Scandinavian heritage reflected in Madison’s cuisine

Scandinavian traditional food here in Madison
Scandinavian heritage reflected in Madison’s cuisine
Elise Juelich
Pretty Pies: Norske Nook Restaurant and Bakery is known for its Norwegian-American offerings and homemade pies.

Like many, I’ve become a bit obsessed with discovering my own roots. Genealogy is now only second in popularity to gardening as a hobby. After I took the prerequisite DNA test, it wasn’t really a surprise to learn that 65 percent of my ethnicity is British and Irish. However, I was shocked to learn that I’m 27 percent Scandinavian. Despite living in a part of the country remarkable for its large number of Nordic immigrants, I hadn’t a clue that they were my people. When I once lived in Stoughton, a community noted for its Norwegian population, I always felt like a bit of an outsider. But no more. It’s time to get in tune with my cultural heritage, including its gastronomic traditions.

Most supermarkets around here stock items like pickled herring, crispbread, gjetost cheese, lingonberry preserves, and, of course, lefse, a Norwegian flatbread made with potatoes and flour (it’s often mistaken by newcomers for flour tortillas). During the holidays, lutefisk (dried fish treated with lye) and a treasure trove of cookies including krumkake (rolled butter cookies) can be unearthed as well. No doubt one of the most beloved local delicacies is kringle. On first encounter, I’m afraid I assumed it was a squashed coffeecake. This oval, buttery-layered pastry from Denmark put Racine, Wisconsin, on the American food map. Filled with everything from marzipan and pecans to multifarious fruit jams, it was proclaimed our Official State Pastry in 2013.

Despite all these established comestibles, I’m somewhat dismayed by the lack of Scandinavian dining options in Wisconsin. For a brief spell, Madison enjoyed the Berge brothers’ Restaurant Magnus (now the location of Tempest Oyster Bar). Of course, a notable exception is Al Johnson’s in Sister Bay. What began as a one-man operation in 1949 is today a Door County destination. In peak season, the wait is inevitably interminable but worth it for its fabled Swedish pancakes, meatballs and homemade baked goods. Equally renowned is the Norske Nook Restaurant and Bakery. Founded in 1973 in Osseo, Norske Nook now has four locations including one in DeForest. Notwithstanding the array of Norwegian-American-style comfort foods, the Nook is nationally famous for its wide and ever-changing assortment of homemade pies.

Many church dinners still celebrate lutefisk, lefse, meatballs and similar fare, but unfortunately, one such celebratory event at Madison’s Lakeview Lutheran Church came to an end in 2013 after 61 years. The custom still continues at Northland Lutheran Church in Iola, Wisconsin, where it again will host its Lutefisk Supper and Norwegian Bake Sale on Oct. 21.

Northern European cooking is frequently dismissed as bland and lackluster. Yet, ever more frequently, restaurants in worldly cities like New York and London are gaining attention for so-called New Nordic cuisine, exemplary for its fresh ingredients and provocative flavors. In 2014, “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants” list produced by British magazine Restaurant proclaimed Noma in Denmark–a country that boasts 22 Michelin-starred restaurants–as No. 1. I’m not sure Scandinavian food will ever compete for popularity with the likes of Mexican or Chinese cuisine, but its contribution to that great melting pot that is American cuisine is undeniable.

Dan Curd is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine. His Relish column appears monthly.