New Norwegian “Torske Club” gathers monthly to celebrate heritage
You don’t have to be a Norwegian to join Torske Klubben. You just have to wish you were.
By Lissa Greiner – The Decorah Newspaper, Iowa
That’s the prerequisite for members of a newly formed men’s club in Iowa, which takes time to celebrate Norwegian food, drink and folklore once a month at Rubaiyat in Decorah. Recently, the group was nice enough to invite me to join them at their monthly meeting.
Harry Davidson, Decorah, said he started Decorah’s “Torske Club” last fall, after having belonged to a similar group in the Twin Cities. “One of the groups I was part of in Minnesota had 300 people,” said Davidson, explaining torske is unseasoned, boiled cod served with melted butter. The Minneapolis group has been meeting since the 1930s. Davidson, who is “Norwegian by marriage,” said this month’s turnout of 18 was “the best group ever.” “It’s been slow getting going, but it seems to be gathering some momentum,” said Davidson.
Torske Klubben members arrive in plenty of time to sample some ice-cold Aquavit, a Scandinavian liquor made from potatoes and caraway seed, among other things. The Decorah group sticks to Linjie Aquavit, the Norwegian variety, which literally travels around the world before ever making it to the marketplace. The liquor has been carried in an oak cask onboard ships crossing the equator (linje) twice before being sold. While some critics claim the liquor’s trip is a gimmick, some argue the moving seas and frequent temperature changes extract more flavor from the casks. Each bottle’s label documents the particulars of the drink’s voyage. “You can see that this bottle left Norway Feb. 11, 2006, and came back Feb. 18, on the M/V Taiko,” said club member Dan Huebner. “It’s always served extremely cold and it can’t ever freeze because of the alcohol content,” said Bill Stoen. “There’s a story about a shipment of Aquavit that almost didn’t make it back in time for Christmas, but ultimately did. That ship was thereafter referred to as the ship that saved Christmas,” joked Davidson.
Before the torske is served, the members raise their glasses and yell, “Skål!” in a toast to the fish. The room erupts as they sing rousing renditions of Ja, Vi Elsker Dette Landet (which translates to “Yes, we love this country), and God Bless America. (When I comment on how well they sing, it is pointed out to me that several members belong to either the Luren Singers or The Decorah Chorale.) It’s time to say the Norwegian table prayer, but someone notices the group’s song/prayer sheets have already been handed in. “I don’t need it,” says Wilbur Stoen, before leading the prayer in Norwegian. When I ask how many of them speak Norwegian, Stoen replies, “Very few.” As the dinner is about to be served, the men begin pounding their fists, saying “Bring on the torske! “Bring on the torske!”
As the meal arrives on shiny green plates, Stoen points out this break with Norwegian tradition. “When we were growing up, you never served food on a decorated plate with any color in it. Only a white plate,” said Stoen, as the diners each slather the torsk and red potatoes with loads of melted butter. The diners also enjoy baskets of flatbread, served, of course, with more butter. Bill Stoen of Decorah took the time to explain the Norwegian infatuation with their favorite dairy product. “They had those grassy hills, and raising cattle and milking them was a way to convert it into food. Dairy spoiled pretty quickly, so they had to eat it fast,” said Stoen.
After each meal, the club features a guest speaker. This month’s guest was Jim Hippen, who talked about John Tolkeim, Norwegian immigrant, Iowan and inventor of the original metered gas pump. Next month’s speaker will discuss the history of Aquavit. Bill Ibanez of Decorah, who attends the meetings with Lyle Sacquitne, said, “Each month’s lectures are phenomenal. I’ve learned a lot about the history of our region.”
All the members I spoke with seemed to really enjoy the meetings. “Harry’s done a super job – he’s the one who got it started and keeps it going,” said Huebner. “I also have to thank Rubaiyat owners Andy and Kim Bonnet, who sponsor the event even though their restaurant is closed at this time,” added Davidson. Andy Bonnet said he and Kim weren’t quite sure what to think when Harry and his wife, Barbara, invited them over to try some torsk. “It was boiled cod without any seasoning. He said we were just having torsk and taters, and we loved it,” said Bonnet. “It’s a lot of fun and I’d encourage people to join the club,” added Bonnet. Wilbur Stoen added, “It’s just a good place for Norwegian Americans to get together. We’ve got Norwegians and people who wish they were.” “I guess I’m an enthusiast and I qualify through marriage,” added Ibanez.