I wasn’t ready for the scale of Norsk Høstfest, the autumn festival of all things Scandinavian held annually in Minot, N.D.
The population in town more than doubled for the four-day event when I attended last year. Tour buses from Kansas, Wisconsin and Manitoba lined up for blocks outside the North Dakota State Fair Center. Even though the oil boom brought gleaming new hotels to the area, many attendees camped because any accommodations within 50 miles had been booked months ahead of time. Minot public schools conveniently schedule a day off during the event so schoolchildren can learn about the Nordic heritage of North Dakota, the most Norwegian state in the union.
Everyone seemed to be in a good mood and ridiculously polite as the mass of people filed through the tight doors of the Høstfest buildings, where there is a hall for every Nordic country.
Vikings and trolls on stilts worked their way through the crowded halls, deftly avoiding accidents with the coffee carts pushing $1 cups of fresh Folger’s — remember that Mrs. Olson, who promoted the brand on TV, was a good Swede from Stanton, Iowa. Chainsaw sculptures of trolls by Steiner Karlsen guarded the entranceway, and large posters promoted October as National Co-op Month, in reference to Nordic North Dakotans’ historic push of these socialist enterprises to share profits among their members.
The mood at Høstfest is celebratory of intricate crafts from knitting to rosemaling, but is refreshingly self-deprecating with oft-repeated Ole and Lena jokes and creative sports such as ballet dancing on skis. Music ranges from Norwegian opera singers the brothers Didrik and Emil Solli-Tangen to the fantastically cheesy ABBA cover band Abbacadabra. Norwegian thriller author Vidar Sundstøl gave several dark readings from his Minnesota trilogy, but admitted, “Actually, the idea of Scandinavian crime novels is a bit crazy since there is hardly any crime in Norway.”
To get some fresh air, I ended up outside in the Viking Village — a sort of Sons of Norway lodge meeting meets the Renaissance Festival. Craftsmen strung long bows and blacksmiths forged hot iron into swords and readied them for combat.
“Are you ready to see some violence?” shouted a Viking re-enactor.
“Yeah!” the boys in the audience yelled.
“Are you ready to see people getting their heads cut off?”
“Yeah!” the crowd repeated, more loudly, and the battle began. The swashbuckling doubled as wrestling with swords, the actors dressed in armor and reindeer skins, as the kids in the crowd squeezed through legs for the best view, at least until the rain settled in.
Witnessing Viking berserkers — warriors who fought with frenzied rage — made us all hungry, so I asked a volunteer where the best food was in the giant halls.
“I mean, none of this food is healthy,” warned the man who’d moved to the area several years earlier from Miami. “It’s all laced with lard, but look at these people. They’re 85 years old and going strong, as if they’re fueled by cinnamon and butter. Sure, the food is good, but it’s like dessert for lunch and dinner.” Maybe he was referring to the rich rømmegrøt from First Lutheran Church’s stand, but I knew I could find something less heavy or sweet.
I noticed that the banner headline of the Minot Daily News announced “Uff da for lefse!” with a color photo of two women proudly flipping their award-winning thin Norwegian potato bread. One of the halls even had a Lefse Mezzanine with picnic tables set up to look down on performances of the Nordic Bees playing folk tunes on traditional instruments such as the nyckelharpa.
Nearby, the stand for Bethany Lutheran Church sells 1,100 pounds of lutefisk doused with melted butter during the course of Høstfest. I let others fill up on the lutefisk and Uff Da Burgers. I didn’t dare try the Viking on a Stick, deep-fried breaded meatballs, despite others’ hearty encouragement.
Instead, the Scandi booth had delicious fish soup and salmon burgers. I wished I could have afforded En To Tre’s six-course Scandinavian gourmet dinner with venison and smoked salmon. Instead, I had to settle for a cooking lesson by “Viking Chef” Stig Hansen from Denmark, who demonstrated the proper technique to make gravlax. He doused the salmon filet with a shot of aquavit, “and I’ll still have enough for myself,” he joked. He generously passed out samples of his delicious orange fish, but saved the liquor for later.
After four days of Høstfest, I was exhausted and confessed to the volunteer from Miami that I, like the others, was relying on cinnamon and butter to keep me on my feet.
He looked around, impressed by the energy and enthusiasm at Høstfest. “Everyone down there [in Miami] wants to show their wealth, even if it’s all fake Louis Vuitton bags, whereas the Scandinavians here may be millionaires, but they’re dressed in jeans and a seed cap.”
The Nordic pride is shown not with gold jewelry, but with who has the most handsome hand-knit sweater.
Eric Dregni is author of “In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream,” “Vikings in the Attic” and, most recently, “Let’s Go Fishing.”