I don’t think anyone would argue with me were I to say that the Twin Ports is known for its Scandinavian background. One glance at the phone book shows a plethora of stereotypical Scandinavian surnames, such as Johnson, Anderson and Peterson.
Many of us grew up attending potlucks, typically held in the neighborhood church basement. There, we were exposed to not only a wide variety of hotdishes and Jell-O salads, we also enjoyed traditional Scandinavian foods. Lefse, limpa bread, Swedish pancakes, and of course, the dish that everyone loves to hate: lutefisk.
These dishes were often prepared from the same recipe that someone’s grandparents used, lovingly written on an index card and stored in a tin recipe box. In my house, the most prominently passed-down recipe is one for hardtack, an unleavened cracker-type bread. We usually make it around Christmas, but no matter when I enjoy that first bite of hardtack, I am transported to a nostalgic place. Food will do that to a person. It is part of who we are and can be an integral part of our identities.
So why aren’t there any Scandinavian restaurants in the Twin Ports? This is a question that has been on my mind the last few years. I am three-quarters Scandinavian and have attended my fair share of church potlucks. I know these people like to cook.
Our region has a thriving food scene, filled with mouth-watering ethnic foods from across the globe. Are you hungry? The Twin Ports has several locations of the more common ethnic fares, such as Italian, Mexican, Greek and Indian, as well as several varieties of Asian food. With the recent rise of food trucks and pop-ups to our region, we’re now able to enjoy ethnic eats that were once hard to find, such as Caribbean, Cajun and southern soul food.
But nary a Scandinavian restaurant can be seen. In all fairness, the German heritage is also quite prevalent in our area and also lacking a thriving food scene. But there are German restaurants available, primarily in the Twin Cities, and German dishes are commonly served at rural dinner clubs. I’m not sure I can say the same for most Scandinavian fare.
Why is this? I turned to our local expert on all things pertaining to Scandinavian food, Beatrice Ojakangas. Since she has more than 30 cookbooks to her name, many focusing on Scandinavian foods, I figured she’d be the person to ask. “The best Scandinavian cooking is done at home,” Ojakangas said.
A lack of Scandinavian restaurants is a common occurrence. Ojakangas told me of a time she and her husband were in Helsinki looking for a place to eat. They asked one of the locals where they could find good Finnish food, and the person told them the only place they could get that was at home. Even in Scandinavia, it turns out, it is difficult to find authentic Scandinavian fare in a restaurant. For some reason, people of Scandinavian heritage have always been less inclined to start a restaurant. “They’d rather make a sandwich from yesterday’s meal,” Ojakangas said.
Not that a few pioneers haven’t tried. Ojakangas herself wanted to open a Scandinavian restaurant when she moved back to Duluth in the 1960s. For various reasons, it didn’t happen. Instead she opened Somebody’s House, the cozy little hamburger place that once resided up near Mount Royal, just off Woodland Avenue. The restaurant specialized in hamburgers with a wide variety of toppings, giving each burger a whimsical name, such as the Duluth Blizzardburger, or the HHH burger, named after Minnesota’s own Hubert H. Humphrey. Prior to the opening of Somebody’s House, hamburgers served in the Twin Ports were all served with the same toppings: ketchup, mustard and some sort of pickle or relish. In a nod to her Scandinavian heritage, Ojakangas included on the menu a few burgers that featured Scandinavian toppings, such as lingonberries or pickled beets.
Did any Scandinavian restaurants find a place in Duluth? Very few. People might remember The Sweden House, but that was Scandinavian in name only, primarily serving standard American buffet foods. There have been a few bakeries that served authentic Scandinavian breads. Gustafson’s Bakery, which resided in downtown Duluth during the 1950s and ’60s, was the most memorable to Ojakangas. “They had very good Danish pastries,” she said.
Tak for Matten — which means “Thanks for the food” in Norwegian — operated in downtown Duluth from 2008 until 2013. It was likely the only authentic Scandinavian restaurant ever seen in the Twin Ports, at least in recent memory. It specialized in lefse, open-faced sandwiches, soups and salads.
If one wants authentic Scandinavian fare today, they’d have to drive to the Twin Cities and head to the FIKA Cafe, located in the American Swedish Institute. There, one can enjoy Scandinavian favorites such as smoked salmon on rye bread, cardamom bread pudding, and, yes, Swedish meatballs served with lingonberries. More locally, Ojakangas suggests the Scenic Cafe on Hwy 61. Though they are not Scandinavian-focused, they sometimes create a tasty authentic dish.
Otherwise? “Churches still have the best authentic Scandinavian foods,” she said. The past year aside, churches are still providing locals with access to traditional foods that hit that nostalgia factor. Some churches have yearly sales, where they make and sell traditional food items such as lutefisk, lefse, fish cakes or Swedish meatballs. Other churches are still in the habit of providing a good Wednesday night Lenten meal together in the basement, providing fresh soup, salads and hotdishes, fresh from the home kitchen.
I still would like to see another Scandinavian restaurant make a go of it in Duluth. Until then, as the world begins to once again open up, I’m going to keep an eye out for those events at the heart of the Scandinavian food scene: home cooks and church potlucks.
Kathleen Murphy is a freelance writer who lives and works in Duluth. Write to her at email@example.com.