With Roots In Norway: Fish and Farming in Western Wisconsin, a COVID-19 Reflection

I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother-in-law Ethel these days, wondering what she would make of the COVID-19 virus, the isolation, the uncertainty.

She grew up on a farm in western Wisconsin. And she survived the flu epidemic of 1918, although her father caught it and lost all his hair while still in his early 30s. Life on a farm proved to be no walk in the park, not hobby farming in the least, demanding that all hands pitch in. Ethel cooked most of her family’s meals on a wood stove, starting at a very young age, because her mother suffered from severe asthma, which left her incapable of doing much. No electricity, no indoor plumbing, no central heating. And the chill of Wisconsin winters in those days could crisp your nose hairs in seconds.

Then Ethel married Knute Bertelsen, a Danish immigrant who came over from a hardscrabble life in Idom, Denmark. After a few years with Knute working for other farmers as a hired hand, he and Ethel bought their own farm. They, and their six children, raised turkeys, chickens, pigs, and milked dairy cows, all while planting and harvesting the crops necessary to keep the animals in food over the harsh winters. Ethel planted a large kitchen garden and canned everything worth keeping. Her cellar shelves sagged under the weight of hundreds of jars of pickles, strawberry jam, corn, green beans, and tomatoes, even when she moved to town later in life.

It was a good thing that Ethel was not born in Norway, since she was one of those Norwegians who hated fish. She grimaced at any mention of lutefisk, punctuated with “Ugh.” Her dislike of fish extended to the more luxurious version of sea life such as shrimp and lobster. In fact, once while visiting us in Cedar Key, I took her to one of the seafood restaurants there. (I mean, that really is the only real reason to be in Cedar Key, Florida!)

Anyway, there we were, sitting by the window, balmy Gulf of Mexico breezes gently blowing through our hair, anticipating huge bowls of peel-and-eat ’em cooked shrimp. With one bite, that familiar grimace appeared.

Ethel exclaimed, “It’s off.”

“No, no, “I replied, “That’s the way shrimp is supposed to be,” biting into her shrimp.

By golly, the woman WAS right, the shrimp WAS off. A lingering ammonia flavor clung to our palates and despite the embarrassed ministering of the restaurant owner, plying Ethel with new plates of fresh shrimp, nothing doing – no more shrimp was going down her throat!

Since that day, I’ve thought a lot about how despite popular lore to the contrary, not all Norwegians included lots of fish in their diets. Ethel’s Norwegian ancestors came from one of two landlocked regions of Norway, Hedmark, to be exact. They didn’t put fish on the table very often, and especially not when they came to America in 1858. Lutefisk, yes, but beyond that, no.

Survival, that’s what lutefisk was about. At least in the beginning. As the years went by, the dish became a symbol of the Norwegian roots of settlers throughout the upper Midwest.

They survived a lot of things. The 1918 flu pandemic. World War I. The Great Depression. World War II. The Cold War. The Vietnam War.

Dare I say that Ethel’s generation probably could take this virus with a lot more aplomb than some of us more modern folks … .


Raw salmon fillet on crushed ice (Klenova, Dreamstime)

2 thoughts on “With Roots In Norway: Fish and Farming in Western Wisconsin, a COVID-19 Reflection

  1. Cynthia My relatives came from Norway in 1840…one side of the family. I am always proud to say that! How they must have suffered in Michigan and later South Dakota on small farms..such hardy people. Then the Civil War where Aunt Barbara was a nurse, rode a horse and could shoot very well..died in a Civil War soldiers home as remembered by my late grandfather as ‘very tough’. Thank you.

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