The majority of Norwegian immigrants lived in the farming communities of the upper Midwest making their homes in the states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and North and South Dakota. They settled in cities such as Brooklyn, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Seattle.
Once the first Norwegians came to an area, others often followed, particularly after the Homestead Act of 1862 that made Minnesota land available almost free for the asking. Norwegian immigrants developed commercial fishing along the North Shore, worked in the Iron Range mines and offered trades needed in their areas.
Why did Norwegians leave their homeland?
In the 19th century, Norway was a difficult place for the common folk. Its population was increasing and they were squeezed onto the slivers of land that could be cultivated — only 3 percent of the country. Farm mechanization pushed out landless laborers, and a rigid social hierarchy gave them no chance to improve their situation.
So, they left. Starting in the late 1830s, Norwegians came to America.
Those who had a farming background headed to Norwegian settlements in the coulee country of southwest Wisconsin, the bluff country of southeast Minnesota and Iowa and then the fertile Red River Valley of Minnesota and North Dakota. Norwegians who fished headed for the shorelines of Door County and Minnesota’s North Shore. By 1915, Norway had lost 750,000 people to the United States, contributing, after Ireland, the highest percentage of its population to the new country. Norwegians often chose land that reminded them of home.
They also tried to carry on their Norwegian traditions here in America. Each Christmas, Norwegian-Americans headed to the nearest Norsk deli to buy lutefisk that once was a staple for peasants in Norway. They grated potatoes for lefse, a flat peasant bread, and rolled thin butter cookies on krumkake irons for their holiday celebrations. There are more than 4.5 million people of Norwegian ancestry in the United States today. Norwegian Americans actively celebrate and maintain their heritage in many ways. Much of it centers on the Lutheran-Evangelical churches they were born into. Culinary customs, national dress, and Norwegian holidays (Syttende Mai, May 17) are also popular.
Norwegian cuisine in its traditional form was based largely on the natural materials readily available in Norway and by its geography. Norwegian fare had a strong focus on fish and game. A gradual transition to American life weakened immigrant folkways. Some traditions and customs survived and were cultivated, others were reintroduced and given importance as a part of their ethnic heritage. Toward the end of the century, lutefisk became known as a Norwegian American dish. It was served at lodge meetings, festive banquets, and church suppers, most regularly during the Christmas season.
Lutefisk is whitefish — which refers to several species of finned fish such as cod, ling, or burbot — that has been air-dried and may or may not be salted. It is first soaked in cold water for five or six days, with the water changed daily. The saturated fish is again soaked for two days in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye. Lye is a substance obtained by leaching ashes and is also known as sodium hydroxide. After this weeklong process, the fish loses half of its protein and gains a jelly-like consistency. At this point, it needs another four to six days of soaking in cold water, refreshed daily, before it is ready to be cooked. Since the saturated fish is quite delicate, a layer of salt is added about a half-hour before it is cooked. This releases some of the water being held in the fish. It is then placed in a sealed pan and steam cooked on low heat for 20-25 minutes, or wrapped in aluminum foil and baked at 435 degrees F for 40-50 minutes. Since Minnesota has a large population of Norwegian immigrants, lutefisk is quite popular in the Twin Cities and their surrounding areas. It can be served a number of ways, but some of the more common ones are with boiled potatoes, green peas, melted butter, small pieces of bacon, horseradish, or cheese.
Aquavit is Norway’s famous exported liquor made from potatoes. Distillers flavor it with spice bags of caraway seeds or star anise. After the warm alcohol passes through the bags, it is aged in wood barrels. Cold-pressed, clear Aquavit isn’t aged but is served slightly chilled with herring, cold meat, and fatty dishes. Norwegians serve dark Aquavit, that has been aged for several years, after dinner.
Here are some Norwegian American style recipes for you to make at home.
Pan-Fried White Fish
1 lb white fish fillets
1 large egg
1/2 cup bread crumbs
6 tablespoons butter
Norwegian Lemon Butter Sauce, recipe below
For the Pan-Fried White Fish
Check to make sure all the fish bones have been removed. Season the fillets with the salt and white pepper.
Lightly whisk the egg in a shallow bowl. In a separate bowl combine the breadcrumbs with ¼ teaspoon salt.
Dip the fillets in the egg and then dredge in the breadcrumbs.
Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add the butter. Fry the fillets until they are golden brown.
Place the fillets on a paper towel. Transfer the fish to a serving plate and drizzle with the lemon sauce.
Norwegian Lemon Butter Sauce (Sandefjords Mor)
1 lemon, juiced
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons cold, unsalted butter, cut into cubes
Salt to taste
Cayenne pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
Place the lemon juice in a small saucepan over medium heat; bring to a simmer. Add cream; whisk to combine. Continue to cook until the cream reduces and is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, 5 or 6 minutes. Reduce heat to low.
Whisk in a few pieces of cold butter, stirring until the butter melts before adding more. Continue adding the butter a few pieces at a time until all the butter is emulsified into the cream. Add salt, cayenne pepper, and chopped parsley. Whisk until well blended. Keep sauce warm until ready to use.
Sour Cream-Chive Mashed Carrots & Parsnips
Norway has a long history with root vegetables. They are grown in many parts of the country and can generally be easily stored. Norwegians have favorites – like rutabaga, carrots, and potatoes – but more and more, others are being used more frequently in cooking, such as turnips, parsnips, and beets.
8 medium carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (4 cups)
2-3 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces (2 cups)
1/3 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives, divided
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground pepper
Place carrots and parsnips in a large saucepan. Add water to cover and bring to a boil. Boil until very tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Drain well and return to the pan.
Use a potato masher or ricer to finely mash the vegetables. Add sour cream, 2 tablespoons chives, milk, butter, salt, and pepper. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring until heated through. Transfer to a serving bowl. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon of chives.
Green Beans with Dill Vinaigrette
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 pound green beans
Stir together the vinegar, mustard, and salt in a small bowl until the ingredients are combined and the salt has dissolved. Whisking constantly, slowly pour in the oil and continue to whisk until emulsified. Gently stir in chopped dill and set aside.
Steam green beans until tender. Drain. Arrange green beans in a serving dish and season with a little bit of salt. Pour the dill dressing over the green beans. Mix well and leave at room temperature until serving time.
For the bottom layer
1/4 cup cold unsalted butter
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
2 cups chopped rhubarb (fresh or frozen and thawed)
For the top layer
1/3 cup softened butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
1½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
1/2 cup heavy cream
For the bottom layer
In a large bowl mix the butter into the brown sugar with a pastry blender until crumbly. If using frozen rhubarb, dry on paper towels after draining. Stir the rhubarb into the brown sugar and butter. Divide the mixture evenly into a well greased 12 cup muffin pan. Do not use muffin papers. Set this aside.
For the top layer
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
In a large bowl of an electric mixer combine the butter and sugar until creamy. Add in the egg and mix until well combined.
In a separate bowl combine the flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg.
Once blended, add to the creamed butter mixture in small amounts alternating with the cream.
Spoon the batter mixture evenly over the rhubarb layer in the muffin cups.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until the top of the batter is golden brown.
Remove from the oven, set on a cooling rack and let cool for 5 minutes.
Place a serving dish on top of the muffin pan and flip the two over so that the bottom of the buns are right-side up.
Serve while still warm.