We invite you to enjoy this conversation with Vesterheim Folk Art Education Program Coordinator Josh Torkelson and Nordic Cooking Instructor Dr. Emily Vikre.
An excerpt of this interview along with two of Emily’s recipes, Quick Lingonberry Liqueur and Girl From the North Country, are printed in the next issue of Vesterheim magazine, which includes a collection of articles and recipes focused on New Nordic Cuisine. The magazine will be out in June 2021 and is a benefit of Vesterheim membership. If you aren’t currently a member, start your annual membership to receive new issues twice each year! Join here.
It’s pretty intriguing to read the writings and explore the work of Dr. Emily Vikre, the co-founder and CEO of Vikre Distillery in Duluth, Minnesota.
Emily says, “For me, business success is absolutely meaningless if the people around you and the environment aren’t also thriving.” She is a Norwegian-American dual citizen, mother, food blogger, distiller, cook, and author of the book Camp Cocktails – easy, fun, and delicious drinks for the great outdoors. Emily makes award-winning aquavits, gins, and other spirits, and her writings can be found on the James Beard Award-winning blog, food 52.
In her work, Emily seeks to build community by bringing together traditions of sharing, stewardship of the land, and her own Norwegian heritage. In this interview, Emily explores the complex nature and history of spirits as a tool for community, storytelling, gathering, and celebration. She shares a bit of her own experience with Norwegian cooking, and more recently, her exploration of New Nordic Cuisine.
JT: What is the background that brings you to Nordic food and Nordic traditions?
EV: I was born into them and was raised with them. My mom is a Norwegian immigrant. She is also a folklorist, was a professor, and is very gregarious, so she had a natural orientation to teaching them to me. She was always talking about our traditions and demonstrating them to all of our neighbors. When I was a kid, it was totally embarrassing. But I learned from her a type of rootedness from a foundation in a tradition, and she gave me a strong sense of cultural identity. It is a foundation for understanding who I am and my place in the world and has always made me feel comfortably curious to learn about others.
JT: Is there an early childhood memory you have of a food or tradition that you come back to?
EV: So many! I’ve always been very food-oriented. Some of my earliest memories are of me helping to cook or wanting to cook meals on my own. All of my favorite foods growing up were the various staple Norwegian comfort foods – mashed potatoes, meatballs in gravy, brunost (brown cheese), and fish balls. In Norway, you get fish cakes, but in Minnesota where we lived, we can’t get fish cakes so my mom found the King Oscar canned fish balls. We love them! I have these strong memories of my mom making fiskeboller, as she called them. She would make some fried with ketchup for my brothers and some with a white sauce for the rest of us. For birthdays, there was only one cake that was ever birthday cake and that was bløtkaker. We grew up spending months in Norway during the summers so my childhood summers were filled with eating boller (buns) on the beach and going to the kiosk and getting is (ice cream). I still love getting gas station pølse med lompe, hot dogs with the lefse and crispy onions.
JT: You have a doctorate in food policy and behavioral theory and have been studying food traditions. There’s a quote here from your mom that says you asked her why she makes these foods and continues to make them. And she says “It’s just what good Norwegian moms do.” In response, you wrote: “The foods we make are intimately tied to our sense of what is right and what is good.” Can you expand on that a little bit?
EV: Growing up, Norwegian food was just how we ate. When I went to college, seeing how other people ate made me very interested in the immigrant tradition and what foods people would bring with them and what they wouldn’t. Our family never made lefse from scratch growing up – it was something that you bought in a grocery store. My mom made boller a couple times a year, but most of the time you bought it from the bakery. Yet all of our Scandinavian-American neighbors in Northern Minnesota made things from scratch. They made their own kransekake and lefse. I had never thought of lefse as a homemade thing! So, some of their traditions felt like they’d been set in a different century and carried forward in a particular way, versus what my mom brought with her from Norway and was caring forward.
JT: It seems that there are three different cuisines you’re connected to: Norwegian-American cuisine – this frozen piece of time from the 1800s that was in your neighborhood in Minnesota; the cuisine of your Norwegian mom that you grew up with, which is contemporary to Norway today; and then within the last decade, the New Nordic movement. A few years ago, you embarked on an impressive dinner party and conceptual art piece. It was a multi-course meal – and not just a few courses, but it was 17 courses – to celebrate 17 Mai (Norway’s Constitution Day). Can you tell us a bit about that?
EV: It was an exploration of these questions – What do these foods means to me? What does this culture mean to me?
Culture can be seen as a kind of monolith sometimes, yet we all have our individual place in it and our individual experience of it, which is partially but not entirely aligned with how we speak about something as a broader culture. It was exactly those three streams that you mention – What is traditional food? What do I think of as Nordic food? And then what is this Nordic food that is being presented to the world on – not a silver platter but – a beautifully handcrafted stoneware platter?
As New Nordic cuisine was coming to the world’s culinary stage, I remember looking at these foods and thinking – “What the heck are these? I’ve never eaten that!” So, I spent some time digging into the fundamental guiding principles behind New Nordic Cuisine. I found that it was less about haute cuisine and more about hyper localism. What does it mean to truly eat the landscape? Once I understood that it isn’t just foods presented on a plate in a fancy way, but rather it’s grounded in the foods that have always been in the Nordic region. When you are in such a challenging climate for growing, what are the things that are there without taking food from other places? How have those integrated themselves into the cuisine that we do see as more traditional and how is that still very rooted in place and time? How are these amazing chefs rethinking these old ingredients?
People have always foraged, hunted, and fished to get their food, and many things have remained and are part of the more traditional cuisine. We’ve always picked berries from the woods and always gone mushroom hunting. Some of those pieces have persisted and based on those persisting, it’s easier to make a revival of the more complex styles of forging as well as some of the techniques like applying smoking to things that maybe we don’t think of traditionally.
I spent a bunch of time thinking about what is the place and the time and the genesis of these foods like bløtkaker and boller. And what I think is interesting is that they harken back to the immigrant experience and travel of flavors. As far back as 200 AD, Norwegians and Swedes were traveling to India and to North Africa. They were never a static people living off hyper-local foods. So, in a way, these traveling flavors are just as much a part of the true tradition and the land because the Nordic people of have long been voyagers.
JT: It’s interesting that this new movement is so steeped in things that were once so quotidian such as being able to get materials from around you to make what you need. I know with this 17-course meal that you prepared, you foraged ingredients from around your neighborhood with your friends, and then you came together for the meal. You planned for two months with sketches, spreadsheets, and drawings and wove together all three of those traditions. You had lefse-inspired bites, New Nordic style sauces with foraged spruce tips, boller, Norwegian meatballs, and potatoes. What drew you to all these foods?
EV: What I liked about this project and what I kept coming back to was that there was not one answer or an explanation or even necessarily a predictable pattern for what makes a traditional cuisine or what will become traditional or what will be revived as tradition. It is very personal. So, this was really an art project that was expressing the co-existence of all these ideas and the complexity of being an individual in a particular place and time with a ton of history behind me.
JT: You and your husband own and operate Vikre Distillery in Duluth, Minnesota, and in digging through some of your writings and your company website’s beautiful product descriptions, it seems that your work shares a lot of the same tenets as New Nordic Cuisine in the sense of using local foods, flavors, and systems around you. I read on one of the whiskies that everything comes from within 25 miles for that specific product and I think there is another one where you use local maple syrup. You also have a gin that uses sumac, a local foraged flavor. Was some of this inspired by the New Nordic movement?
EV: I would say that a lot of it was. When we started the distillery, the thought process behind product creation was considering about terroir, which definitely is a component of New Nordic Cuisine, because terroir is the flavors of the earth. What does a place taste like? It’s more often used in wine, but now it’s more frequently used in spirits. How can we think about it with regards to the earth, but also the people who happen to be on the earth and who have traveled through this area at different points in time? How can we create things that both nod to and draw on various traditions, while also draw on the land of the natural resources, celebrating those? Our botanical blends and our green choices nod to and explore the coexistence of all these flavors and the kind of footprints that have been left. Nothing that we make is hyperlocal – well some of our whiskies are – but our gins aren’t only herbs and botanicals from here. We could have done that. But I also love tradition and I love exploring history. I’ve read all sorts of old manuscripts on gin making and liqueur making, and I wanted to take the core foundation of that history and add our current location to it now.
JT: In your writing, you talk about a sense of place and time and I wonder if you can talk about how that informs what you’re making?
EV: We hear so much about New Nordic Cuisine in the sense of its food practices, but not a lot about its cocktail practices. I think cocktails share a lot with fine art. I think there is a lot of creativity and expression in them. Well, good cocktails – let’s just say that! Other than water, beverages aren’t necessary. With food, we have to eat to survive. Fine beverages share a lot with art because they are expressive, very multi-layered, and when you drink them you’re celebrating and exploring something rather than just surviving. When you’re eating and drinking, you are pulled into the world in a very concrete and tangible way. It is completely attached to everything else that’s come before and everything that will come after because you’re sharing it with all of humanity. You’re eating or drinking something that has grown out of the earth in some way. And certainly, with the spirits market, as with the food market and definitely in the United States especially, there’s so much commodification. Everything is a selling opportunity. I grapple with that a lot, running a company. You have to survive as a company, but how do you sell things with a focus on sharing things that are not commodities? How do you make things that are more creative expressions, not just commodities trying to appeal to everybody? How do we create products with more thought and more exploration and more connection?
JT: Your book, Camp Cocktails, was published recently. In the foreword, it says that it combines two of your passions: craft cocktails and the outdoors. And it strikes me that this combination of drinking and the outdoors is something that is so quintessentially Norwegian. It seems like friluftsliv! How did this find its way into your work?
EV: I would say that it is most fundamentally a byproduct of how I grew up. It’s completely unconscious. Like my mom said, it’s just what you do if you’re a good Norwegian. You drink, you enjoy yourself, you get outside more, and you’re active. In the process of writing the book, I did spend a lot of time reflecting on the moments that we’re experiencing being alive and being connected most deeply. And to me, when you are in the out-of-doors, it provides us the context of how small we are. We’re just part of nature.
There’s something very celebratory about a really nice cocktail, but there are extra layers of craft, care, and creativity that go into creating a cocktail. They are complicated. They feel more celebratory, special, and intentional. It’s not just cracking open a beer – nothing against cracking open a beer. So, these two celebratory things together have the potential to just pull you into the present moment and into a sense of celebration, appreciation, and connection.
JT: And I think a sense of community too, right? I feel like most often when you’re having spirits and cocktails, it’s usually a communal experience. I would even argue that it’s intended to be that way.
EV: I would agree. Alcohol is complicated. But at its best, it has always been woven into a culture of community, storytelling, gathering, and celebration.
JT: I want to dig a little bit more into this connection to the land and environment that I think both your work and the New Nordic movement have in common. There is a quote that is next to a picture of you on the Vikre blog and it says, “For me, business success is absolutely meaningless if the people around you and the environment aren’t also thriving.” What does that mean for you when you’re making spirits?
EV: Growing up in Duluth, Minnesota, and living here, you come away with such a sense of dedication to stewardship of the water, the land, and the community. Lake Superior is such a presence – a spiritual presence. We’re friends with the farmers here, there’s so many trails, so much outdoor space, and we really see the value of it. I think that has translated into a strong sense of responsibility and the desire to take care of the things that we draw upon. Rather than using them, we’re working with them and not abusing them without giving back to their stewardship. I think the same can be said about community. We have a really close-knit, creative community here. Moving back to the Midwest to a smaller town and starting our business here was very intentional and very important to us to be rooted in community. We strive to be a business that is intentionally and actively supporting the community and is connected to the community. We aim to lift up other people and to be a gathering space for people and an incubator for things and ideas. We try to give back in all sorts of ways. Which, again, I fully acknowledge that an alcohol business trying to be socially responsible, maybe seems ironic. But also, it’s a great way to show other businesses – that if we can work on these things they can too.