“Scandinavian Buffet” (Northfield, MN)

Lutefisk
Here, finally, is a report on my blog on the food of one of the most authentically “ethnic” immigrant groups in Minnesota: the Norwegians. Yes, it includes lutefisk which, after nine years in the state and many bad jokes, I ate for the first time last night and, to my surprise, rather liked. The meal also included Riskrem, Rømmegrøt and Rullepølse—no, these are not Norwegian death metal bands who play at the dinner, but things to eat—and a fair bit of pickled and marinated fish and a lot of things that involved a lot of cream. More on all that in a bit. First a little on where we ate this meal. 

“Scandinavian Buffet” is not the name of a restaurant in Northfield (a college town in southern Minnesota whose generally uninspiring food scene I’ve remarked before). It is the prosaic but very accurate title of an annual dinner put on by St. Olaf College in conjunction with their annual Christmas Festival. This Christmas Festival is a bit of a big deal in the region. St. Olaf, one of the two liberal arts colleges in town, has a well-regarded music program and their Christmas concert is a major local event. What they also have is much better food than the other college in town (Carleton); this despite sharing the same catering company: Bon Appetit. Over at Carleton the claim is mounted that the food is the same but no one who has eaten at both colleges would ever believe it. Suffice it to say that if this Scandinavian Buffet were being offered at Carleton we would not have eaten it; but the fact that it was offered at St. Olaf actually indicated that it would be of a high quality.

Christmas trees and decorations in the lobby of Buntrock Commons.

Christmas trees and decorations in the lobby of Buntrock Commons.

To be fair, St. Olaf takes its Scandinavian, specifically its Norwegian roots seriously. Named for the 11th century Norwegian king (and later, saint) the college was founded by Norwegian pastors and farmers in the late 19th century—themselves recent immigrants (and it should be said that Norwegian immigrants were not uniformly welcome in the region at the time). Southeast Minnesota was one of the early centers of Norwegian life in Minnesota (the first waves of Norwegian and other Scandinavian immigration started out in the eastern US in the early 19th century but later waves moved into the Upper Midwest); and many small towns here are still marked visibly by this history, even if only 16.5% of the state’s population claimed Norwegian ancestry in 2009. Norwegian names abound and many homes sport Norwegian flags outside them (something that unnerved me when we first moved to our town—at first glance I thought they were Confederate flags!); one of the bars in our town hosts regular gatherings of people playing Norwegian music.

(You will not be surprised to hear that nobody else in the area gets as exercised about these signs of immigrant cultural identity as they sometimes do about more recent arrivals.)

Anyway, St. Olaf is far more Scandinavian than Carleton. It’s also far more Christian. It is a Norwegian Lutheran college in more than just name (the campus is dry, for instance). This sort of thing is not unusual here: an hour to the west is another Scandinavian Lutheran college, Gustavus Adolphus (which unlike St. Olaf, is Swedish Lutheran) where students are required to take one class in Biblical and theological studies. Carleton is an altogether more secular college, with traditions grounded more in whimsy than religious history. As to whether this is why the food is worse there, I don’t know—I am constantly being told to not confuse correlation and causation.

A view of part of the dining hall.

A view of part of the dining hall.

On to the food! The Scandinavian Buffet is being put on this week in the hours leading up to the Christmas Festival concert. The main meal is in the Black and Gold Ballroom in the Buntrock Commons building and can be eaten there from 4-7 pm today and tomorrow and again for lunch from noon-2.30 on Sunday. We ate dinner last night, which was the opening night. Lines will be very long. We arrived at 5.20 and were seated at 6.05 (I’m told arriving right at the start is a good idea). Seating is at tables for eight and so if you are not in a group of eight you will have strangers seated with you. There were seven of us, and halfway through the meal an older gentleman dining alone was seated with us. This actually was a very good thing: he was a very convivial type and a font of knowledge on local history—and being of Norwegian extraction himself, his views on the qualities and variations of some of the dishes were interesting to hear (he pronounced the food, on the whole, a superior example of local Norwegian cuisine, and praised the lutefisk in particular).

What was on offer? So many exotic things devoid of the slightest hint of spice! On that note, I should say that our table raised the melanin count of the room dramatically; the missus, our brats and I were the only non-white diners in the time we were there; our table as a whole, until the late addition, also dramatically lowered the average age in the room and would have even if we didn’t have three small children with us. So, as I was saying, many things devoid of spice were on offer, but they were all pretty good. Here is the menu:

Scandinavian Buffet Menu
Cucumber Salad, Pickled Beets
Lefse with Butter and Cinnamon Sugar, Julekage
Gjetost, Jarlsberg and Tilsit Cheeses
Pickled Herring, Marinated Sardines, and Norwegian Gravlaks
Summer Sausage and Rullepølse
Maria-kjeks, Wasa Crisp, and Norwegian Brown Bread
Lutefisk with Drawn Butter and Cream Sauce
Apricot Stuffed Porkloin
Medisterkaker with Brown Sauce and Lingonberries
Chef-Carved Ham
Boiled Potatoes
Steamed Peas and Carrots
Rømmegrøt and Fruit Soup

Dessert Selection
Riskrem, Hazelnut Torte, Kong Haakon Kake,
and a selection of seven cookies

I ate most of this, but as I piled most of it high on small plates I only have a few photographs. As I said, I really liked the lutefisk. I don’t know what I was expecting but I had a vague sense of foreboding about it: it turned out to be entirely odourless and rather neutral in flavour: the pleasure was of texture, which was on the firm jelly–cartilage continuum. In the interests of full disclosure, not everyone in our party experienced this as pleasure (the missus, in particular, did not care for it: she did a literal spit take with her first bite, but she did finish her portion). The various marinated, pickled and cured fish were all excellent as well, as were the pickled cucumbers and beets. The one disappointment was the meatballs (the Medisterkaker) which were a bit too dense for my liking (this may be authentically Norwegian-Minnesotan, of course). And the desserts were very good too: in particular the rhubarb cake and the chocolate torte (which, I think, incorporated almond rather than the listed hazelnut last night); I was sorry to miss out on the King Haakon cake—I blame the late addition to our table who was telling us a story about a lutefisk company and shop elsewhere in the state (a shop that small children would apparently cry when entering, on account of the smell).

On to the pictures! (Click on any of them to launch a slideshow with detailed captions.)

It’s not a cheap meal per se ($25 for adults, $13 for kids 4-12) but it’s a very good value for what it is. If you’re in town, or within reach, and like us had somehow never heard of or gone to this before, I recommend it highly: there are still three opportunities to eat it this year.

Now, I’m trying to decide whether to also go to this on Saturday…

4 thoughts on ““Scandinavian Buffet” (Northfield, MN)

  1. We came across your blog by chance and love your reviews. We’ve been in Minneapolis for only a few months now and have been struggling to find good places to eat at. We especially miss good MALAYSIAN and southeast Asian cuisine. Thanks for all the honest posts!

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      • Thanks for the good tips. We’ve been to the peninsula and semi enjoyed our meal. We thought the food in general was a little too sweet for our palate…even the curries! We moved from Melbourne, but have Malaysian roots.

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        • Well, it’s been 17 years since I’ve been in Melbourne, but I suspect Malaysian food in Australia is far better than anywhere in the US. But yes, the curries are not Peninsula’s strong suit. The laksa and roti canai are decent, the Hainanese chicken rice is plausible, the rojak is not. At the Indonesian end of things, the rendang can be good. Sweet curries are, alas, the bane of almost all Thai restaurants in MN.

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