Ice cream, ice cream, ice cream … and more!

Sharing Syttende Mai through festive food

Lori Ann Reinhall
Editor-in-chief
The Norwegian American

Any Norwegian American who has celebrated Norwegian Constitution Day in Norway knows that there can be significant differences on how the celebration takes place and that it can vary from place to place.

In Norway, it is common for the parade of brass bands and bunads through the town to take place in the morning, followed by official speeches. After that, many Norwegians go home to celebrate with their families, and sometimes, there are after-parties with friends throughout the evening. In larger cities, a grand finale with fireworks may bring the day to a close.

Here in North America, we do it in our own way from town to town. It is not uncommon to start the parade in the afternoon, and  big luncheons and banquets sponsored by Sons of Norway lodges and other Norwegian organizations are the order of the day. In many places, the festivities may take place on an adjoining weekend since May 17 is not a national holiday and everyone wants to join in on the fun.

But one thing for sure is that food is an important part of Constitution Day celebrations on both sides of the Atlantic. For a start, it’s a day when children—and adults—are allowed to indulge in as much ice cream as they want, and special meals are planned, often with foods that are typically Norwegian. Who doesn’t want to indulge in good pølse with lompe, a sumptuous piece of bløtkake, or perhaps even a slice of Verdens beste kake, the best cake in the world?

The first 17th of May feast

We know that the tradition of eating good food on the 17th of May goes back to the very beginning, back to the days of the Norwegian Constituent Assembly, Grunnlovsforsamling, in Eidsvoll, in 1814.

If you are fortunate to visit the Eidsvoll  manor house where the Norwegian Constitution was signed on May 17, 1814, you can tour the kitchen and learn about what was served to the 112 Eidsvoll men who made up the assembly, which lasted for six weeks that spring.

Very complete records of what was served were compiled by the manager of the manor house, which was owned by Carsten Anker, the wealthy owner of the ironworks, Eidsvoll Verk. For the bicentennial celebration in 2014, extensive research was done on the menus, and at that time, many of the old recipes were revived.

In 1814, poverty and hunger prevailed in many places in Norway—but not at Eidsvoll for the duration of the assembly. For a start, 528 gallons of red wine were delivered for the men to drink, which amounted to about two pints of wine per man per day.

With the manor owner in England on a business trip at the time, Prince Christian Frederik of Denmark and Norway stood in as host. The prince brought along his own French chef  to make sure that his table was worthy of a regent. Delicacies of the time flavored with cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, coriander, and garlic were served in abundance. Lemons, extremely rare and expensive, were used to flavor many of the dishes.

But food customs in 1814 were very different to what we are used to today, in part because of what was available at the time. Some might even describe the menu has having been a little monotonous.

Typical dishes were meat soup, veal, steak, bread pudding, pickled salmon, and eggs and herring served on rye bread with cheese, beef chops, pickled root vegetables, pork, liver, or beef pate, and lemon tart.

During the six weeks of the assembly, only 154 pounds of potatoes were consumed. Rye, on the other hand, was brought up to Eidsvoll in large quantities to make porridge, flatbread, and bread. The porridge was served with sour milk, followed by a dram.

Spirits were very plentiful at Eidsvoll, and it stands recorded that over 264 gallons of them were consumed during the assembly. Anker had a rich wine cellar, and everyone enjoyed a beer, dram, and punch—preferably Madeira—each day. For his fancier dinners, Prince Frederik offered his guests a selection of fine French Bordeaux wines and cognac.

The logistics of operating the kitchen for the assembly were complicated. The manor servants served the 112 Eidsvoll men lunch and a three-course dinner every day for six weeks without electricity or running water. The beef on the menu had to arrive “on foot,” and a large slaughtering operation had to be set up. At the end of the six weeks,  the remaining cattle and other foodstuffs were auctioned off, including the hides that remained from the oxen and calves.

Food and democracy

Each day, 12 new representatives got to eat a better dinner on a rotating basis with  Prince Christian Frederik, regardless of their position and rank. Many of them got to taste luxurious dishes they could have only dreamed of before. It was not common at the time for a prince to eat with his people, and historians interpret the gesture as an early sign of democracy and equality.

So, wherever you may be for May 17 this year, we hope you will savor your favorite Norwegian foods, remembering this incredible heritage of both food and democracy that goes back to the early days at Eidsvoll.

We are also very excited to share some new recipes for your special day from our wonderfully creative Taste of Norway Editor, Kristi Bissell, and we wish you a very happy – and delicious – Norwegian Constitution Day!

Also see: Strawberry Vanilla Ice Cream Cake (from image) and Barnetog, an enduring 17. mai tradition in the May 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.