On food and language

How the exotic becomes the familiar

Photo courtesy of Skogfjorden, Concordia’s Norwegian Language Village Campers at Skogfjorden eat up the Norwegian culture—and the food.

Photo courtesy of Skogfjorden, Concordia’s Norwegian Language Village
Campers at Skogfjorden eat up the Norwegian culture—and the food.

Valerie Borey
Minneapolis, Minn.

When I was a little girl, growing up in Minneapolis, you could buy fishballs in virtually any major supermarket in town. They were usually on our grocery list and the smell of fishballs sizzling in butter in the frying pan, or better yet, simmering in white curry sauce next to a pot of boiling potatoes, reminds me of my childhood. Sometimes I’d sneak one right out of the can, stabbing it with a fork and biting into the firm white flesh while the juice dribbled down through my fingers. It was the only kind of fish I’d eat as a kid.

Over the years, fishballs have gotten harder to find. At first, they were moved to obscure parts of the bottom shelf, situated somewhere between the chow mein noodles and the dusty jars of pickled fruits from other countries. Later, although grocery stores expanded in size, offering more options and especially more “ethnic food” options, fishballs disappeared from the shelves altogether. There’s only one place I know of in town where I can buy them anymore: Ingebretsen’s Scandinavian Gifts. Fishball dinners are now a treat, rather than the norm. They are a rarity.

Photo courtesy of Skogfjorden, Concordia’s Norwegian Language Village Food and language can  evoke both the exotic and the familiar.

Photo courtesy of Skogfjorden, Concordia’s Norwegian Language Village
Food and language can evoke both the exotic and the familiar.

There are similarities between the way we treat food and the way we treat language. I will occasionally buy a package of Pad Thai, for example, and carefully read the instructions on the back of the package while I stir, making sure I am adding ingredients in the right quantities, at the right time. It’s not intuitive for me in the same way that I can go to the stove with some flour and butter and whip up a gravy without reference to a set of directions. Someone can hand me a piece of lefse and I don’t have to think about what to do with it. It’s automatic.

When I speak Norwegian, I don’t really think about tense or adjective agreement. It just happens. My Thai, on the other hand, is laborious. I have some memorized phrases from back when I lived there for a short period in my teens, but otherwise, I need a phrase book. I need a set of instructions. And my Pad Thai never really tastes quite right. I’m still working on it. With enough exposure, the exotic becomes the familiar, the explicit becomes tacit.

As a Norwegian counselor at Concordia Language Villages (Skogfjorden, Barnehage, and Norge Rundt), one of the pleasures of my work is the opportunity to watch learners passing from the terrain of the exotic into the familiar. We immerse our learners in the language and culture: we eat authentic foods and do authentic activities. We step away from the books and put language on its legs, watch it become something close to the skin. We take it off the dusty bottom shelf and stack it in a grand display at the front of the store until, eventually, it becomes part of the background. It becomes the smell of childhood, the feeling of approaching the stove and knowing intuitively how dinner is going to be made.

Lately, I’ve begun thinking of brun geitost as a protected species as well. Unlike fishballs, you can still buy a chunk of geitost in most of the major grocery stores around town here. Sometimes it’s nestled into a cozy neighborhood with jarlsberg and gouda, sometimes it’s with the gorgonzola, the blue, or one of those new hybrid cheeses popping up with cilantro and cranberry embedded beneath the skin, but it’s usually there, with two or three of its kind huddled together in a narrow row. I make a point of putting it on my grocery list, not because I’m a crazed geitost addict, but because I feel the pressure of showing stores that the demand for it still exists. I serve it to my non-Norwegian friends in hopes that they develop a taste for it. I do not want this one going away.

This is true when it comes to the availability of Norwegian language in the United States too. I teach adult Norwegian classes at Mindekirken’s Language and Culture Program, for example, and consider myself extraordinarily lucky because my students had to look for this opportunity. Teachers of other languages often complain that their learners lack commitment, grit, and motivation. This is not a problem for me. My students already demonstrated their tenacity by making the commitment to search for us in the first place. They’re there.

But what of other contexts? I’ve heard, for example, that a local public high school used to offer Norwegian as a language option, way back when. This is not the case anymore, but occasionally I will run into someone who learned it there. “Snakker du norsk?” they’ll say, and we’ll delight in the sudden discovery of commonality between us. It’s not unlike the unexpected thrill of finding a can of fishballs on the shelf.

At places in town where Norwegian speakers gather, I’ve noticed, there’s sometimes an odd tendency towards code-switching in the other direction. Even when everyone in the room can speak Norwegian, the conversation suddenly and inexplicably switches to English, as if by silent agreement. There’s probably a number of underlying reasons for this, but to me it seems like the equivalent of taking fishballs off the shelf. When the availability of something dwindles, our relationship to it changes. What was once familiar becomes something exotic; the tacit becomes explicit.

A colleague recently told me that one of the best places in town to hear Norwegian being spoken is the Karmel Square Somali Mall, due to the Somali diaspora that routed many immigrants through Norway and eventually into Minnesota. I’m quite excited about this and plan to go check it out because I want to keep this poetic, ever-changing, expressive language on the shelf locally. I like the taste of a good Norwegian pun on my tongue, the texture of differing dialects, the knowing that it is there for my own child to grow up with, like a recipe that has been passed down for generations. And who knows, maybe I’ll pick up some of the Somali language while I’m in the neighborhood.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 28, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.