Coffee or death

In one Norwegian family, coffee is not optional

Photo: Jackie Moen-Kadlec Ethel and Jiggs on their best behavior.

Photo: Jackie Moen-Kadlec
Ethel and Jiggs on their best behavior.

Jackie Moen-Kadlec
LaCrosse, Wis.

For people of Norwegian descent, bringing a significant other to your family home during the holidays is a time-honored tradition. “Fear Factor” type dinners with gleeful relatives lead to conversations that include statements like, “What exactly is krub?” “It’s a Norwegian delicacy. You should eat it and ask no further questions,” and helpful hints like, “In order to eat lutefisk, you have to take a shot of butter to help it slide down.” If you go to my Norwegian grandparents’ home during the holidays, be prepared. Jiggs and Ethel have a deep devotion to “Norwegian coffee.” You have been warned…

Morning time in the Moen world begins before the first rays of sun break the horizon. Ethel and Jiggs are normally awake at three in the morning. Possibly because they go to bed at seven in the evening, but I can’t be sure. Jiggs and Ethel consume copious amounts of coffee. They consume coffee all day long and into the evening. Jiggs and Ethel appear to be immune to caffeine, which they have also passed on to the next generation. They do not drink “new fangled” iced coffees. They do not use flavored creamers. They do not drink decaf. Coffee, which is the equivalent of their lifeblood, is the heart and soul of Casa Moen.

All of the grandchildren have had the privilege of drinking coffee with Jiggs and Ethel. Dan, however, was the only one of us to have the opportunity to drink coffee with Jiggs’s parents, Christ and Ella. Dan would go to Christ and Ella’s house with Jiggs and Dad to visit. As soon as they entered the house, Ella would get everyone, Dan included, a cup of coffee. Of course, you can’t just hit the hard stuff right away, so Great-Grandma Ella would put a dollop of coffee and fill the rest with milk. Thus began Dan’s love affair with coffee.

If you are fortunate enough to be at Jiggs and Ethel’s home, the first thing they will say to you is “Do you want some coffee?” This is not pronounced in the normal American English vernacular. Coffee in my world is pronounced KAFF-EE. You are expected, even if you do not drink coffee, to at least try it. However, Ethel’s coffee is so strong that it could, and probably has, melted spoons. My husband, Mike, who is not Norwegian but does enjoy coffee, does not understand that when you go to Jiggs and Ethel’s house, you are expected to drink coffee at 8:00 p.m., even if it means you are up all night. It is seen as an extreme slight if you do not consume at least one pot of coffee on your own while you are there. This is how the scenario went the first couple of times I brought Mike out to Jiggs and Ethel’s house:

“Oh! Mouse! You’re here! Want a cup of coffee?” Grandma says with glee.

“Yup.” I say, already moving to the coffee pot after searching the cupboards for the “If you don’t talk to your kids about lutefisk, who will?” coffee cup.

“Get your own. I’m sitting down. Michael! You’re here too! Want some coffee?”

“No.” Mike says.

“What? No coffee?” Grandma says, flustered. No one has denied her the privilege of offering coffee before, in my recollection. She does not know how to proceed, as this is a Norwegian social nicety that must be conducted before she can continue the conversation.

“It’s too late for coffee.” Mike says, trying to be polite. In his non-Norwegian family, there is an unacceptable time to drink coffee and six in the evening is way past the cut-off point. Mike sits down and Ethel continues to stare at him. By this point Jiggs has left the room, as he realizes I’ve brought a stranger into his home. The sound of a lock clicking on his bedroom door breaks the uncomfortable silence in the living room. Ethel has been left to her own defense, sans her weapon of choice (the wooden spoon), with an invader in her midst. An invader who is dating her granddaughter. If she doesn’t address this immediately, Michael Kadlec may corrupt her granddaughter into not drinking coffee, and that is unacceptable.

“It’s never too late for coffee, Michael.” Grandma snorts, her icy blue eyes watching Michael’s every move. Past experience with Ethel has shown that she snorts when she is flustered, in addition to saying “BAH!” “FEDA!” and the Hail Mary of all Norwegian exclamations, “FEDA FUNT!”

“We are Norwegian, Michael. We drink coffee.”

“I am not Norwegian,” Mike says, being completely honest. Grandma’s blue eyes become huge and she sits back in her chair.

“Not Norwegian…” she mumbles, shaking her head. “I’m so sorry.” Then, her gaze turns to me. “Oh, Mouse, you’ve done it again.”

This is a true story of the first few times that I brought my husband out to visit with my grandparents. After 12 years, my grandparents have now become accustomed to my husband’s non-Norwegian status (he’s Norwegian by marriage, however that works) and they continue to allow him into their home.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 19, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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