In the beginning, the trolls and the lutefisk kind of threw me for a loop, but the rest of it all enchanted me.
A long time ago, while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in a tiny Paraguayan village, I fell in love with a Norwegian-American farmboy from a small town in Wisconsin. And I fell for his hometown, Holmen, too. A place where the older people still spoke Norwegian and a Fargo-like accent peppered all conversation, even in English. That “Norwegianness” laced everything, just like the Christmas cookies his aunts Helga and Lily made every year. Those two ladies could bake a cookie, let me tell you! Berlinerkranser, Bløtkake, Kringles, Krumkaker, Fattigmanns Bakkelse, Sugar Cookies, Sandbakkels, Goro. The list of delicacies goes on and on. Norwegian meatballs, pot roast, cucumbers in sour cream, pickled beets, bread-and-butter pickles, apple cake, and potato lefse.
Norwegian cooking took me to new culinary heights. And lows.
Cookies were one thing. Fish was another. Especially lutefisk.
Lutefisk? Hva er det? What’s that? Dried cod treated with lye, a food for the poor. Eaten by nineteenth-century immigrants homesick for Norway. But still … yuck! You guessed it, lutefisk ranked down near the scrapings off the bottom of an algae-infested pond. And don’t tell me it’s an acquired taste. Only once did I eat lutefisk. I accepted a brother-in-law’s challenge to eat it, holding my nose at the foulness, poking tentatively at the quivering mass swimming in melted butter, perched on a piping hot plate. Even the “real” butter failed to convert me. I wasn’t alone in my disgust. My mother-in-law Ethel never cooked lutefisk in her house if she could help it, the odor being so fierce. And she, too, turned her nose up at it.
Ethel marched to a different drummer—she was that rare bird, a Norwegian who didn’t have much time for fish!
But set lefse, a flatbread not unlike a flour tortilla, and meatballs in front of Ethel and me, and we called it food fit for a king. Even Harald V, king of Norway, would happily eat that peasant food.
Church cookbooks and recipes spilled out of Ethel’s cupboards. Even with the written word there for me to learn from, she took the time to teach me how to cook Norwegian farm food, showing me how to make sugar cookies and how to butter lefse, how roll out lefse and make poppy seed cake. She hovered over me as I patted dough into sandbakkel tins. I begged recipes from Lily and Helga, too. And I copied many recipes into a small laboratory notebook with a marbled cover.
Today the stains glue certain pages together. When that happens, well, a cook really mixed together the flour and milk and sugar, and maybe dripped egg white all over the opened pages. For good measure, literally. In particular, the meatball page and the lefse recipe bear signs of past adventures in the kitchen.
I dipped occasionally into Sunset’s Scandinavian Cook Book, where samples of our son’s pre-school artwork nestled between the recipe for “Asparagus and Shrimp Platter” and “Marinated Cucumbers.” And, of course, Time-Life’s The Cooking of Scandinavia provided a crash course in how certain Norwegian dishes looked when cooked right.
But for another, on-the-ground tasting experience, I turned to Drugan’s, a local supper club.
There’s nothing really different about supper clubs in comparison to other restaurants, but somehow the name “supper club” conjures up steaming pots of substantial soups and thick winter-busting stews. Visions of warm farmhouse kitchens and a mother’s nurturing embrace, that’s what a supper club like Drugan’s promises.
Drugan’s supper club began in a small pole-barn-like building in the center of Holmen in 1970. By 1973, the restaurant to moved to a bigger space. The name changed to Drugan’s Castle Mound Country Club, complete with a golf course.
So, with its homemade-tasting dishes, Drugan’s also ended up playing a major role in introducing me to Norwegian food. And it became one of my family traditions. My first supper there took place a few weeks before my wedding. I ate my wedding supper there, too. And many, many other suppers as well.
Drugan’s rose to the top of my “where-should-I-go-eat?” list, always one of the first places I returned to after living overseas in culinarily challenged backwaters of the world. Standing on an unpaved and dusty street in West Africa or Haiti or Honduras, recoiling from the unrefrigerated beef carcasses hanging from hooks, flies gathering inside the rib cages, I’d think of Drugan’s #1 seller, Beef Tenderloin Tips, sautéed to moist perfection with salty pink bacon. Or their meatballs and lefse. No flies there.
Drugan’s first chef still commands the stoves there. This rock of a place pioneered one of the first salad bars we ever tried. The salad bar, still a must-eat, features macaroni, coleslaw, bean, and Jello salads. All salads that Ethel and other farmwives toted to church suppers or fed to the threshing crews working at harvest time.
And now I come to the real meat: Drugan’s menu. With all its unique Norwegian touches. Norwegian Meatballs, Norsk Torsk (Broiled Cod with White Sauce), Smelt, North Sea Cod, Lutefisk (only during holidays), Lefse, Rice Pudding, Rømmegrøt, and fiery Akvavit.
Food that Ethel ate, talked about, or wanted to cook. Someday.
At Drugan’s, the trolls still guard the door, although the legends and myths that spawned them no longer grip the imagination of the people eating there. No longer do I hear the lilt of Norwegian in the speech of the townspeople. But I can still buy lefse in the dairy department of the local Skogen’s grocery store and meatball mix in the meat department. And sometimes I’ll find kringle (Danish, not Norwegian, but that’s OK) from O & H Bakery in Racine, too.
This little pocket of Norway still captivates and, yes, enchants. Uff da. Indeed.
(To be continued …)
Served with lefse, these meatballs were without a doubt Ethel’s favorite food. In fact, the last dinner I ever cooked for her included these meatballs. Mashed potatoes, corn, and peas, too. A small green salad, not one of her favorites. We dimmed the lights in her dining area, lit a candle, and talked about everything as we ate. Oh, and there were no meatballs left. Even Nikki, Ethel’s dog, got a few.
2 T. butter
1 T. vegetable oil
6 T. finely chopped onion
½ cup milk
½ cup flour
1 ½ t. salt
1/4 – ½ t. freshly ground black pepper
½ t. ground allspice
Pinch of ground nutmeg
1 lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork or Jimmy Dean’s Bulk Sage Sausage
2-3 cups beef stock or water (low-salt stock, if using)
5-8 T. flour
Pinch of dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
Sauté onion butter/oil until translucent; mix remaining meatball ingredients in large bowl and stir in the onion. Form meatballs into 2-inch balls.
Heat the oven to 350 F. Grease a large baking sheet with sides and bake the meatballs until browned, about 30 minutes. You may fry them on top of the stove if you prefer.
When the meatballs are browned, put them into a large pot, add the water or stock, bay leaf, thyme, and pepper. Hold back on the salt until about 5 minutes before serving.
Cook the meatballs for about 30 more minutes. Add the flour to a cup of stock or water and mix well. Add to simmering stock and meatballs; cook about 15 more minutes gravy no longer tastes floury.
Serve with mashed potatoes and lefse.
© 2008 C. Bertelsen