The Best of All Worlds

Being half Irish and half Norwegian means, among other things, never having learned to cook

 

MY FATHER WEARS orange on St. Patrick’s Day. According to him, it is the only honorable thing for a Norwegian to do. He maintains that the most worthwhile traits among the Irish were deposited by Vikings who visited the Emerald Shores in ancient times.

My mother is Irish. She believes that Scandinavian blood is much improved by the wearin’ o’ the green.

“My, but that’s an interesting combination,” the nuns at St. Raphael’s Elementary School used to say to me, referring not to my clothes but to my cultural heritage. My Irish grandmother’s bedroom was a library of enlarged-type issues of The Liguorian; my Norwegian grandmother kept copies of The Lutheran next to the tub. My Lutheran relatives made references to some exotic creature they called “pastor”; I was used to the guy in the cassock all the kids called “Fadda.” I can sing Latin high mass, which is Irish, but off-key, which is Norwegian. I feel guilty all the time, which is Catholic, but being Scandinavian, I’m not sure why.

I come from the two cultures on earth with absolutely no culinary heritage. I can create completely tasteless meals for families of 10 or more out of potatoes and other vegetable matter, which is very Irish. I also know how to throw in cream of mushroom soup, pour the whole mess into a casserole dish, and bring it to a church supper, which is pretty Norwegian.

After years of practice, I have mastered the preparation of the Irish Grill: Browning roast beef into leathery strings, steaming sliced carrots into mush, and cooking peas until they get those little octagon-shaped dents in their withered sides and can’t even role anymore. Irish food is penance for the diner and the food: Finnan Haddie is hell for haddock, boiling is purgatory for potatoes, and cabbage is lettuce in limbo.

Norwegians fare no better. Lutefisk is liked by no one, not even old Norwegians. It is consumed because, like drinking coffee with grounds floating in it or eating the wedding supper off a paper plate, it is traditional. All Norwegian food is pale: lutefisk, lefse, kringla, krumkake, sugar cookies. It is neither salty nor sugary but does offer appalling texture—Kumla, a slimy little dumpling made of ground potatoes and ham hocks, is just one example. The most delicious beverage and food is lefse, which has no flavor. I actually know how to cook this. Lefse is a sort of tortilla thing that requires hours of mixing, storing, rolling, grilling, and turning. The whole process coats the kitchen with flour dust and rewards the maker with steaming potato crepes that must be slathered with butter and sugar and eaten immediately before they harden into roofing tiles.

Given my familial clash of Celtic and Scandinavian cultures, I have never fully embraced either one. I have neither shillelaghs nor rosemaling in my home. My children are not named after selkies or Valkyries. I have yet to travel to either homeland. When I am at the Sandvig family reunion in Iowa, visiting with the Thorvalds, Petersons, and Christiansons, I am Norwegian, linked by Olaf, Otto, and Carolyn back to the fjords and mountains of Scandinavia. That tradition honors me, and I honor it.

But still, at mid-March of every year, the pipes, the pipes come calling—along with percussion sticks called bones, a handheld drum called the bodhran, tin whistles, fiddles, folk harps, and snares. I head to a pub where I can listen to a seisun (a Celtic jam session) or watch the dancers at a ceili. I recall the Rooneys, Cregans, and Noonans in my family, out of County Cork. I say “Do we?” When asked “Why do the Irish always answer a question with a question?”

I pull in wool tights, pleated skirt, and a sweater stitched and heavy cable. And I take, from a velvet-lined box in my dresser drawer, an ugly little rock sent to me many years ago by an old friend. It has a jagged edge and seems to be made of a bit of this and a bit of that muddled together in brown- and rust-colored streaks. It is not the Blarney Stone, but it is from that place. I rub its edges, and I think I see, from some memory never experienced but handed down to me in the bones, marrow, and cellular structure of clan and tradition, the green hills, narrow roads, stony shores, and bright sky of Ireland.

 

This appeared in Mpls/St. Paul Magazine, March 1996, pp. 30-31.

 

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