, milk and butter and requires the hands of an angel (or an 89 year old woman named Helga) to coax into a dough that will melt in your mouth yet stand up to rolling and cooking. Lefse begins with boiled whole potatoes (boiled whole so as to let a minimum of water soak into the potato), which are then cooled, riced using a potato ricer, and then mixed with the remaining ingredients into a stiff but soft dough. The lefse dough is then rolled into circles using a rolling pin covered in waffleweave cotton to about 1/8” thickness and about 18” in diameter. It is then cooked on a device called a lefse griddle, which is a real thing, even though it sounds so ridiculously specific that it could never be a real thing. But go visit Moorhead, MN. You’ll see them for sale there! You turn the lefse using a wooden lefse paddle (a long, flattened stick that bears the burn marks of decades of patient flipping), and when it’s done, you let it cool as long as you can before caving to the desire to stuff it into your mouth.

We eat it usually with spiced cheese and herring or use it to mop up the sauce from the meatballs. The texture is divine. Like the most tender, potatoey tasting tortilla, and the waffleweave on the rolling pin leaves a fine texture on the surface, and it is usually dusted with flour and kind of dry and cool to the lips. Needless to say, such culinary wizardry could not be executed by my mother alone. Thankfully, lefse is still made communally— by women who get together in the basement of a church, or at the Scandinavian cultural centre, and peel, boil and rice the potatoes expertly and make hundreds if not thousands of lefses in one day, to be sold for painfully reasonable prices at the Christmas market. My mother dutifully goes each year to the lefse bee. She comes into the fluorescent-lit church kitchen and stands at the table strewn with flecks of potato and dough with the old ladies, and rices the potatoes with them. She probably makes the lumpier lefses that the old ladies then have to politely disperse among the packets of their expert product and in doing so, my mother lets herself be both a kitchen hating feminist and someone who loves her culture enough to stand up for it, cook for it, and by golly, cook badly for it too.

And now that my story is finished, here is a classic “Ole and Lena joke” about an imaginary stereotypical Norwegian-American couple:

Ole is on his deathbed. One day he smells the smell of fresh lefse coming from downstairs. So he summons up the last of his strength and drags himself downstairs. He’s at the table reaching for the lefse when Lena slaps his hand and says, “Ole, that’s for after the funeral.”


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