For the love of Nordic foodways
A conversation with Nordic food geek Patrice Johnson
CHRISTY OLSEN FIELD
Taste of Norway Editor
The Norwegian American
She is an author of two books, a culinary instructor, and a self-described Nordic food geek. (It’s even her social media handle!) Johnson explores the ways in which modern immigrant experiences shape a culture’s food traditions and food systems, and she shares her love of Nordic food through writing and classes.
I was lucky enough to talk with Patrice by phone to learn more about her work and geek out with a fellow Nordic food writer. Our wide-ranging conversation went for a full hour, and her vibrant enthusiasm for sharing Nordic food with others is infectious. Here are highlights from our conversation.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Christy Olsen Field: How did you get interested in Nordic food?
Patrice Johnson: I am from the Twin Cities. My mom didn’t have any food traditions of her own, so she adopted by dad’s Swedish tradition. Our Christmas dinner was full of Swedish dishes, and I thought that was the be all, end all.
Fast forward a few years, Marcus Samuelsson’s restaurant Aquavit was coming to the Twin Cities. It was Swedish, high-end, posh. I thought, “This is Minnesota, where we eat meatballs. Why would anyone pay money to eat Swedish food?
But then I had the chance to go to Aquavit with a dear friend of mine a few months after it opened, so we decided to go all out and get the tasting menu. We didn’t speak for the first five courses. It was an epiphany for us.
That meal changed everything: The way I eat, the way I feel about culture, the way I feel about Swedishness, my direction in life. It made me think about everything differently. As the New Nordic movement took off about a dozen years ago, it made me think about sustainability and food in new ways.
I decided to go down a new path to get my master’s degree. I focused on Minnesota, Swedishness, and Swedish foodways. It allowed me to delve into the whole topic. I now write, teach, and develop recipes part time.
COF: With all you have done on Swedish-American foodways, have you been to Scandinavia to travel?
PJ: I was given a scholarship from the American Swedish Institute to travel to Sweden and eat. My friend, with whom I went to Aquavit for that life-changing meal, came with me. We traveled and ate our way through the country.
One of my goals was to eat Swedish pizza: It’s the story that tells about culture and immigration. Italian workers came to work in the factories in Sweden after World War II. As pizza became popular in the 1960s, more and more pizza shops opened. Banana curry on pizza is my favorite! But there are like 100 different types. It’s so wonderful.
I have plans to go back, so I can visit Iceland, Norway, and Finland, too.
COF: You’re a meatball historian. Can you tell me a bit about your research? Which Nordic country makes the best meatball?
PJ: I love meatballs. Every single culture has meatballs, flatbread, and dumplings. When I was working on my master’s thesis, I researched 50 Swedish meatball recipes! I can tell you a lot about Swedish meatballs, but I love how much they tell us about the culture.
My favorite meatball is actually the Danish frikadelle. They are generally made of ground pork, egg, salt, and pepper. Instead of breadcrumbs, you use flour. Instead of shaping them into a round ball, you shape them into a football. And you baste them in butter in a pan to get this gorgeous caramelized exterior. I hadn’t heard of them until I started hanging out with Danes. They are often served with caramelized potatoes and red cabbage.
COF: Can you tell me about your two books?
PJ: I have written two books, both published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press. The first is Jul: Swedish American Christmas Traditions. This came out of my master’s thesis, and it explores Swedish-American food traditions on the julbord.
My second book is Land of 10,000 Plates: Stories and Recipes from Minnesota. This book came out of my love of Minnesota and food rituals that connect us to our region. Both of these books are about the stories behind the recipes.
COF: One thing you are known for is your cooking classes. What do you teach?
PJ: I really like to take traditional Nordic recipes and give them an American spin. In February, I taught a couple of meatball classes with two lingonberry sides. I am teaching a fish-pie class soon. I’ve also taught classes about pickled herring, Flyvande Jakob, and my favorite to teach is Swedish pizza. I teach online classes with American Swedish Institute and Vesterheim, and occasionally in person.
COF: Any trend in Nordic cooking that you’re excited about right now?
PJ: I have completely enjoyed the New Nordic wave of food. These cultures are finally getting their due. In the Twin Cities, we have a restaurant that is doing Japanese-Nordic fusion. There’s actually a lot of crossover between these two cuisines: Use of colors, flavor, and balance. It’s so exciting.
Another thing that’s fun for me is the availability of Nordic programs through technology. There are several Swedish shows right now, and it’s really exciting. My husband and I are watching “The Restaurant,” which follows a family restaurant in Stockholm right after World War II.
To learn more about Patrice Johnson and find out when her next cooking class is, follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @nordicfoodgeek.
Photos courtesy of Patrice Johnson
This article originally appeared in the April 1, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.