Today: The inspiration for this week's feast -- and the history behind the celebration.
In a way this whole crazy project began with my mother. And not just because she gave birth to me -- and, I mean, not to sound self-satisfied or anything but, without me this feast just wouldn't have happened. But, rather, it started with her because of the food traditions she instilled in me. They are strong traditions. Traditions that I continue to preserve myself because they have become part of who I am.
My mother came to the U.S. from Norway when she was in her twenties. That right there actually tells you a good deal about her. Though I believe the expression was originally applied to the Brits, it is also quite true that "there is nothing so Norwegian as a Norwegian outside of Norway." My father happens to be of strong Norwegian heritage as well (his own father was fresh off the boat). Then add to this the fact that I grew up in Northern Minnesota, where being Scandinavian is about as uncommon as having eyes. When you sum it all together, you'll find the result is that my upbringing was fiercely Scandinavian. (Tiger Mom, you've got nothing on Viking Mom.)
As a result of all the Scandinavian-ness coursing through the Minnesota water and our veins, one of the most important feast days for my family, and indeed for our whole neighborhood, each year was and still is Syttende Mai, or the 17th of May, Norway's Constitution Day. (That would be the day when we finally threw off the yoke of the Swedes. Notoriously oppressive, those Swedes.)
Syttende Mai is a big deal in Norway. Everyone dresses in their folk costumes, called bunads, and there is a parade in every town, followed by feasts and cookouts. We always tried to make just as big a deal of Syttende Mai up in Northern Minnesota. We did our best to conjure up the color and excitement of an entire country celebrating. Every year we have donned our bunads, held a parade, drank a little too much aquavit, and laid out a massive smorgasbord of all of our favorite foods. It's a spectacular display of woolen embroidery, flag waving, Hardanger fiddling, singing, and abundant cream and potatoes.
Now that I live in Boston, I do my best to carry on the tradition, to recreate the patriotic fervor in my own home. (Unless we can make it to Minnesota or Norway, in which case we just join in the fun!) I get dressed up, force my friends to march around the neighborhood with me while my husband plays the Norwegian national anthem on guitar, and I serve a feast with as many traditional foods as I can churn out in my little kitchen.
This year, however, I decided to take things in a new direction. A New Nordic direction, to be exact. I certainly didn't feel like anything was lacking from my usual Syttende Mai celebrations. Never! Our tradition is perfect, as tradition always is to a stalwart. But an idea crept into my mind that I couldn't shake because, you see, people keep sending me articles about Noma. For reasons that should not be even remotely hard to figure out, when any of my friends or family sees something related to both Scandinavia and food, they apparently feel compelled to send it to me. As such, over the past several years, with the rise of Noma and the New Nordic Cuisine to preeminence on the world restaurant stage, I've been receiving a lot of reading material.
I feel a sense of pride that Nordic food is receiving all this attention. Yet, when I look at the dishes from these restaurants, milk skins and foraged weeds, seaweeds and things smoked over hay, they don't seem to have much in common at all with the Nordic dishes I was brought up with, the dishes I count as some of my favorite foods both because of nostalgia as well as because, I'll fess up, I really do love pickled fish and meatballs with gravy.
I began to wonder what Nordic food really means. How might these different manifestations of these northern food traditions fit together? This wondering became obsessing, and the obsessing soon morphed into a plan. I became determined to create a feast. A massive feast. A feast that would visually and philosophically try to represent where I saw the overlap between traditional Scandinavian foods as preserved by immigrants, the New Nordic Cuisine (particularly as embodied by Noma), and my own individual experience of cooking and eating Nordic food.
I decided that I would try to take the foods I think of as particularly traditional, all the main dishes that are part of our Constitution Day smorgasbord, and to reconceptualize them in as New Nordic a fashion as I could manage. I knew, without even a second thought, that I wanted to divide the meal into seventeen courses. Yes, seventeen. The most I had ever cooked before for a party was four courses, and I have a tiny apartment kitchen with an even more Lilliputian fridge. But, the 17th of May is our big day, and because I was going to throw the party belatedly, I felt compelled to highlight the number another way. I stubbornly refused to entertain the idea of any other number of courses, though I did joke that had I been holding the feast on the actual 17th, I probably would have only done about three.
Thus was born the "feast of nationalistic proportions."
In keeping with the general concept of new meets old, before I had even planned the menu I had decided that I was going to invite my family and best childhood friends in addition to some of our closest newer friends from where we live now. I designed and sent out the invitations a couple months before the party date, giving very little explanation for why I was doing what I was doing. I just invited my friends to join me for "an epic 17 course feast featuring dishes that illustrate the confluence of traditional Scandinavian delights with the New Nordic Cuisine." And my darling friends, knowing me as they do I suppose, didn't even raise an incredulous eyebrow (at least not that I saw), they just started rearranging their schedules and searching for cheap flights.
Then the yeses started coming in, and I realized, "Okay, wow, I really have to do this. (Deep breath.) Let the serious planning begin!"
And here, because I am an uber dork, is a trailer I made for the feast using some video that my videographer/husband took during the process.
Le Creuset has generously offered to reward our Big Feasters for all their hard work, and as our sixth Big Feast, Emily will win, in the color of her choice (flame, cherry, cassis, fennel, Caribbean, dune, Dijon, or Marseille): a Heritage Cast Iron 1 Quart Fish Gratin Dish, a 3.5 Quart Braiser, and an Anodized Saute Pan with Lid. Pitch us your Big Feast at firstname.lastname@example.org for a chance to win up to $500 in Le Creuset booty.