BY ERIC DREGNI
Author of several books, including Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, and assistant professor of English at Concordia University in St. Paul.
It all begins with coffee. Especially egg coffee.
Whenever I’d visit my great aunts, they’d have the pot brewing and little pastries or cookies to eat as they’d chatter away. As soon as they switched to Swedish, I knew they were talking about some sordid affair that the younger generation couldn’t hear. The men would come in for a coffee break and never say much—mostly just “Yup.”
Every morning, my grandmother made her Swedish egg coffee: a quarter cup of Folger’s—that’s what Mrs. Olson recommended—mixed with an egg white and the shell thrown in for a little calcium. The egg clings to the grounds, so when her concoction was poured through a simple strainer, the result was a perfectly clear cup of coffee. Swedes like her further diluted it with thick cream, whereas Norwegians always wanted it black.
In the above video, I show the basics of making Swedish egg coffee and even use my grandmother’s coffee-making tools, although the videographer wouldn’t let the coffee steep long enough to get dark. Scandinavians drink the most coffee of anyone in the world, at least 18 pounds per person per year—and my family was no exception.
In writing Vikings in the Attic, I had to dig back into my own past and that of my great-grandparents, who came over from Scandinavia. I always thought that Scandinavians were normal. Growing up with mostly Swedish and Norwegian grandparents (and a bit of Danish thrown in for good measure), I assumed our family and the Midwest was the apex of rational thought and our culture simply the way people must live, if they had any sense. Doesn’t everyone endure Jell-O-like fish soaked in butter and gut-wrenching meatballs at Christmas time? (Speaking of Jell-O, what makes it “salad” when mixed with marshmallows and Cool Whip?)
When I asked about some of these strange habits to a Norwegian-American woman in Burnsville, she feigned surprise: “What do you mean that we’re strange? It’s everyone else that’s weird!”
Or as my grandmother Evie, who made the Swedish egg coffee, used to say, “They’re all queer ducks except for you and me…but I kind of wonder about you.”
While not intended to be outrageous, this is the book I wished I had read while growing up to shine some light on that dark corner of the closet where we stash our secrets. The topics—from curing a cough with turpentine to “lice cover” sweaters—are not standard textbook fare and hardly a complete view of Scandinavian influence. Instead, they are the stories that my relatives didn’t pass on to me. This is partly because when I was a vain punk rock teenager I thought I had little to learn from my Swedish-American grandmother who collected silver spoons. Or perhaps there are stories my elderly relatives didn’t want the younger generation to know.
To honor our Scandinavian roots, my dad used to make “Norwegian dinner,” a bi-monthly excuse to espouse our glorious Norwegian roots to his captive family. Considering that Norway is a country with a culinary delicacy of fish soaked in lye, we weren’t thrilled by my dad’s newfound enthusiasm. He would make a special trip to Ingebretsen’s Scandinavian Market in south Minneapolis to shop for food that most grocery stores deemed unfit for human consumption. My dad lovingly set the table with a blue-and-red printed tablecloth, candles, and wooden knives and breadboards he bought in Norway. But the mood lighting still couldn’t hide the food: boiled potatoes, cauliflower, and some sort of bland white fish were covered with an even blander white sauce, all on a white plate. Pickled herring added the only flavor to the meal.
Apart from the questionable cuisine, the most surprising aspect of my Scandinavian family’s experience in the Midwest was why they learned English. The only time my grandparents spoke Swedish was when they wanted an unintelligible language to keep secrets from the grandkids. How I wished they had passed on Swedish to all of us! Being second-generation Scandinavians, they wanted to keep their distance from their immigrant parents, their thick accents, and their Old World ways.
I used to believe this. Then I discovered that during World War I the state government set up the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety to root out Scandinavians with mixed loyalty who could be considered traitors. About 300,000 Minnesotans spoke or at least understood Swedish—not to mention Norwegian or other Scandinavian languages—and they had little desire to learn English, which they often considered inferior. I found posters proclaiming “Don’t be Suspicious! Speak American!” (Not English, mind you.) They learned English out of fear. Still, one Lutheran questioned, “I have nothing against the English language. I use it myself every day. But if we don’t teach our children Norwegian, what will they do when they get to heaven?”
Mostly, I learned how Scandinavians, more than any other ethnic group, shaped the Midwest into their vision of the promised land. After abject poverty in Scandinavia and a grueling ocean voyage, these hardy immigrants had to band together to survive. They formed cooperatives to stave off the brutal capitalist robber barons. They withstood accusations of unholy rituals with their devilish black books and gathered naked in sweaty saunas. Most importantly, they kept their humor and passed the Jell-O salad.
Eric Dregni is author of several books, including Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, In Cod We Trust, and Never Trust a Thin Cook and Other Lessons from Italy’s Culinary Capital, among others.
“While reading Vikings in the Attic, I solved two family mysteries and added at least ten new jokes to my act.”