Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - October 28, 2016
Rømmegrøt and figgyhobbin
“Blasphemer!” the man sitting next to husband Art said to Jo.
He was reacting to her statement that she didn’t care for the lutefisk - the specialty of the meal that was being served in heaping bowlfuls.
In mid-October, Art, friend Jo and I attended the traditional Norwegian meal at the Utica Lutheran Church near Ferryville, Wisconsin. The man who joked with Jo was among others sharing our round table set for eight people. He is a full-blooded Norwegian who runs a local feed mill. He and his wife also talked about how they traveled to Norway and then went to Sweden to visit the Swedish exchange student they had hosted some years back.
Art and I were visiting Jo in her cozy farm home in Southwestern Wisconsin. Last year when Art was visiting, he had missed the annual lutefisk dinner by one week. So when Jo mentioned this was the weekend this year, we decided to attend. We’ve enjoyed the December Swedish suppers at Olsburg, Kansas since 2005, and we thought it would be fun to compare the food.
Lutefisk is just a dried whitefish - often cod. The flesh is rejuvenated by adding water, typically by steaming. It is the drying process and the appearance of the reconstituted fish that has made it somewhat famous - or infamous. My Grandpa Mostrom said he remembered the fish drying on the piers in Sweden and suggested that dogs occasionally came by and did their business on them. Another drying technique is to pack the fish in lye and salt. The name literally means lye fish. The reconstituted flesh lacks the firmness of the original. The most common descriptor is "gelatinous" to describe its somewhat JELL-O-like nature.
Besides the lutefisk, the Norwegian specialties at the dinner included lefse - a tortilla-like pastry made principally from potatoes and flour. Also served were meatballs and gravy, mashed rutabagas, cranberries, Norwegian pastries, and rømmegrøt - a sweet porridge that reminded me of vanilla pudding mixed with warm Cream of Wheat, but smoother.
Although Sweden also has lutfisk (spelled without the “e”), the way it’s prepared in Olsburg is a bit different. There it was served in a cream sauce in small bowls. But at the church dinner, it was delivered to our table plain in heaping bowls and many people covered it with melted butter.
Although I’m half-Swedish, I can’t say I like it much either way. I told Art I could tolerate it a bit more by adding a liberal amount of butter and mixing it with cranberries. But Art was truly relishing it. He even followed the example of some of our table mates who put a dab of lutefisk, then a dollop of mashed rutabagas on a piece of lefse, rolled it up and ate it like a burrito.
The other menu items also differed somewhat from the Swedish food I’ve become accustomed to. Swedish meatballs are served plain while the Norwegians have a thick brown gravy on theirs. The Swedes eat mashed sweet potato pudding and the Norwegians eat mashed rutabagas. And while Swedes have ostakaka - a custard - with lingonberries for dessert, the Norwegians eat rømmegrøt. This latter dish was my favorite part of the meal, so I searched for someone who knew what its ingredients are.
After looking around the serving hall, I spotted one of the servers wearing a black T-shirt with “got rømmegrøt?” on the front. She explained it is a porridge made mostly of sour or heavy cream, milk and flour. It was served warm with a bit of melted butter on top along with a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon. It was a nice finish to our meal.
On the way back, we stopped at one of the many apple orchards in the area to buy apple-cider donuts. Then it was off to browse in a large bookstore housed in an old tobacco warehouse. We finished the day back at Jo's place, munching donuts, crackers and cheese in front of a nice fire.
But our food adventures weren’t over.
The next day, we drove to Mineral Point, about 50 miles from Jo’s house. In the late 1820s, lead was found in the area. It triggered the arrival of miners from Cornwall in the United Kingdom, bringing their customs and foods. Paraphrasing a sign on the main street:
... Cornish miners and their descendants helped develop the area’s lead, copper and zinc mines.
A miner was featured on the state flag as mining was an important business when Wisconsin came into the Union. Cornish stone masons left behind examples of their craft in Mineral Point and the area. Cornish men and women brought a passion for music, and with other ethnic groups, excelled in community bands and church choirs. Cornish pasty, saffron cake, and figgyhobbin are culinary Cornish transplants. These historical and cultural connections continue today.
Although many of the miners left during the California Gold Rush, and the town declined, it was later revitalized and is now a hub for tourists attracted to the antique and specialty stores, art, architecture, music and food.
We decided to sample some Cornish food, so we went to the Red Rooster Café, where we ate pasties (rhymes with “nasties”) and figgyhobbin. Jo and I each ate a half-pasty and Art had a whole one. They were delicious flaky pies filled with meat, potatoes and rutabagas. But even better yet was the figgyhobbin that Art and I shared. It was a pastry stuffed with raisins and topped with whipped cream and caramel sauce.
According to recipetips.com, in the west of England, “figgy” means raisins or currants rather than figs. An oven is called “ob’n” or “obbin.”
Whatever the origin of the word, the figgyhobbin was delicious. It and the rømmegrøt tickled my taste buds - and the names amused me as well. It was a great weekend!
Top-left: One of our table companions holding a bowl of lutefisk; bottom-left: Wikipedia image of lutefisk; middle-left: Art with the server wearing the "got rømmegrøt?" T-shirt; top-right: Jo, left, and Gloria outside the Red Rooster Café; bottom-middle-right: our figgyhobbin; bottom-right: a just-sampled pasty.