Cook of the Week: Baking helps woman connect to Norwegian heritage
By Sally Eyre
Daily Herald Correspondent
Despite the fact that three of her four grandparents were Norwegian, it wasn't until she married a fellow of Norwegian descendant and traveled to Norway with her mother in 2007, that Barb Johnson truly embraced her heritage.
"I didn't grow up eating Norwegian food," explains Barb Johnson of Yorkville, "It was the one grandparent who wasn't Norwegian who had the most influence on our food!" In addition, the other grandmother, who spoke Norwegian, wouldn't let her children speak it.
"She wanted them to learn English quickly and become Americans," said Barb, who now, along with her sisters and 93-year-old mother, takes Norwegian language lessons.
"It's not an easy language!" she laughs," but we're plugging away at it!"
The trip to Norway was life changing for Barb.
"I saw where my grandmother grew up. (My grandparents) had nothing when they came here. They left the beauty of Norway and never saw their family again." On the second trip back to Norway, a few years later, she reconnected with distant relatives.
"The connection was so strong! One of my cousins looks just like my son! The way they live is so similar; they have the same core values."
Barb and her husband belong to the Polar Star Lodge, a local chapter of the Sons of Norway organization that celebrates the country's history and culture. The group recently held its annual Hostfest, an occasion for which Barb was busy cooking and baking.
And yet, cooking hasn't always been at the top of Barb's list.
"I didn't like to cook. I had a lousy kitchen and cooked because I had to. I had three kids and a full-time job. Anything I cook now is Norwegian," says Barb. "I make a lot of salads with cabbage, bread-and-butter pickles and apples -- like a coleslaw."
Similar to the Danish, the Norwegians are fond of beautifully presented open-faced sandwiches called smorbrod. And of course there are meatballs.
"I make kjottkaker -- everyone laughs at the name -- but it is a meatball sandwich that is really different."
Barb's real passion, however, is baking.
"I wouldn't consider myself a major cook, but you can't be Norwegian and not bake," says Barb. "I love to make anything with lingonberries. The taste is like a combination of cherry and cranberry, kind of tart." Lingonberries are used in both savory dishes and baked items.
"(Norwegians) like to bake with a lot of almonds -- they use almond flour as the base for a lot of cakes. They use a lot of butter too -- it's not necessarily heart healthy," she laughs, "and they love whipped cream ... the real deal."
Barb is looking forward to beginning her holiday cookie baking. It is a Norwegian custom to serve seven types of cookies.
"It can't be an even number. You could serve nine different cookies or 11. They all look very similar and many have lots of nuts." Perhaps the most popular Norwegian Christmas cookie is the sandkaker, a buttery cookie.
"We'd like to keep the culture of Norway alive for the next generation. I know my kids might laugh at our obsession, but when I take them to Norway, they'll understand," Barb says.
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