Potatoes and Herring

Have you ever wondered about all those white Norwegian foods? Lefse, flatbread, rommegrot, krumkake,  fattigman, sandbakkels, rosettes, to name a few. On the meat side, there’s lutefisk and herring. I think about this sometimes. Even now, when the food on our dinner plates lacks color, we tease ourselves about having a “Norwegian meal.”

As I was reading Ingrid Semmingsen’s, Norway to America: A History of the Migration, I noted her words about 19th century peasant life in Norway. After 1814, the population began to grow in Norway again, partly because the resistance to disease was increasing. This in turn was due to the food supply which had become better and more reliable.

Semmingsen lists two food staples, especially for the poor, that made a dramatic difference: potatoes and herring. This is the period when potatoes began to be raised in Norway, and production increased sixfold from 1809 to 1835. Every cottage had a small potato patch for home use. For folks living along the coast (not the Borreson/Estenson ancestors) herring returned after being gone for many years. This fish was rich in protein, a nutrient much absent from potatoes. (She doesn’t mention other fish such as cod.) Semmingsen adds that this is a reason many Norwegians had a better diet that the Irish who depended more exclusively on the potato. So the Norwegian diet may have been monotonous, but it was healthier.

That emphasis on the potato may explain a few more white foods on the Norwegian table too, such as lefse. And white there has been! Think how may Norwegian foods we’ve enjoyed made with little more than flour, eggs, sugar, butter, milk/cream – and potatoes. Of course, to add fish to the plate doesn’t do much to change the color either! On the other hand, I’m not complaining – I love them all!

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