Norwegian comfort food in the heart of Brooklyn
Nordic Deli is a delicious bite of Norway
It is fitting that Nordic Deli is the star of the film “Lapskaus Boulevard,” a documentary by Director Marianne Kleven, and not only because the title is a Norwegian dish. Kleven choose to feature Nordic Deli in her film for a very specific reason. While she was researching historic footage of the Norwegian community in Brooklyn, food was always involved. Kleven feels that food binds people, especially during the most intimate moments of their lives: baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Although Nordic does not reside on Eighth Avenue (colloquially known as Lapskaus Boulevard) she felt it best represented the feel of the Boulevard when it was thriving with Norwegian businesses and people. And it does, as one of the last vestiges of Norwegian fare.
Nordic Deli is a family-run business owned by the Bakkes. The family members who run the day-to-day operations of Nordic are the mother and daughter team of Helene and Arlene. I asked Arlene why they had decided to work together. She responded, “It was a family endeavor. We are a close family. We all had the same desire that the Norwegian culture not die.”
Helene Bakke is from Fjotland, Norway, and I asked her what her childhood memories of food were. “I grew up very poor. We had homemade food, like komper and occasionally we had meat. We made or picked everything from the ground that we ate. We baked the bread, the cake, the lefse and we picked all the berries. We were hungry. We all ate everything.
“Pinnestek was very good for Christmas. In the fall we slaughtered the pigs, so we got some pork that was very good.”
Helene’s mother was always cooking, but Helene didn’t help. “My mother wouldn’t let me. I began cooking at the age of 15 when I moved to Kristiansand and got a job cooking in a deli.”
Neither did she cook much in Norway. “I came to the U.S. at 19.” Her husband Alfred interjects: “That’s because I catched her.” Alfred has recently retired from his flooring business, but not from his role as waffle maker at Nordic. In fact, all the siblings who live in the area dive right in when needed, especially during Christmas and the 17th of May rush.
Arlene, like her mother, also began cooking at a young age in the kitchen of the Norwegian Christian Home & Health. “I remember that I was only 15 because I could not use the slicing machine. I think I worked in every department of the home—housekeeping, nurse’s aid and the front desk. My daughter Danielle was born in 1987 and I had to either put her in day care or open a store. Also, the Norwegian stores were closing around us and we didn’t want our traditions to die.”
Nordic Deli expanded and opened the charming Nordic Restaurant in the 1990s, and it ran for about three years. It is sorely missed. Reinvention and thinking outside of the box are two of Nordic’s strengths. They cannot depend solely on a Scandinavian clientele due to changing demographics. Also, many customers previously came from New Jersey, but the rising cost of tolls and fuel—about $100 roundtrip—have been a deterrent and adversely affected their business. So, they have been cultivating the local American consumer by offering three or four daily meals. I asked Arlene how the dinners have been going. She said, “It’s been worth it. We have met some really nice people and they’ve tried other Norwegian stuff.”
From the beginning Nordic wisely diversified their business: providing catering services (the Norwegian consulate is a client as well as individuals for holidays), offering Scandinavian food imports (cheeses, chocolates, berries, vitamins, etc.) and gifts (sweaters, linens, dolls, jewelry, books, trolls, etc.), and shipping across America and beyond. Some foods, however, ship only in the cold months. Once a customer begged Arlene to send a cream cake across the country. “But items do not do well in a 110 degree UPS truck.”
The Bakkes are also fantastic bakers, one of the only venues in New York making Scandinavian cookies and bread on a daily basis and specialty cakes such as kransekaker and wienebrod by order. They also make their own pinnekjot (salted lamb), fenaler (cured lamb legs) and sylteflesk (a type of head cheese). Arlene states, “I think we are the only ones in the U.S. that still make pinnekjott.”
As a customer myself, I love their authentic homemade food and have brought many, many friends to try it. They in turn have become loyal customers. Their food is even a highlight of Brooklyn’s popular Nosh Walks—food based Walking Tours. Customer Betty Gustafsen told me what makes Nordic special to her: “Waffles, potetskaker, ost (cheese), fiskeboller, and cardamom. For these reasons and I live in Staten Island.”
But Nordic is more than a place to get food. It is “an inviting place to go, a friendly place, and everyone is welcome,” explained Gloria Fernikoh, a long-time customer and part-time staff member. This is truly so, as you see tourists coming from Norway to take photos there because they saw Nordic featured in the film, “Lapskaus Boulevard.” It is a highlight every November for a Norwegian tour group that visits from the Vanse area. It is also the best seat in the house to watch Brooklyn’s annual 17th of May Parade, which glides right past the front door (this year on May 18th). For the parade they will once again set up a huge tent and serve food from 9:30 am to about 5:00 pm. They will be offering waffles, pølse with crispy onions, komper, and open face sandwiches, to name a few. You can also taste their food the day before on May 17th at the Scandinavian East Coast Museum’s Viking Fest (www.scandinavian-museum.org).
So, if you are in the New York area and wish to taste authentic, homemade Scandinavian delights, Nordic Deli is the place to go. And if you are not fortunate to live in close proximately, do not despair. Nordic can ship their tasty tidbits to your home.
Nordic Delicacies is located at 6909 Third Avenue in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Their website is: www.nordicdeli.com, or look on Facebook under Nordic Deli.
This article originally appeared in the May 16, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.