The Great Norwegian Porridge Feud
How a war between “science” and tradition left its mark on a staple of Norwegian food
After helping me with the solution to the “Great Lutefisk Mystery,” Kari-Anne Pedersen of the Norsk Folkemuseum suggested that I might be interested in the “Norwegian Porridge Feud” of the 19th century, and she sent me a copy of “Popular Diet in Norway and Natural Science during the 19th Century: The Porridge Feud 1864-66” by Astri Riddervold and Andreas Ropeid, which was published in 1984 in the journal Ethnologica Scandinavia. It was one of these two authors, Astri Riddervold, who had researched and explained the practical nutritional benefits of making and eating lutefisk in another scholarly work.
You may be thinking, “Why would I care to read about Norway’s Porridge Feud?” Because this feud about porridge was a big deal while it lasted, and it had a major impact on Norwegian history and society that reverberated well into the 20th century, and most likely influenced the food habits and lives of Norwegian immigrants to the United States. The feud was actually about the very cultural soul of Norway.
The opening salvo of the feud was fired by none other than Peter Christen Asbjørnsen, the famous collector of Norwegian folktales. In 1864, writing under the pseudonym “Clemens Bonifacus” (The Gentle Helper), he published Fornuftig Madstel (Sensible Cookery). With the publication of that book, the feud began and it was fought with great intensity in Norwegian newspapers, public meetings, periodicals, and cookbooks throughout the rest of the century. The effects of the feud were felt clear up to the start of World War II.
What was seen as particularly incendiary was Asbjørnsen’s attack on the traditional Norwegian practice of stirring an extra handful or so of raw, whole-grain flour into the porridge after it had been thoroughly cooked and was ready to eat. He claimed this traditional technique was wasteful, contributing no nutrition to the dish. He argued that this last-minute addition of flour could not be digested by the body and thus Norwegians all over the country were wasting enormous amounts of flour in the process of making this old-fashioned kind of porridge. Keep in mind that in the 19th century, porridge (grøt) was a key, if not central, element in the Norwegian diet.
Asbjørnsen had much more to say in his book that ran counter to traditional cooking and domestic practices in Norway, all of it gleaned from an arrogant coterie of “natural scientists” writing in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Believing themselves to be enlightened by the insights of contemporary “science,” these professors believed that the European diet needed to be radically transformed in accordance with “scientific principles.” Science told them women were not only inefficient and wasteful cooks but also inferior to men in their cognitive abilities. To teach them philosophy and music was futile; what they needed was thorough and focused training in domestic management, again, of course, informed by scientific principles. In addition, this group of influential “experts” argued that “bad diets” were the cause of poverty, not the result; they believed that “good diets” would eliminate the poor of Europe. Their ideas were not only adopted by Asbjørnsen, but also heartily endorsed by many of Norway’s prominent doctors and other learned men.
The counter punch to Asbjørnsen’s attack on Norway’s diet and women was delivered by Eilert Sundt, the founder of Norwegian sociology and ethnology, in the journal Folkevennen.
In a series of articles published between 1865 and 1866, in which he represented the Association for the Enlightenment of the People, Sundt criticized Asbjørnsen’s assault on the intelligence of Norwegian women and Norway’s “thousand year’s old (food) tradition.” The disparagement of women by Asbjørnsen was particularly jarring because Norwegian women of the mid-19th century customarily had important roles as managers on the farms of Norway. They were often in charge of the livestock, kitchen, storage cellar, and barn, as well as the general economic affairs of the typical farm family.
What Asbjørnsen and his adherents argued was nothing short of quackery and prejudicial nonsense, hardly science-based wisdom. Among other things, they believed that refined white flour was more nutritious than traditional whole-grain flour, that sugar and sugary syrups were excellent sources of nutrition, and that coffee was a good substitute for meat. They also touted the virtues of margarine over butter and discouraged eating dairy products, both fermented and non-fermented. A central tenet of Asbjørnsen and his followers was that Norwegian women needed special school-based training in “scientific” cooking and other aspects of domestic science; this schooling was essential if Norway hoped to become both a healthy and prosperous nation.
In 1866 a Norwegian doctor proved through scientific experiment that Asbjørnsen was wrong about the nutritional value of the extra raw flour added to cooked porridge. Nonetheless, Asbjørnsen’s book remained popular and sold well among the upper middle classes and middle classes. Other popular books on cooking and home economics, translated from German to Norwegian, also echoed Asbjørnsen’s message. In the end, Asbjørnsen’s teachings permeated all social classes in Norway, if not through the written word then orally.
Schools for teaching women “domestic science” in Norway were established as early as 1865 and they became common by the end of the century. The irony is that over time these schools were taken over by Norway’s women, who also ended up setting the curriculum. Both the Norwegian Women’s Rights Association and the Norwegian Women’s Health Organization were instrumental in steering these schools toward teaching young women practical and informed approaches to cooking and other aspects of domestic science that reflected both the wisdom of tradition as well as the proven findings of modern science.
By the turn of the century, the sway of Asbjørnsen and the German “experts” had faded in the face of persistent resistance from educated Norwegian women and their male academic allies. Still, the effects of the Porridge Feud on Norwegian food culture did not fully disappear until the start of World War II, when refined flour, sugar, syrup, and coffee and the like were no longer available in quantity to the Norwegian people. It took a lengthy and devastating five-year war to bring a final end to Norway’s long-standing Porridge Feud. During the war Norwegians had to turn increasingly to their traditional diet for survival, and by the end of the war the last vestiges of Asbjørnsen’s teachings had become, for the most part, history.
By the way, Finnish food researchers have recently proposed that the traditional Norwegian practice of adding a handful of raw flour to the cooked porridge may release beneficial enzymes that give the grøt a sweeter taste without benefit of sugar. Those Norwegian women; they are so smart.
Terje “Ted” Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He grew up in Colorado and earned a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Colorado. He retired in 2012 but remains active in his field and has served as the President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage since 2012. He has conducted archeological fieldwork in the American South, the Great Plains, Norway, Canada, Guam, and Alaska. He has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory and history.
This article originally appeared in the March 24, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.