Tradition, and the Foods of Hunger

In the third never-ending winter,
a famine struck the land.
You had nibbled me from inside -
emptiness pulled my chest
towards the spine and
it sunk from yearning.

From Taming Dragons

Rommegrot spoon

Copyright Michael Fay

Laughing and joking, we all stood expectantly around my sister-in-law as she stirred the grøt, watching the bubbling white mixture burble lazily in the pot. Dollops of the gluey pudding in bowls, small mounds of sugar, speckles of cinnamon, and melting golden butter resting on the surface of the cooling white gel — for the six children the sight brought back memories of their stern immigrant Danish farmer father and their soft-hearted Norwegian mother.

In a way, it was a moment tying them all to the traditional human past of hunger, a split-second connection with all the ways in which cooks sought to feed their families even when the pantry offered little more than the Holy Trinity of the ancient European farmhouse: milk, grain, and fat. A true hunger food, filling, enough to keep the breath of life going, at least a little longer.

Called simply grøt in that Wisconsin Norwegian farm community, traditionally in Norway Rømmegrøt (made with sour cream) and Flotegrøt (made with milk) were summer/fall dishes, because some observers believe cows stopped producing milk in winter, certainly possible when traditional animal husbandry and lower natural light caused a decrease in milk production.  Rømmegrøt, now served at Christmas time as a special dish, started out as a fancier version of the traditional peasant gruel made with barley, oats, or rye. Rømmegrøt, in fact, was the star dish of the autumn harvest festival, a rich man’s version of the country staple of grøt, flour boiled with milk, dating back to ancient times. Rømmegrøt also appeared at weddings and Midsummer’s Eve. It is Norway’s national dish, as a matter of fact, and now can be made from boxed mixes.

Rommegrot-girls

Young Girls Eating Rømmegrøt

The specialness of it lay with the use of refined white flour, long a rich man (or woman’s) fare.

Norwegian immigrants, like my mother-in-law’s ancestors, brought the Rømmegrøt tradition with them, except that they kept the original use of the dish, as sustenance for peasants on cold Nordic nights. What they usually made was Flotegrøt, and there was nothing fancy or festive about it. Served for supper after milking cows in the steaming barn and the walk across the crunchy ice-crusted snow to the house, the big oil furnace blazing away while icicles formed inside the bedroom windows upstairs, Flotegrøt fed six children on more than one freezing Wisconsin night. Unless the meal centered around cream and bread, served in much the same way, topped with sugar and cinnamon.

So old is this dish, at least when made with whole grains, it’s only natural to wonder how the Viking raids might have disseminated some of the elements of this gruel, for that is what it is.

Grøt
Serves 4 – 6

3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
Butter
Cinnamon
Sugar

Bring 2 cups of the milk to a soft boil for 5 minutes. Sift and slowly stir in ¼ cup flour. Keep heat on low while adding the remainder of the flour and milk and the cream intermittently. Add salt. After adding all the milk and flour, bring mixture to a boil over low heat and cook for an additional 5 minutes while stirring. (Add more flour if you prefer a thicker pudding.) This porridge/pudding is thin and light. Ladle Rømmegrøt onto individual dinner plates or bowls. Sprinkle sugar and cinnamon on top of the pudding. Don’t forget the smørøye (eye of butter — translation) — or a dab of butter.

© 2009 C. Bertelsen

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