The day of the feast dawned clear and hot. Hot enough that we jettisoned the idea of wearing our heavy woolen national costumes in favor of raiding the closets for folkloric looking pieces of flair that could be added to sundresses and shorts. As my husband hauled multiple AC units up the three flights of stairs to our apartment, I led the rest of the out of town visitors on a (truncated) foraging walk to collect the herbs and flowers I would need for supper. When we came back, dripping with sweat, we refreshed ourselves with pitchers of iced coffee, and I directed my crew of happy helpers in the last of the prep work – stuffing buns, filling mushroom turnovers, griddling waffles.
Midafternoon my friend Meka arrived from Maine. She, angelically, had come down for the sole purpose of helping me plate the 17 courses. If I still had any jittery nerves, they dissipated under the influence of her calm, focused presence. She’s the perfect balance of artistic and detail oriented for plating, and I knew we would have things under control. As my friend Kaitlin laid out the menus and put the finishing touches on the table arrangement, our in-town friends began to appear. It was 3 o’clock, time to begin.
In a whir of determined action Meka and I whisked, sauteed, drizzled, crumbled, blanched, rolled, and plated each course, carefully following the step-by-step plan I had laid out. As we finished plating, a couple friends came to help carry each course out to the table while others swiftly washed the dishes from the course before. True to their word, they were so speedy I never had to reach for a paper plate!
As we served each course, I came out and gave an explanation of the thinking behind it. Here (drumroll please!) is the meal:
Lørdags godt (Saturday treat): Like many Norwegian children, we only got to eat candy on Saturdays, and it was called Saturday treat. Of course, we also got candy on holidays, including Syttende Mai, when candy tossing figured heavily into our parade. Playing on the idea of things I think of as candy-like now, I started with an amuse bouche of a friend’s amazing smoked salmon “candy.”
Ut i hagen (Out in the garden): Traditionally on Independence Day we eat a sweet-sour cucumber salad at dinner as well as a thick, smooth rhubarb soup with dessert. I decided to reverse some of the textures and flavors of these two dishes and put them together in one dish, a cucumber gelee accompanied by a rhubarb pickle. Both rhubarb and cucumber evoke memories of the garden, so I added edible flowers, and because sheep are all over in Norway getting into yards and gardens, I added a swipe of sheep’s milk yogurt to tie everything together.
Midnatt sol (Midnight sun): Every year we have gravlaks at Syttende Mai, accompanied by mustards and scrambled eggs with chives. But, the best eggs and salmon I ever had in my life were when we were up in Northern Norway visiting my father’s family. So, I will always associate it with the summer midnight sun there. Because of this, I created a plating to look like the midnight sun using a potato blini (a play off of potato bread), gravlaks, poached scrambled eggs, chive oil, and foraged plants.
Reke aften (Shrimp evening): In the summers in Norway we always have at least one “shrimp evening.” It’s a package deal with the same thing every time, lots of shrimp, bread, mayo, dill, and white wine. I decided to turn the concept into an actual little package, marinating the shrimp in white wine and dill and putting them inside the bread in the form of a dumpling. After a shrimp evening there would always be lots of shrimp heads leftover to go crab fishing with, so I designed the plating using homemade mayonnaise and dill oil to make it look like peering down through the ripples into the water as we would see when crab fishing.
Skogens ro (The forest’s stillness): Going mushroom hunting is a national pastime across the Nordic countries. I decided to create a mushroom dish reminiscent of the forest floor where Joel and I once went and collected chanterelles with our good friends Kaitlin and Matti (who were able to come to the party!) by making wild mushroom turnovers accompanied with mushroom cream, mushroom powder, and pickled and fresh spruce tips.
Kaffepause (Coffee break): Time for a coffee break! I took the bolle, a cardamom raisin bun that is Norway’s national coffee snack, and playing off the coffee and doughnut parallel that’s so popular in Boston, where I live now, I made cardamom currant doughnuts (adapted from these). I added the coffee in the form of a coffee custard stuffed inside.
Birk (Birch): Though lefse is traditionally Norwegian, my family didn’t know how to make it from scratch until our neighbors in Minnesota taught us. So, I will always associate fresh lefse with Minnesota. When I think of Minnesota and our neighborhood I also think of birch forests, so I plated the lefse to look like a birch forest floor. Instead of the hot dogs that we would normally put in lefse, I filled mine with local pork pate, a nod to the amazing pate one of our neighbors always brought to the parties. This I accompanied with piped mustard cream and crisped onions.
Fjelltur i vinter (Winter hike): Rømmegrøt, a sour cream porridge, is one of Norway’s national dishes. It is a hearty food for eating while you’re out in the mountains. Traditionally it is served topped with cinnamon and sugar and accompanied by cured meats and a nice cold beer. I decided to combine all those elements by cooking the meat with cinnamon and beer and serving it atop the porridge, which I made from local creme fraiche instead of sour cream. On Syttende Mai, when we are eating rømmegrøt, there is always aquavit (a caraway flavored spirit) to accompany the beer, which inspired me to infuse the porridge with caraway. Finally, I topped the dish off with craggy chunks of horseradish meringue to recall the craggy rocks of a hike in the mountains up to the cottage where you would get the porridge.
Fjelltur i sommer (Summer hike): Another classic hiking food that you may buy at a cottage along the trail is waffles. Waffles are one of Norway’s national snacks, and a must have at Syttende Mai. At other times, I’ve been hiking and we’ve stopped to grill sausages. I put the two of these ideas together, making savory beer waffles and miniature versions of a traditional sausage, the medisterpølse. I accompanied this with a blueberry ketchup, representing all the blueberries we stop and pick on summer hikes, and finished the dish with crisped onions and foraged plants to make it look a bit like the woods along a hiking path.
Får i kål (Sheep in cabbage): One of the most traditional Norwegian dishes I know of, Får i kål translates literally as “sheep in cabbage,” and it’s usually a big pot of lamb and cabbage hunks cooked together. I decided instead to go the completely literal route and wrapped cabbage leaves around little pieces of lamb that had been slowly braised with woodsy spices (fennel and juniper) and locally picked ramps. I topped this with an herb cream sauce, going for the green look of a pasture where you would stumble upon sheep and goats grazing in the mountains.
Gård (Farm): Meatballs and mashed potatoes with gravy is an iconic Scandinavian dish. It is farm food, hearty and satisfying. I pictured the farms near our cabin in Norway, where the cows are grazing in a field along the edge of the vegetable patch, and I created a plating to look a bit like that edge of the potato field, where all the ingredients come from, by using tiny meatballs, potato puree, new peas, gjetost tuile shards, and rye “dirt.”
Jul (Christmas): At Christmas our traditional meal is pork, cabbage, and potatoes. This dish is designed to look a little like a Christmas star and uses the central elements of the Christmas meal by combining them into a crispy lefse cup filled with a pork crackling studded red cabbage confit. The cabbage is usually cooked with caraway in it, but I took that bit out and added it instead in the form of a caraway salt sprinkled about.
Matpakke (Lunch packet): The open-faced sandwich is eaten across Scandinavia, and we always have a spread of breads and toppings at Syttende Mai. So, I created an updated version using rye bread topped with homemade renditions of several traditional sandwich toppings, including locally cured ham, pea puree, fresh cheese, and caramelized whey (caramelizing whey is how gjetost is made).
Hvordan vi overlevde (How we survived): Not that long ago, Norway was extremely poor, and life was basically focused on survival. In this dish, I wanted to use the two fundamental foods people survived on for years, salt cod and rutabaga. I wanted to evoke the harsh feeling of pure survival with the look of this dish, but at the same time, I took the rutabaga and presented it in a form that root vegetables are increasingly seen in now that the country is wealthy and modernized, the chip. I sprinkled the rutabaga chip with powdered salt cod and added just a little bit of nutmeg creme fraiche for dipping.
Is til frokost (Ice cream for breakfast): Syttende Mai is such a special holiday in Norway, you’re allowed to have ice cream for breakfast! I played on this idea by taking the pieces of one very traditional breakfast, a piece of rye bread with gjetost (Norwegian goat cheese) and jam, and turned them into ice cream bars by layering rye shortbread, raspberry preserves, and a gjetost semifreddo. I accompanied this with whipped cream quenelles and hazelnut shortbread crumbs to evoke the angle of the wood against the rocks in my favorite breakfast spot at our cabin in Norway.
Skogsbær (Forest berries): No celebration in Norway is complete without bløtkake, a layered cake with whipped cream and berries. Drawing on the berries in the cake, I wanted to create a scene of berry picking. Although you can use any berries, and strawberries would have been the most seasonal and local, I got caught up in thinking about cloudberries, a unique polar berry that makes for the best bløtkake. My mind flooded with memories of hiking across tundra areas stopping here and there to pluck the orange berries from patches on the lichen and brush covered ground. As in so many places in Norway, there were sheep wandering around, their bells clanging. So, I made my version of the dish using sheep’s milk yogurt cake with cloudberry jam, cloudberry curd, whipped sheep’s milk yogurt and honey, spruce shortbread crumbs, candied spruce, and wood sorrel. Flavors of the tundra.
Kaffe og cognac (Coffee and cognac): Many a grand meal in Norway ends with coffee and cognac, perhaps accompanied by a little piece of chocolate or a cookie, so I wanted mine to end that way as well, in its own way. I transformed them all into a dessert, a cognac mousse with coffee sauce and a little Freja milk chocolate disc speckled with hazelnut cookie on top. I associate a good glass of cognac and cup of coffee with my great Auntie Mari, who was like a grandmother to me. She and I also used to embroider fanciful woodland designs on pillows together, so I made the dessert into a little mushroom like she might have stitched.
After 6 hours of cooking, plating, serving, and eating – with a break for a parade and a riotous Nordic talent show (complete with storytelling, Karelian dancing, potato carving, and a few dirty jokes thrown in for good measure) – the feast was coming to an end, and I finally sat down to crack open a beer as my friends polished off the last course. Though the feast had taken up the whole afternoon and evening, the time had flown by for us all, we were enjoying ourselves so much. I had barely eaten a bite of the feast myself, having been too busy and amped up on adrenaline to remember I even had a stomach. But, I could tell it had been good from the complete silence that fell over the group each time they started in on a new course. No one had failed to polish of their whole huge supper.
As I joined in the conversation, I was barraged with an effusion of compliments about just how unbelievably magical and amazingly delicious the meal had been. My aim had been to give everyone the gift of a spectacular evening, a bit of sumptuousness, playfulness, and tons of wonderful food. They’ve all assured me that’s exactly how it felt. But, what I hadn’t fully prepared for was the intensity of my own experience in serving everyone. Rarely have I ever felt so truly seen and heard. Every moment of cooking, serving, explaining the meal, and laughing with my friends and family was filled with raw, unfiltered truth in expression.
I suppose it’s a bit trite for a project like this to turn into a voyage of self-discovery, however I hadn’t expected it at all. I suppose - with apologies to Kierkegaard - you plan a feast forward but understand what drove you to do so backward. It wasn’t until I was serving this series of dishes that I fully realized to what an extent the process of creating them had been an exploration of those most fundamental questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I now?
They are questions I am still not certain I could answer in words, but their answers do lie on 17 plates, in the imagery, the ingredients, the flavors, scents, and sensations. And having the opportunity to share that with others was the greatest gift I could imagine.
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.