Stock up for COVID-19—or a Midtsommer feast!

The Nordic pantry in the time of the pandemic


Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Julie Pheasant-Albright has been a fixture of the Ballard Norwegian-American community in Seattle for many years—and is a very good cook. You may often find her serving coffee and pastries at the Sons of Norway Leif Erikson Lodge Kaffestuaand, and she is a frequent shopper at Ballard’s Scandinavian Specialties store. Pheasant-Albright is recognized as a local Seattle historian, the author of Early Ballard in the Arcadia Books’ “Images of America” series.


As I was sitting eating my dinner one night, I realized it bore a very strong relationship to every julebord I’ve ever had.

I had lefse, rullepølse, flatbread, several kinds of cheese, herring, and smoked salmon. I even had homemade julekake and gjetost. 

What I didn’t have was a ham or meatballs. Living alone, an entire ham is pretty much a good working definition of eternity.

Then I realized with blinding clarity, how our ancestors in Norway ate, and why. We live in a culture and a time when we can get raspberries and cherry tomatoes in December. They lived in a time and a place when they had to store food for long periods of time with no access to fresh food, especially during the winter. The Nordic pantry is ideal for extending the time between shopping trips. Not only will you dine, you will feast!

Historically, most people had access to a cow and chickens. In the winter, chickens don’t lay much, and cows don’t give much milk. But one family can’t actually drink all the milk a cow can produce in the summer. Ergo, turning milk cream into cheese and butter to be used during the winter makes perfect sense. 

Fish in all of its forms can be pickled, smoked, or cured to last longer. My family was not big on lutefisk at Christmas, but we ate smoked salmon, smoked black cod, and pickled herring all winter long. We always had a freezer full of fish, mostly halibut and salmon, and my mom made fiskegrateng at least a few times a month. Due to a friendly crabber, we had crab legs almost every Friday all winter. From the humble sardine, to luxurious gravlax and caviar, seafood is a staple of the Nordic pantry.

Beef was a luxury item in Norway; there weren’t the giant grazing herds and stockyards you find in America. Lamb, pork, and chicken were more common. Once you butchered an animal, you had to find a way to preserve meat during the winter. Ergo, sausages in their infinite variety, and salted lamb for lapskaus.

During the course of this lockdown, I decided to trawl through the freezer, which resembled lawn furniture after a light snowfall. I found several lovely Black Angus steaks a little past their prime and a languishing pork tenderloin. With parsley from the garden, an onion and some cream, salt, pepper and a little allspice, I turned them into meatballs. With the addition of those Nordic staples, potatoes and lingonberries, I had a delicious dinner.

Root vegetables are a staple in the Nordic diet in the winter. Potatoes, carrots, turnips, and rutabagas are all delicious cooked and mashed. Lingonberries and fruit soup add Vitamin C. Cabbage lasts forever, and besides the obvious cooked cabbage or salad, can be pickled, or my favorite, turned into cabbage rolls. Potatoes are endlessly versatile and store really well.

As all my friends are going completely insane, scouring the supermarket shelves for yeast and flour and turning their kitchens into commercial bakeries, I’ve been relying on the Norwegian staples: flatbread and lefse. I admit that I use the “Sunday side” of Wasa flatbread to pack more butter on the surface area. These make up my personal “butter vehicle food group”—ways to eat butter without just slicing off a hunk. Full disclosure: I don’t make lefse. But I can buy it at the local store, and my best friend a few blocks up the street has an enormous stock of Hardanger lefse. I speak from experience when I say both of these can last at least six months with no ill effect. 

I have made julekake. The candied fruits in julekake extend the shelf life far beyond other breads. Plus, I need to eat all of that gjetost or butter on something. Pro-tip: commercial julekake with frosting on top: it is an abomination and precludes toasting. Avoid. 

I did break down and buy a small ham. Another Norwegian staple is split pea soup, and the peas last forever in a pantry. I froze most of the ham, but I really think that split pea soup is enhanced by a ham bone. I always add quite a few carrots, and a potato for thickening. 

I plan to make some cookies for the duration. It amuses me that all Norwegian cookies take half the sugar and twice the butter as most American cookies. This is handy, because sugar has been in short supply at the grocery store. After all, Norway has never been known for its waving fields of sugarcane or sugar beets.

My krumkake recipe uses whipped cream, as well as butter. America has a glut of dairy products at the moment anyway. Sadly, krumkaker don’t store well, but I have never had a problem eating them before they got stale. 

I’ve got plenty of time to whip up a batch of fattigman, which store well in my experience, as do sandbakkels.

With a little planning, using our traditional Norwegian foods makes frequent trips to the grocery store redundant. As we move into spring and summer, just having a few tomatoes or some lettuce in pots makes a big difference in our diets. 

I was once on a plane and overheard a garrulous woman endlessly chatter on about a party she attended in Norway. “They had the most marvelous food!” she cried. “Coffee and sardines!” Let that be our battle cry! Coffee … and sardines! Eat like your grandparents! 

This article originally appeared in the June 12, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Julie Pheasant-Albright

Julie Pheasant-Albright is a baker standing on the shoulders of baking giants—her mother and godmother. She is the author of the book Early Ballard, a history of Seattle’s historic Norwegian neighborhood. She is also a member of several Norwegian organizations in Seattle.