Saturday, October 1, 2016

Norsk Høstfest: a day in the life

A day in the life of a hired hand at Norsk Høstfest includes waking early, ironing my apron if I was too exhausted to do it the night prior, heading down to the hotel lobby to exchange morning greetings with the other Norsk Høstfesters, and grabbing a cup of coffee to go. During the seven-minute drive to the North Dakota Fairgrounds I turn on the radio to a happy country station and sing loudly along to songs I've never heard before.

We all wear badges to get in and out of the event, and as we check in the guys try to give me a wristband ("So you can get back in if you leave today.") which I wave away assuring them I won't leave for about twelve hours. If I'm lucky I run into a few characters, grab something tasty to eat with my bad cup of coffee (I know I'll get so lost no one will ever find me again if I dare venture to the downtown Starbucks. Besides, the car I am driving is so enormous it has taken me several days to learn to park it.), and find a chair at the Nordic Kitchen where Chef Stig is typically already prepping his food for the day and the gals from Nordic Ware are organizing their kiosk store.

Høstfest is housed in a large building made up of large halls connected by vast hallways, and during the fest each hall and hallways is cram packed with Nordic themed shopping, food, music and entertainment, wandering Vikings, many many trolls, and tens of thousands of people celebrating every bit of the experience. The halls are named for Nordic cities, and our Nordic Kitchen is housed in Helsinki.

At the Nordic Kitchen we take turns cooking Nordic-inspired treats as anywhere from five to fifty guests watch and listen, and wait (somewhat) patiently for edible samples. Chef Stig Hansen is a favorite. His Danish dishes help him to sell lots of cookbooks, as does his dry wit during presentations. We've got half an hour between cooks, so as soon as samples are passed out our den mother Gigs helps us wash and dry dishes and tidy up the kitchen. Occasionally we have a guest cook, and this year the delightful and wise Beatrice Ojakangas was with us a few times. As I helped to grease and butter her cake tins, I thought, "I am sitting at the foot of the master."

Last year my cooking theme was updated Swedish foods, and this year I am making modern Swedish suppers, from barley risotto and Flying Jacob to banana curry and kebab pizzas. With each presentation you learn dos and don'ts. I'll never be as smooth as I'd like, but gosh what fun it is to try!

We are friendly with the vendors in Helsinki, some favorites that we try to bring samples to, and occasionally our generosity pays off with a reciprocal treat delivery (The candy people are our absolute favorites. More Finnish licorice? Yes, please!). And we always, always, give our awesome technical and sound team extra portions. A well-fed tech team is happy team!

While most of my day is spent at the kitchen, occasionally I break away and explore the other halls. All around are the smells of good food and the sounds of beautiful music. Approaching Copenhagen Hall is like walking into another world. That's where they house the Vikings. Last year the only food outside of Nordic Kitchen that I tried was the lefse, which I had every single day. This year I am determined to taste some of the wonders that are Høstfest. So far I've had a Viking on a Stick and an amazing wheat lefse filled with almond cream (having that again today with my morning coffee!.

After the final cooking presentation we give the kitchen one last scrubbing for the day. Back in my hotel I snack on a dinner of pumpkin lefse, fattigman, and glass of wine. I throw in a load of laundry so my apron is fresh, fall into bed, and dream of cardamom and trolls.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Norsk Høstfest: what happens in Minot...

I am back in Minot, North Dakota, thoroughly enjoying Norsk Høstfest; an amazing hybrid of a state fair and midsommar where tens of thousands gather to sing, talk, shop, eat, and generally revel in our love of all things Nordic.

This is my second year at Høstfest doing cooking presentations at the Nordic Kitchen stage in Helsinki Hall. This year Nordic Ware is sponsoring our stage, which means we have snazzy new kitchen equipment and tools. Our motley crew from last year (me, Chef Stig Hansen, our generous hosts Gigs and Larry) are finding lots of ways to have fun and stir up of a bit of commotion.

When the Høstfest volunteers picked me up at the airport on Monday, in the car was the infamous and hilarious Grandma! Grandma and I met up again yesterday a few times, as she could smell our rice puddings and barley risotto from whatever hall she happened to be strolling through. Grandma is known for her very tall stature, and if you want a photo with her you will need to take a number then wait patiently for her to call it out.

I've also dined with Beatrice Ojakangas and her lovely husband Dick, hung with trolls, and helped to cook up a storm on stage. Together with our motley crew I've enjoyed many laughs, a car swap (Chef Stig generously agreed to trade his beater rental with its bullet hole and shattered windshield for my oversized SUV with its impossible to read electronic gauges.), and delicious food. I've also managed to get lots more times than I've left the hotel. Maybe Minot doesn't want me to ever leave!

Back at it this morning to prepare coconut chocolate aebleskiver and Flygande Jakob (Flying Jacob), and I will celebrate Moomin and lefse and vikings and crafts and songs and Norwegian Sweater Dancing and potatoes and lutfisk and meatballs and butter and pudding and romme grot and complete Scandimonium!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Nordic kitchens and paj

Over at Called to the Table today is possibly my favorite recipe of the year: Tomat Paj (Tomato Pie) with a creme fraiche custard I borrowed from Chef Magnus Nilsson's "Nordic Cookbook" Taco Paj. This pie is so delicious that T ate two pieces before I'd even served myself. While I made this pie to celebrate the last of the season's glorious tomatoes, I'll make it all winter with a variety of other vegetables.

Meanwhile, I'm getting ready for my second year at Norsk Høstfest. I return to the Nordic Kitchen stage (this year hosted by our own Nordic Ware!) and am anxious to cook modern Swedish food for the masses: Banana Curry Pizza, Kebab Pizza, Flygande Jakob (Flying Jacob - a.k.a. Swedish hotdish!), barley risotto, etc. See you next week, Minot!

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Adventures in lutfisk

You say lutefisk, I say lutfisk. The only things Swedes and Norwegians argue about when it comes to our (occasionally) beloved desiccated lye-soaked gelatinous cod is how to pronounce/spell it (Swedes drop the "e") and what to bath it in when ready to dine (Swedes prefer a béchamel sauce, while Norwegians are partial to melted butter).

In general, we agree that eating it is a rite of passage and a nod to those who came before us. Too often we romanticize the lives of our immigrant forebears, imagining them living lives of robust adventure. Eat a serving or two of lutfisk and you realize things weren't always easy. Preserving food with toxins denotes a unique kind of survivalist.

In America the Scandinavians became part of the homogeneous culture relatively quickly. Once their costumes and language changed to suit regional style, not much differentiated them from their European American neighbors. Enter the lutfisk. When we eat lutfisk we celebrate our history, honor our ancestors, and fellowship with those who share this strange and wonderful link. It makes us feel unique.

Not everyone agrees with me. As Swedish Chef Magnus Nilsson quipped while he visited Minneapolis in June, "Why would we eat lutfisk when we can enjoy fresh cod right out of the sea?"

America is that rare place where very few of us can say we and our people have been "from" here for more than a handful of generations. That would be hard to wrap your head around if you lived in the same area that your grandparents, great-grandparents. great great-grandparents, etc. claimed. How do we self-identify? Am I a Swedish American? Am I French English American? A Midwesterner? A Minnesotan? Simply American? Immigration and identity are topics of increasing importance as many nations negotiate issues that come with modern migration.

Last week a group from the BBC visited Minnesota to hear our thoughts about being descendants of an immigrant people. They filmed an episode of Great American Railway Journeys (a spin-off of Great British Railway Journeys) at the American Swedish Institute, where host Michael Portillo spoke with ASI President and CEO Bruce Karstadt about the history of Swedish immigration in our region, joined me in the kitchen to prepare a lutfisk feast, and helped to serve dinner to a dozen guests.

On the menu: lutfisk with a lemony butter sauce, a mustard-kissed béchamel, dilled peas and potatoes, pickled beets and cucumbers, Swedish meatballs, lingonberries, lefse (thank you Norwegian friends!), and rye bread. FIKA supplied a lovely dill aquavit for our skål, and we sang a Swedish drinking song or two. It was a rousing evening!

Busy as I was in the kitchen (with an amazing crew from ASI and FIKA), I didn't catch any images of our supper. Historian and author (and dinner guest) Debbie Miller was kind enough to share her photos with me (see below). I'll post a link to the show once it airs, likely sometime in 2017.

Lutfisk in waiting

Table and musicians (image credit: Debbie Miller)

Bread baskets (image credit: Debbie Miller)

Dinner plate (image credit: Debbie Miller)

The party is over

Snacking in FIKA's kitchen

Monday, September 5, 2016

State Fair Diaries: so hard to say goodbye

As 2016's Minnesota State Fair closes, another year over, I look back at the past 12 days in wonder. It was a year that I revisited foods I haven't eaten in a while (and I recalled why I stopped eating them in the first place), and it was a year that I didn't have nearly enough time to see everything that I wanted to. Fairchild celebrated his 50th, another GenXer facing middle age but refusing to act like a grownup (nothing wrong with that!).

I met some awesome people, usually on the shuttle rides leaving the Fairgrounds, including a retired gentleman who grew up in Glencoe (all roads lead to Gaylord, or at least very close by) and a young woman who used to earn a living making battery-operated glow-in-the-dark whiskers for Furries. I attempted to teach knife skills and food safety to some awesome 4-H kids and learned some exciting things about 4H's new First Generation 4-H Initiative.

Friday night I sat with a friend in the grandstand taking it all in. The night was cool, we could hear music and laughter and screaming from the Midway. The sky was getting dark but the lights of the Midway and the Grandstand vendors were glowing. Garrison Keillor was in good form, and we sang along with thousands of other Minnesotans to patriotic, secular, and sacred songs we learned during our youth. Nostalgia in high gear, I got teary wondering if these sing-alongs will fade from our culture along with cursive, serial commas, recess, and art class. Once gone, you can't just wish them back into culture.

There is a history to the Minnesota State Fair that we Fair geeks acknowledge and embrace. I've walked those acres for years, with family and friends and strangers. My dad used to take my hand and guide me up and down Machinery Hill, nodding at tractors and combos, and a few years later lawn mowers and snow removers. Then we'd wander through the barns and sit in the arena for hours so I could watch the horse shows. I'd get one treat, and I spent the entire day deciding which treat it would be. I almost always settled on the deep-fried ice cream: one part savory, one part sweet, and you can never go wrong with fried. Dad would enjoy a cigarette break in the Sky Ride or on the Giant Slide. We'd weave our way through the crowds back to the parking lot and our day at the Fair would end.

As many years as I've attended the Fair it never loses its wonder and magic. The people, the sounds, the smells, the tradition: we gather together to celebrate the important things. Same time, same place, next year.