In Norway where the winter nights are long, the Christmas holiday livens up the dark with weeks of feasts and festivities from the beginning of Advent to the Epiphany in January...
In Norway where the winter nights are long, the Christmas holiday livens up the dark with weeks of feasts and festivities from the beginning of Advent to the Epiphany in January.
While immigrants to this country often lost many of the customs, the ones most likely to remain and be passed down through generations are culinary. So, like many first-generation Americans, Romola Seabury and Inga Hammer — who grew up next door to each other in a Norwegian settlement near Stanwood — each December begin a flurry of baking that would have made their ancestors proud.
For five years, they’ve been giving lessons in Scandinavian cooking at Gretchen’s Cooking School in Mount Vernon. There at a spacious kitchen surrounded by copper and LeCreuset, the two women demonstrate the how-tos of lefse, flatbread and krumkake to students who pay $15 each. To the uninitiated, lefse looks like a tortilla; it is made with flour and potatoes, rolled flat and cooked on a griddle. It can be eaten with butter as an accompaniment to meals or, if it’s a sweet variety, known as Hardanger lefse, it’s made without the potatoes and eaten with sugar, butter and cinnamon.
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Flatbread is crisp, almost crackerlike, and krumkake is a thin cardamom-flavored cookie baked on a special iron and then rolled into a cone shape. Although flatbread and lefse are eaten year round, krumkake tends to be a holiday treat.
With her elf-size frame and Santa caps, Seabury, 81, plays comic to Hammer, 82, who in lavender is pure grace and gentility — at least until it comes to dueling over lefse recipes. That’s when each insists hers is superior.
(“Mine is the best. Now class, try it — don’t you agree?”)
“They are a little competitive,” Wendy Ragusa, who coordinates classes for Gretchen’s, said. “Both feel her recipe is better, but to taste them, I wouldn’t know. Both are unique.”
Seabury and Hammer do “have their fans who will not miss a class, and they bring their daughters or nieces back to get ready to take on the world with Scandinavian baking.”
Cooking from childhood
Both women learned to cook on woodstoves when they were children, in homes where everyone spoke Norwegian and ate traditional food.
Hammer’s family had a chicken farm, and Seabury’s father was a logger who worked in the woods during the week and came home on weekends. Fresh fruit and farm-raised vegetables were standard, as was rich milk from family cows and fresh eggs. The family enjoyed homemade bread, poultry, pork roasts and ribs, and thick, rich cream accompanied many dishes.
As the families grew and children left home, old country traditions were forgotten. Gone, for example, is the polite “takk for maten” (thanks for the food) that diners once gave to the cook after each meal, and holiday traditions such as setting out the sheaf of oats for the birds at Christmas and leaving porridge for the Julenissen, a Christmas elf.
“It’s our heritage”
Some second- and third-generation Americans are now incorporating these and other old customs in their family life. Now that they are older, even Hammer and Seabury have to research some traditions to fill in the blanks — even for some recipes — so they can roll out the holidays — in dough.
“I do it because it’s our heritage,” Seabury said. “Besides, I love the food.”
And so do the recipients of her Christmas gifts: homemade krumkake, lefse and frozen packages of meatballs. One year she made 400 meatballs.
Hammer and her daughter, Brenda Hammer, 49, a Seattle accountant, get together every Christmas Eve to make komla, small potato dumplings with slivers of ham, which are dropped into boiling chicken broth.
There is no recipe. “I just make it by feel, with enough cooked potatoes and enough flour to hold its shape,” she said.
Seabury’s culinary reputation grew after she was asked to take over the kitchen at her church. Then she was being asked to cater weddings and other events, and finally someone suggested a class at Gretchen’s. She invited Hammer to join her.
The other day, as Hammer demonstrated lefse making, Seabury tried to turn it with the special wooden stick used for such purposes. The lefse collapsed on the grill.
“I’m not used to doing yours,” she told Hammer, then admitted that when she was learning to make lefse she threw out many batches.
“Oh, Romola, did you make that one fall apart, too?” Hammer asked.
“I’m kind of a nut,” Seabury said, poking her fingers into the krumkake and waggling the cookies like finger puppets.
When people come to Gretchen’s for classes, they pour a cup of coffee, sample the krumkake and lefse and listen to Seabury and Hammer chatter.
“It’s like a party around here,” Seabury said.
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or email@example.com