Patrice Johnson became a proud Swedish-American once she got “wonderfully uncomfortable” with realizing that she didn’t know a thing about Swedish food. Now she’s put what she learned into “Jul: Swedish American Holiday Traditions” (Minnesota Historical Society Press, $24.95).
The book launches on Nov. 1 with an event at 6:30 p.m. at the American Swedish Institute, 2600 Park Av. S., Mpls. Tickets are $5. To register, visit asimn.org.
Quirky and vivacious, Johnson chatted about ethnic food and how macaroni and cheese became an iconic part of her family’s Swedish smorgasbord.
Q: Your stories are delightful, making this far more than a cookbook, but also a history text and a memoir. How did this book come about?
A: It probably started with getting my master’s degree in Swedish food history in Minnesota, but I’d put it aside because I have so many other projects I’m working on. One of them is radishes, my favorite vegetable — you can do so much with them! — and I proposed a radish cookbook to the Historical Society press. They said, “Um, well, we love your storytelling. How about a book about Swedish Christmas?” and I said, “Yes, that’s what I’m really good at!”
Q: In the lutfisk chapter, you counsel that, except for pasta, rice or dumplings, “there is almost always a better cooking method than boiling.” How did you become a cook, and when did it become your life’s work?
A: I didn’t really start cooking until college, so we’re talking about dinner parties for other 19-year-olds which probably weren’t very good. I really didn’t think about my heritage and what that means to me. Then I had an epiphany at Aquavit [Marcus Samuelsson’s Scandinavian restaurant in the IDS Center from 1999 to 2003]. It was just a spiritual experience. I know that sounds so hokey, but I started learning how to be wonderfully uncomfortable and make good changes in my life.
Q: What do you remember about the meal?
A: Everything! It began with an amuse-bouche of a herring tartare in a taro root taco shell. My friend and I stopped talking and didn’t talk again until the fifth course. The meal shook up my ideas of Swedish food — threw me off balance.
Q: You write thoughtfully about the term “ethnic,” often used to define something outside a dominant culture, and yet is integral to how American culture has developed. In Minnesota, ethnic is rarely used to describe Scandinavian. Does calling something ethnic drive us apart or strengthen us?
A: Oh, I hope it strengthens us. I hate the term because it’s become so loaded, but until we come up with a better one, that’s it. Now even the term immigrant is so loaded, it makes me weep. I want to celebrate diversity, and food is a great way to do it. I like to draw upon my new neighbors and the foods they brought and the great ingredients. It helps define who we are as a country. Hopefully, we can take back our immigrant-nation status someday.
Q: You have the audacity to modernize some recipes, such as adding a version of ärtsoppa, or pea soup, made with coconut milk and curry. Is this heresy or how food always has evolved?
A: It’s how food always has evolved, and because I don’t come from the tradition of church basement cooking — nobody ever taught me — it’s better for me to come at it from a modern angle, because that’s who I am.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: Oh, I was born in the Cities, then moved to Gaylord, where I still write a food column for the paper, then to Worthington for a few years, then back to the Cities. I went to Osseo High School and the University of Minnesota. I lived in Japan for a few years, but have been here ever since.
Q: Your family’s century-old smorgasbord tradition of macaroni and cheese is unexpected. How did that start?
A: That’s the beauty of family folklore, right? Nobody really knows for sure. One story is that my great-grandmother Johnson knew that her new daughter-in-law, who was Catholic, couldn’t eat meat on Friday but probably wouldn’t want lutfisk and wanted her to feel welcome. Another is that my Great-Uncle Paul was so handsome and so charming and he loved macaroni and cheese so that’s why it was on the table. Another is that macaroni and cheese is a tradition of Southern celebrations and she wanted to show how she [her great-grandmother] embraced being an American.
Q: Is it OK to make such heritage recipes just once a year? Does that make them more special, or discount them?
A: When we became Americans, we started eating more American foods, and so special dishes started popping up only on holidays. But gosh, we have Swedish meatballs year-round at our house. I think it depends on whether you’re willing to put in the time to make these dishes. Gravlax is my husband’s favorite. He eats it for a snack like nobody’s business.
Q: What food makes you feel most Swedish, either to prepare or to eat?
A: Probably the meatballs. But I was shocked at the variations among recipes. Before I ever traveled to Scandinavia, I assumed that everything we ate on Christmas Eve is what they ate every day in Sweden. I had no reference point beyond our Time-Life cookbook. But like fashion and art and television, foods change, and that makes it exciting. We’ve created our own cuisine, really, so the food that’s described in this book is pretty indigenous to this region.