We invite you to enjoy this conversation with Vesterheim Folk Art Education Program Coordinator Josh Torkelson and Nordic Cooking Instructor Patrice Johnson.
An excerpt of this interview along with one of Patrice’s recipes, Barley-Coconut Pudding, is 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.
Patrice Johnson, a.k.a. Nordic food geek and meatball historian, is a cultural communicator specializing in Nordic foodways. She brings a contemplative eye to the often simple, yet simultaneously complex, stories and histories that shape the foods that we eat and often consider traditional.
Patrice reminds us that many of the central tenets of New Nordic Cuisine – things such as eating local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable foods as well as techniques like pickling and smoking – are paradoxically very, very old.
Patrice is the author of Land of 10,000 Plates and Jul: Swedish American Holiday Traditions. She writes a weekly food and culture column for her hometown newspaper, and teaches Nordic food classes throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. She is passionate about the complex food of her home state of Minnesota and strives to connect the flavors of her Swedish immigrant heritage with the flavors of other immigrants in her community.
JT: What brings you to Swedish and Swedish American food? Did you grow up with these traditions or did you come to them later in life? Is it a combo of both?
PJ: I grew up in a family with four older sisters and my mom, who was raised by Southern and Midwestern farm people, but they didn’t really have any food traditions, or at least they didn’t have any that we adopted. So when my mom married my dad, who was a Swedish-American born and raised in northeast Minneapolis, she adopted his family’s food traditions. That included Swedish holiday traditions. I grew up believing that what we ate on Christmas Eve was the quintessential Christmas meal.
JT: What was it that you ate on Christmas Eve?
PJ: We had Swedish meatballs and boiled potatoes with runny butter (as my grandpa called melted butter), fruit salad (whipped cream with fruit in it), and lefse. We served the lefse Swedish-style, which means we had it warm and then rolled in butter and we would never put sugar on it – no way! Before my time, they would have herring and lutefisk (Swedes spell this lutfisk) and we always had macaroni and cheese. I never understood how macaroni and cheese played into the Swedish version of our Christmas Eve julbord.
When I went to graduate school, I was searching for something to study. My adviser said that I needed to find a question that only I could answer, and my field of study should be finding the answer to that question. I thought about all the questions in my life that I wanted answers to, and I wanted to know why my family served macaroni and cheese at our Julbord. So that became my master’s thesis about Swedish food traditions specific to Minnesota and more specific to the Twin Cities. I learned that in foodways, the foods that we decide to put on the table are influenced by many things including cultural traditions, our immigrant neighbors, travel, health, wealth, politics, and/or religion. I saw those influences in the narratives from my family about the possibilities of how that macaroni and cheese landed on our table. That included religion.
My mother believes that my Great-grandma Johnson put the macaroni and cheese on the table because my Grandpa Johnson married a Catholic woman and in 1932 and Catholics didn’t eat meat on Christmas Eve. She was not Swedish and my great-grandmother didn’t think that she would appreciate lutfisk, so she wanted to be able to include a protein to fill her up that wasn’t meat. So, my mom thought, “I bet that’s what she put the macaroni and cheese on the table – so that Grandma Louise would have something to eat!” I thought, “Well, that’s perfect because it really plays into the whole narrative about religion!” If somebody in our life has a religious idea about taboo food or food that is celebratory, that is a reason it gets taken off or added to our table. It seemed like my great-grandmother added mac and cheese to the table because she wanted to make my grandma feel welcome.
But then I talked to my Great-aunt Hazel. She was the youngest of my great-grandfather’s kids, and she was the only sibling who was still alive after my grandpa and great auntie passed. I hadn’t been really close to Great-aunt Hazel until her final 10 years, but then we became very close and I visited her often. I would ask her questions about the family because it was really fascinating. I asked her, “Why do you think your mom put the macaroni cheese on the julbord? My mom thought it was because of Grandma Louise.” And she said, “No, no, no. I think my mom put that on the table because it was Paul’s favorite and he was her favorite.” Paul was the middle son of all these kids. He was the really good looking ne’er-do-well. Every family has one right? He was so charming and so good looking, and he’s the kind of guy that you would want to hang out with but never set up with your friends. That kind of guy. What my Auntie Hazel believed that my great-grandmother was showing that Paul was her favorite by putting his favorite food on the table. She loved all of her children – step-children, and biological children the same, except Paul was her favorite.
So, I went about my business and interviewed a lot of other families from the area about their Swedish traditions, and I did a whole review on Swedish food and Swedish immigrant food.
As I was finishing my thesis, a classmate of mine who happened to come from a Southern Black tradition, said, “You know, Patrice, you’re thinking about this just from the Swedish-American perspective. Macaroni and cheese is one of the very few American dishes that crosses regions.” Because of our immigrant status, we have very few cross-regional foodways. Most of the foods that we think of as Americans are very specific to a region where an immigrant came from. For example Cincinnati chili, New York pizza, Chicago-style pizza, Detroit style-pizza, perogies, pasties. These foods are so rich with an immigrant story and regional story. Macaroni and cheese is as old as America and it’s very much solidly American cuisine. So this classmate suggested to me, “Maybe your grandmother put that on the table to say we’re not just Swedes. We’re also Americans.” And I thought, “Whoa!”
Now I preserve all three narratives because they are all equally beautiful to me, and since nobody’s around that can tell me any of them are true or wrong, I keep all three.
JT: Do you still have macaroni and cheese on the table?
PJ: Every darn Christmas! For 120 years, somebody in my family has been making the meatballs and making the mac and cheese. We’ve also adapted these traditions. I always have a dairy-free version for my daughter, who is lactose intolerant. I usually have two or three different kinds of meatballs on the table now, including vegan and vegetarian.
JT: It’s very interesting to hear you talk about these early memories of macaroni and the food that you ate and how you thought that this was Swedish food because that was the tradition you grew up in. I wonder if we can touch on that a little bit. When did you find out that this Swedish-American cuisine that you ate was not the same as Swedish cuisine?
PJ: Embarrassingly late in life. Twenty or so years ago a woman in Minneapolis named Sue Zelickson was starting a cookbook club. This was in the late 1990s when cuisine was just starting to be trendy. This was when chefs were becoming celebrities, the food channel was big, and gourmet magazines like Bon Appetit were huge. Food was really starting to become an important part of our culture. And I thought, “That sounds like fun!”
Once a month, Sue would bring in these amazing chefs and cookbook authors from across the nation. One summer, she made this announcement at the end of the cookbook club that this really famous Swedish chef who lived in New York was coming to Minnesota and opening a Swedish restaurant. It was going to be the end-all-be-all and anybody who was anybody was going to be there.
As much as I love my Swedish background and being Swedish-American, I thought, “Who’s going to pay $20 or $30 for meatballs and mashed potatoes. That’s the dumbest restaurant idea I’ve ever heard! In Minnesota, we can just make it at home and nobody’s going to go to this dumb restaurant!”
This restaurant, Restaurant Aquavit, opened to much hoopla and my best friend got a gift certificate for $200 from her work to go there. She said, “We’re going to go for broke and we’re going to spend every penny. It’s going to be the best night of our lives!” We really didn’t know what to expect. People had been talking a lot about the restaurant and chef Marcus Samuelson, and I knew from his pictures that he did not look like any Swede that I’d ever met. I had assumed that all Swedes look like me and were blonde, blue-eyed, and tall. He was definitely not any of that.
Chef Marcus was born in Ethiopia, raised by Swedes, became an American, and now lives in Harlem. It really got me to refigure what a Swede looked like, what it meant to be a Swede. It got me to understand that immigration is not an American-only thing. Across the world, refugees are seeking shelter, and Sweden is one of the places that they often seek. And in fact, I knew people who had immigrated to Sweden before they immigrated to America, so I should’ve known better. I have Persian friends that lived in Sweden before they came here. I should have known that they were considered Swedish when they lived there, but it never occurred to me.
So we got to Restaurant Aquavit and sat down and ordered the tasting menu. I will never forget the very first course that was placed before us. It was a tuna tartare taro root taco. It was a tiny taro root that was deep-fried and shaped like a taco. It was filled with tuna tartare and raw carrot shavings. It was the most perfect bite I had ever experienced in my life. Course after course after course came, and we didn’t even speak for five courses!
We had this rebirth – I am not a religious person – but it made me understand my own spirituality and I felt born again in this moment. That sounds so nutty and dramatic but it was truly that overwhelming. My life changed at that moment. I understood that my ideas of Swedishness were completely wrong and that my understanding of Nordic food was completely old-fashioned. Nordic food is a balance of flavor and texture and color. It made me really happy, and I decided then and there that I needed to get a different job. I need to get educated a little more and needed to find something that spoke to my passion. I started writing again because that’s really what I was put on earth to do and I never looked back. I still have a day job, but my soul is nourished.
JT: You are a self-described meatball historian and I think I read somewhere that you are a lutefisk visionary. It seems like you’ve really gone back and embraced these older traditions but then also are a part of this New Nordic Cuisine tradition. How do you hold on to some of these order traditions but also bring in the new?
PJ: That’s an interesting way to think about it. When we talk about what Swedish-American cuisine is in my region, it’s in a time capsule. It’s the recipes that came 120-140 years ago. We haven’t changed them a whole lot because we are an immigrant culture so we are looking back to and honoring the people who came here, who brought us here, by making their recipes. We are honoring the past and meanwhile, they’ve moved on in those homelands. I find it fascinating.
I think that the two can live simultaneously very well. What I’m eating today and what I plan on eating tomorrow is a celebration and a hope. I’m not going to eat and put a celebratory meal on the table unless I have hope that I’m going to be here tomorrow and that things are going to get better. So the cuisine that I wrote about in my book, Jul: Swedish-American Holiday Traditions, is very much a history of the region and the people who came here 120 years ago. If you look at the differences between the meatballs in Minneapolis and the meatballs in Kansas and the meatballs in Seattle, there are little differences. I love that.
JT: You talk about how these traditions, old and new, can exist side-by-side, and I feel like a really good example is the recent Thursday night soup classes that you’ve taught through Vesterheim. One is the traditional Swedish yellow pea soup, ärtsoppa, and then you also have this New Nordic ärtsoppa. I wonder if you could talk about that original soup and what got you to that and how you got into the New Nordic version?
PJ: One thing that I always want to mention is that when Americans like me are so enamored with this New Nordic philosophy, we have to remember that this is really a restaurant thing in Nordic countries. Every day families are cooking very much like I would cook if I had a family with a couple kids. I’m looking for what the kids like and I’m looking for trends. We have taco Tuesday in America and there is also Taco Friday in Sweden. When I talk to real Swedes about New Nordic cuisine, they look at me weird because, for them, it is for tourists. Real people there don’t actually cook like that very often. One part of New Nordic cuisine that is used every day is the whole foods philosophy. Local, organic, and sustainable foods are so built into the culture in the Nordic region. That’s one thing I always want to remind people of because it’s another thing that I came to way too late in life.
I talk a lot about immigrant culture because it’s something that’s really important to me, especially in the last few years as things have been so heated politically. I’m really lucky to live in a community where we have a lot of farmers who are new immigrants or are recent immigrants. In some cases, because they were unable to find ingredients that they wanted for their recipes in our grocery stores, they will sometimes grow them. So it’s a window into their culture by eating these foods that I’m not familiar with. Again, thinking about the similarities between our foodways and then the foodways in Sweden, I like to represent the old immigrant cuisine and then the new immigrant cuisine. I just think that they marry really well – they make lovely partners. America’s cuisine is really world cuisine, as long as we’re naming where that tradition came from and not claiming it as our own. It’s important to say that these aren’t new flavors, they’re just new to us.
When I make the old-school ärtsoppa, it is still a very traditional soup in Sweden. It’s one of the national dishes and you’ll see it a lot in cafes for lunch, you’ll see it in the military, and in schools. It is cafeteria food. When I wanted to update it, I thought about flavors that are becoming more widely common and available in my city, so I looked toward Asian flavors. They pair perfectly with that yellow pea, which makes sense because yellow peas first came from Asia and the Mediterranean area, so of course it is going to pair well with the curry. But then I also like to throw in some crispy lefse as a nod and a wink to my lovely Norwegian-American friends.
JT: I want to go back to New Nordic Cuisine for a bit. Where do you see the influences of this movement in America?
PJ: The philosophy that ties our region to that new Nordic mentality would be the whole farm-to table movement, which is huge. It’s a very common idea and sometimes we don’t even say that anymore – it’s just what we expect. There is something to be said for knowing that your chicken lived a decent life. If we’re consuming food that’s been harvested in a kind manner, then we’re treating ourselves and our earth with kindness and that’s the only way we’re going to roll back climate change.
JT: In New Nordic cuisine there is a focus on local farms and using organic produce, which historically was just what there was available. There was no option not to be organic or to not use local for Swedish immigrants 120 years ago. I find it interesting that this movement is revisiting the roots of Nordic food and it’s going way back.
PJ: Is New Nordic new or old? Really I think it’s just putting the name and the definitions to something that already existed. One of the things that makes Nordic cuisine special is the short growing season in the Nordic region, which makes preservation an art. We see this in our north as well. We saw this with Restaurant Aquavit in The Twin Cities with how they brought gravlax to the public in a way that we are still seeing. Anyone that came out of that kitchen who is now working has it on the menu in some way, shape, or form. It might not be made with salmon, but the impact that Restaurant Aquavit made on our local cuisine – I don’t underestimate it.
JT: Is there a Nordic cooking technique that has had a rebirth with the New Nordic movement that you either really love doing or you wish you could be doing? I wonder if you could tell me about one that you either are really interested in diving into or maybe have already done so?
PJ: I have failed sourdough baker, so let’s not talk about that. But when chef Magnus Nilsson was here in Minneapolis, he talked a lot about preservation methods and how acid would change the structure of meats and dairy. His books, The Nordic Cookbook and The Nordic Baking Book, are so valuable. I would love to research more about how acid and smoke change foods from both the scientific angle and then the flavor angle. I think it’s really interesting that you might leave your bowl of milk up over the fireplace overnight and then the next day it’s become a completely different being.
JT: I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit towards some of the flavors or perhaps ingredients or dishes that you find unique to Swedish cuisine or Swedish-American cuisine?
PJ: That’s another thing I’m just so fascinated by. There’s a map called the Swedish Bread Map. It shows that the kind of fuel and baking implements you have, dictate what kind of breads you can make. For example, historically, if I lived in a place where I had access to a lot of fuel and I have somebody who knows how to make stoneware, I might be able to make an oven. But maybe I just have a stove top so I can only make flat bread. Or maybe I lived in an area where I didn’t have access to an oven every day, so I might make a lot of crackers because then I only would have to go to the oven once or twice a year. And where grains grow affects the breads too. Oats, barley, rye, and wheat grow in different places. Lefse, for example, isn’t just potato – there are so many different types of lefse in Norway and flatbreads across Sweden that are similar. I talk in my book, Jul, about using barley and rye flour with potato to make flat bread. And I ask the question – what did they have before the potato, since it is a new world food? I think flatbread is such a great introduction into the similarities and differences between the food traditions of these two neighboring countries, Norway and Sweden.
JT: What is a recipe that brings forth some of these ideas for you?
PJ: Everyone talks about rice pudding, but really barley pudding was there first. In my book, Jul, I have a barley pudding recipe that it brings this old food. Barley together with coconut milk and some other ingredients highlights this theme of immigration over time with different cultural flavors.