FOOD, FESTIVAL, AND RECIPES
Written and Compiled by Laurie K. Sommers
Preserve Nordic Heritage Churches Project Manager, 2017-2019
(A project of Partners for Sacred Places)
“Even when it seems that everything in the country is changing,” writes America Eats author Pat Willard, “church suppers remain pretty much the same as they always have. Or at least they feel as if they have, and that is just as good. Maybe this is because, beyond their services as a place of worship, churches function as the repository for a community’s history and people. Often, they are an anchor holding people in place, keeping the community straight and guiding it through the perils of everyday life” (Willard 2008, 150-51).
The Preserve Nordic Heritage Churches Project focuses primarily on architecture and decorative arts. But we also paid attention to food events and associated ethnic celebrations listed on church websites, Facebook pages, and other publications. This admittedly haphazard glimpse of church food traditions revealed mouthwatering examples: the ubiquitous coffee (so central to concepts of hospitality); lutefisk/lutfisk (literally lye fish–reconstituted dried cod); meatballs; potato dumplings (klubb in Norwegian, kropkakkor in Swedish); lefse (Norwegian soft potato flatbread spread with butter and sugar and then folded or rolled); fruit soup; Swedish potato sausage; pancakes (fried and baked); open-faced sandwiches; smorgasbords with a cornucopia of delicacies; and baked goods of all kinds at bazaars and holiday bake sales. Some recipes were learned in America, and adapted to the U.S. context. For both the cooks and the attendees at these events, they express much more than mere taste; they express ethnicity, faith, and community.
Nordic American church suppers originated with nineteenth-century women’s circles, auxiliaries, and aid groups. Kathleen Stokker’s observations for Norwegian American Lutheran women applies to other ethnicities and denominations: “On days when the women of the ‘church circle’ met to sew quilts or do other handwork to raise money for the church,” Stokker writes, “their efforts consumed the entire day, and together they would prepare meals for their husbands and children, who would join them at the church for supper those evenings. Used for serving meals after funerals and weddings, the church basement kitchen also provided the setting for sharing recipes that had passed down through the generations” (Stokker 2000, 273-74). From these humble beginnings emerged fundraising dinners that, although less common than they once were, remain significant expressions of ethnicity.
Some of the ethnic dinners included in our survey predate 1940. Swedesburg Lutheran Church (Mount Pleasant, Iowa), for example, has held its annual smorgasbord fundraiser on the “first Thursday in December since 1938, except for a couple years during World War II when rationing limited access to necessary ingredients for the feast. These days nearly 70 volunteers put on this decades-long tradition. Event organizer Ruth Meth explains the sentiment behind the smörgåsbord, ‘The Swedish expression ‘va så god’ is the underlying foundation of it and a translation of that would be ‘Please honor us by accepting what we have to offer’” (KCII 2017). The menu is drawn from recipes that have been handed down through generations, including many traditional Swedish dishes (which in recent online publicity, are all listed in the Swedish language followed by the English translation): råbröd (rye bread), knäckebröd och smör (hardtack and butter, traditionally original basis for Swedish smorgasbords), inlagd sill (pickled herring), inlagda rödbetor (pickled beets), bruna bönor (brown beans), potatis med persilja (parsley potatoes), ungstekt skinka (baked ham), potatis korv (potato sausage), Svenska köttbullar (Swedish meatballs),fFruktsoppa (fruit soup),rRisgrynsgröt (rice pudding), ostkaka med lingon eller jordgubbsaft (cheese pudding with lingonberries or strawberry jam), appelkaka (dried apple dessert).
Nora Unitarian Church (Hanska, Minnesota) has hosted an annual Norwegian Smorgasbord fundraiser with their signature Women’s Society meatballs since the early 1900s. A recent version of the menu featured appetizers of deviled eggs, herring, and tongue, and entrées of meatballs, ham, turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, glazed carrots, sot supe (fruit soup), rice pudding, rømmegrøt (cream pudding), lefse, flatbrød, (unleavened bread) milk, and (of course!) coffee. Desserts include traditional Norwegian cookies such as rosettes, krumkake, fattigman (fried “poor man’s cookies”), and sandbakkels (sugar cookies pressed into special fluted tins). Women use the occasion to wear their bunads, a style of festive dress, dating to the twentieth century and based on earlier folk costume, created and worn to display Norwegian identity (in Norway and in the Norwegian diaspora) at events such as Christmas, settende mai (Norwegian Constitution Day), weddings, and other festive social occasions.
Northland Lutheran Church in Waupaca County, Wisconsin, has been holding lutefisk (the Norwegian spelling of the term) suppers since 1917, and has missed only two years because of World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic. For this annual fundraiser, the church “usually prepares an average of 500 pounds of lutefisk, 300 pounds of potatoes, 300 pounds of meatballs, and goes through about 36 cases of lefse.” The menu also includes “American” items: mashed potatoes, gravy, buttered carrots, coleslaw, and cranberries (Waupaca County News 2017). Finns, Danes, Swedes, Icelanders, and Norwegians all eat lutefisk–boiled and then slathered with melted butter or white sauce—but more lutefisk suppers are held in Norwegian heritage churches.
With its source in the North Atlantic cod fishery, lutefisk was familiar to immigrants, but it wasn’t available in the Upper Midwest until the late nineteenth century, when dried cod was first shipped from Massachusetts. “Individual families would then take it upon themselves to make the final preparations at home, each autumn buying sheets of stock fish – as the dried fish is known – and soaking it in lye as part of their Christmas preparation. In the mid-1920s, prepared lutefisk, all ready for cooking, appeared in stores, and during the 1930s Minnesota lutefisk processing companies experienced phenomenal growth” (Stokker 2000, 242). The number of public lutefisk dinners–in churches and ethnic lodges—proliferated during the 1950s as fewer families prepared lutefisk at home. Increasingly, these dinners paired lutefisk—with its distinctive aroma and gelatinous texture making it an acquired taste!—with the more universally popular and palatable meatball, “as an alternative dish to extend the fellowship of their meals to a broader base” (Stokker 2000, 243). Although perhaps more appealing to less hardy diners, meatballs lack lutefisk’s cachet. After all, lutefisk dinners have their own website (lutefiskloverslifeline.com), a “season” (fall through early winter), and have generated a rich body of stories, jokes and even a song! “The Lutefisk Song” (by Red Strangeland and sung to the tune of “O Tannenbaum”) has the memorable opening lines: “O lutefisk, O lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma! O lutefisk, O lutefisk, you put me in a coma….”
Nordic American churches also host special events around patriotic and seasonal holidays as fundraisers, community outreach, and symbols of ethnic identity. Most of these festive occasions also include ethnic foods. Norwegians, for example, observe settende mai (May 17, Constitution Day). Icelanders in Mountain, North Dakota celebrate August the Deuce, a North American observance of Icelandic heritage that commemorates August 2, 1874, when the Icelandic parliament received a copy of the new constitution. The Deuce in Mountain dates to 1886. Local Icelandic churches join with secular organizations in one of the longest-running ethnic festivals in North Dakota, and the largest Icelandic festival in the United States.
Some churches maintain a year-round calendar of ethnic food events. Mindekirken (Norwegian Memorial Lutheran Church) in Minneapolis is a notable example. The church was founded in 1922 specifically to preserve the Norwegian language at a time when many congregations were switching to English. Mindekirken has a Norwegian Language and Culture Program and holds numerous events that serve Norwegian foods: weekly Tuesday open houses with the pastor (Norwegian waffles, open-faced sandwiches and coffee); rømmegrøt luncheons, the pre-Lenten carnival tradition of Fastelavn with its characteristic fastelavensboller (sweet filled buns), the lutefisk and meatball dinner, a Norwegian cookie sale, a Scandinavian Treasure Chest sale with lefse, and the Christmas julbord feast. (https://www.mindekirken.net/index.php/about-us/our-church-year)
West Denmark Lutheran, a historically Danish church in Luck, Wisconsin, likewise hosts a yearly calendar of ethnically Danish events. These include Fastelavn (with a Danish version of the traditional buns), a fish boil (a tradition with roots in Scandinavian, Native American, and commercial fishing families), a Christmas cookie walk, and the annual aebleskiver supper. A tradition for more than 60 years, the aebleskiver supper features “as many as 16 bakers skillfully turning batter into perfectly round aebleskiver (the Danish version of a pancake) to go with locally made medisterpølse—traditional Danish sausage–and sodsuppe—fruit soup. The meal finishes with either ablekage or Lemon Fluff for dessert—and of course, lots of coffee.” (https://www.westdenmark.org/events/)
The Dalesburg Scandinavian Association, founded in 1987, also maintains an impressive calendar of events. The Association is a special interest group at Dalesburg Lutheran Church, a Swedish heritage congregation in Vermillion, South Dakota. The group hosts educational programs with special speakers, intergenerational food-making opportunities, a Swedish pea soup and pancake luncheon, the Midsummer Festival (discussed below), and, since 1977, the Sankta Lucia Festival. The traditional Lucia meal includes coffee and saffron (Lucia) buns, but churches also host potlucks or smorgasbords. At Dalesburg, for example, the meal includes traditional Lucia buns, plus fruit soup, thinbread, rice, and meats, with a freewill donation given to area food pantries (Sharples 2016).
Sankta Lucia (St. Lucy’s) Day is observed annually on December 13 in commemoration of Lucia, a fourth-century martyred saint who lived in what is now Italy. St. Lucia is celebrated worldwide, but she has special significance in Sweden. One of the most widespread Swedish legends maintains that, after her death, “a ship carrying a maiden ‘clothed in white and crowned with light’ appeared on the shore in the Swedish province of Varmland during a great famine. The maiden, widely believed to be Lucia, distributed food and clothing to the needy, thus endearing herself to the Swedish people” (Gustavus Adolphus College n.d.). Sankta Lucia was not widely observed, even in Sweden, until the 1900s. With her feast day coming during the darkest time of year, Lucia has come to symbolize light and hope. This symbolism is reinforced with the lighted candle head-wreath traditionally worn by young women representing Lucia. Many Swedish American churches celebrate Sankta Lucia Day.
Midsummer is another Nordic tradition that immigrants introduced to North America, most commonly celebrated with bonfires. Originally a pre-Christian solstice festival, the observance was incorporated into the liturgical calendar, where it is associated with the June 24 feast day of John the Baptist. Midsummer is more often a secular celebration rather than a religious one held in churches. One exception was St. Olaf’s Lutheran, a Norwegian-heritage church in Devils Lake, North Dakota, which, during the 1920s, held fundraisers with a traditional Norwegian Midsummer night festival and large bonfires. Our survey identified several Swedish American churches that continue Midsummer pole celebrations–a variant of the pre-Christian maypole tradition. Dalesburg Lutheran held its 150th Midsommar observance. The event is now part of a community-wide festival spearheaded by the Dalesburg Scandinavian Society but dates to neighborhood picnics during the late nineteenth century. Today’s celebration includes dancing around the flower-decorated pole, music, crafts, children’s activities, a church service, and a smorgasbord with potatis korv, meatballs, salads, new potatoes, fruit soup, “and other Scandinavian treats.”
The midsummer celebration at Eksjo Lutheran in Lake Park, Minnesota dates to the church’s founding in 1871. The event includes dancing around the maypole, making flower crowns, a speaker, home-cooked Swedish meatballs, and an ice cream buffet. In a tongue-in-cheek reference to ethnic rivalries, the event announcement in the local paper recently read: “Everyone welcome, even Norwegians!”
The most interesting example of a Midsummer pole tradition comes from the little town of Brevort, Michigan, an historic fishing community on the shores of Lake Michigan, where the Midsummer pole festival takes place on the grounds of Trinity Lutheran Church. Many of the church founders came from the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands of Finland. In 1906, they held their first Midsummer pole celebration. The tradition was discontinued in 1964 after a storm destroyed the original pole.
During the 1970s, the Movalson family of Brevort visited Åland Islands and observed many communities celebrating Midsummer with the same type of poles. In 1980, with the help of the entire community, they revived the tradition. The new cedar pole is half the height of the original but retains its distinctive finial carvings, with a “carved and painted whirligig representing humanity, a wooden whirligig representing the sun, and a wooden rooster, the sun’s herald. Below the carvings are four carved and painted sailing boats that spin in the wind representing the four seasons. Hanging from the cross beams are crowns, colorful strips of cloth made into balls, representing the six days of creation” (Michigan Heritage Award 2010).
During Brevort’s yearly Midsummer celebration, “men gather poplar leaves and men and women of all ages tie the leaves into bundles and string them in garlands back and forth along the cross beams. The men raise the pole using ropes” (MHA 2010). After a talk on the pole’s history and songs sung in Swedish, the church hosts a potluck, which always includes Swedish meatballs.
Please enjoy the following recipes, generously shared by some of the churches that participated in the Preserve Nordic Heritage Churches Project!
SWEDISH FRUIT SOUP
*From the Smorgasbord Committee for our annual Midsommar Festival at Dalesburg Lutheran Church,
Vermillion, South Dakota. The recipe below is one that we have used for years and is based on a recipe from Grace Lind (a long time member who has passed away).
6 cups white sugar
1 box small tapioca
8 cinnamon sticks
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 gallon grape/cranberry juice
2 1/4# raisins
36 oz. mixed fruit – cut into small pieces
24 oz, prunes – cut into small pieces
24 oz. dried apricots – cut into small pieces
24 oz. Craisins
3 fresh apples – chopped small with the peelings on
Mix into large roaster and cook until thick and the apples are soft. If the soup is too thick you can add water to the desired consistency. Cool.
Prior to serving add the following:
Large bag of frozen mixed berries – or – 6 small bags of frozen raspberries
More water if necessary
PANNUKAKKU (FINNISH BAKED PANCAKES)
*A mainstay for potlucks at Bethany Lutheran, Covington, Michigan, this Finnish staple comes from the great aunt of a church member.
Place 1 stick of oleo or butter in a 9 x 13 metal cake pan
Warm oven to 425 degrees until butter melts
4 room temperature eggs
1/3 cup sugar
2/3 cup flour
½ tsp salt
Slowly add most of butter plus 2 cups milk
Whisk mixture until smooth
Pour into pan, which has a little butter left
Bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes, or until light brown and puffs like a pancake
To serve, sprinkle top with sugar or serve with fruit juice or syrup
AEBLESKIVER (DANISH PANCAKES)
*A recipe from the Viborg, South Dakota United Methodist Women, used for the annual Aebleskiver breakfast at Viborg’s Danish Days.
3 cups whole milk
1 TB baking powder
1 tsp sugar
¼ tsp salt
4 cups Bisquick
Season iron aebleskiver pan
Heat stovetop burner to medium heat
Fill each cup of pan ¼ full with Wesson oil or Crisco; add batter to each cup
Turn with wooden skewers—make sure inside is done
Serve hot, or cool and freeze on cookie sheet (store in plastic bags after frozen)
VINATERTA AND KLEINUR (ICELANDIC BAKED GOODS)
* From Gwennie Erlendson, maternal grandmother to Carol Beard of Vidalin Icelandic Church, Akra, North Dakota. The prune filling is typical of the northern part of Iceland where Gwennie was from. Always included with coffee and kleinur at the Vidalin September and June services.
Vinaterta (layered prune cake)
Two parts: cookie dough and filling
1 ½ cup butter
1 ½ cups white sugar
6 cups flour
3 tsp baking power
¾ tsp salt
¼ plus 1/8 cup milk
Mix above and roll into 8-inch rounds until ¼ inch thick
Use dinner plate to cut into perfectly round shape
Traditionally 7 layers thick. 5 or 6 may be easier to pick up and eat.
Bake rounds at 350 degrees until lightly browned.
Cool, then spread filling.
Prune Filling: (typically used in northern Iceland; southern Icelanders use rhubarb)
2 lbs pitted prunes
Cook in water until tender
Use enough water to puree
Add 1 ½ cup sugar
1 tsp almond flavoring
1 tsp cardamom
¼ tsp salt
Add enough water so it will spread like jam (not too thick) over cookie round layers
Alternate until you have 6 or 7 layers
Cut and serve into pieces, serve on side so layers are visible
Kleinur (fried pastry)
2 cups white sugar
6 T melted butter
1 tsp cardamom
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups milk
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
7-8 cups flour
Mix the above
Roll on floured board to ¼ inch thick
Cut with a Kleinur cutter or fattigman cutter, or cut in strips 1 inch wide and 3 inches long, on diagonal, to get a diamond shape. Put slit in center and put one of ends through.
Fry in hot lard.
Chewier than doughnut!
*This recipe has been used by the Nora Unitarian Church women for our annual fall Smorgasbord since the early 1900s. Original attribution is to Julia Haugen whose parents were founding members of Nora Unitarian Universalist Church, Hanska, Minnesota.
(Makes approx. 75 two-inch meatballs)
5 lbs. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
3 c. milk
½ to ¾ c. chopped onion
4 c. bread crumbs (tear bread into small bits, lay on cookie sheet for at least a few hrs. so bread is nearly dried .)
Seasonings: 1 to 1 1/2 TBSP. salt; ½ tsp mustard, ¾ tsp each pepper, ginger, nutmeg
Mix all ingredients very well by hand. Shape into even sized meatballs. Grease baking pan well.
Bake in 350 to 375 oven until crispy on outside and done on inside. You may choose to turn them over halfway through baking so all sides turn brown.