Norway's Boiled Foods: An Unexpected Pleasure


Alfa-Betty Olsen

Not so very long ago, 8th Avenue in Brooklyn was known as Lapskaus Boulevard in honor of the Norwegians who were the dominant ethnic group there. Lapskaus is a country stew— potatoes, meat (especially salted meat), carrots, and maybe turnips or other vegetables. It's a good way to use leftovers: sometimes it is referred to as "anything goes." There's plenty of room for improvisation, yet it is always lapskaus. It was supposedly a 19th-century staple aboard ships, and the joke was that it would stick to your plate and not fly in your face no matter how rough the sea got. That's because of the potatoes. Cooked for a long time, they get heavy, you know.

My father, Alf Olsen, lived to be 93, and from the time he was in his late eighties up until he went into a nursing home at the age of 90 I would visit him every other day in his apartment, which was a block away from Lapskaus Boulevard, and I would bring good eats. At that time the neighborhood was beginning to change. The Norwegian population was dwindling. My generation had moved out. There was a vacuum. The local subway, the N train, was a direct line to Manhattan's Chinatown, and because that's the way people migrate within New York City—they follow the subway lines—my Dad's neighborhood was becoming a new Chinatown.

A Chinese gentleman bought The Atlantic Restaurant, a Norwegian Restaurant on Eighth Avenue. He kept the Norwegian workers and the Norwegian menu and added Chinese workers and a Chinese menu. And he brought something new to the formerly Norwegian restaurant: takeout. It was wonderful. I could bring Alf a big Norwegian dinner already made—meatballs, boiled potatoes, and creamed cabbage was his favorite. One night I brought a wonton soup. The good kind. The kind they make in Manhattan's Chinatown with lovely pork dumplings in it. Alf made it his own. He added boiled carrots and boiled potatoes, which absorbed the salt from the soup. The boiled carrots added sweetness. My dad had created lapskaus from a Chinese soup. Yes. You see, "anything goes" works.

I went looking for The Atlantic Restaurant last week. It is no longer there. The neighborhood is very intensely Chinese, and there are no Norwegians left to order or take out anything from a Norwegian menu. The area is now known as Little Hong Kong. There are lots of restaurants, but I couldn't even make out which storefront or restaurant was once The Atlantic. I did end up with a very nice Chinese lunch and I started to think about Alf's wonton soup additions and about boiled food. Yes, in Norwegian cooking there are some entrees that are boiled food. I mentioned this to a friend, who was stunned, horrified, and nearly speechless. "Boiled Food, peuch. "

I know. It does sound terrible, but there are a lot of exceptions that should not be overlooked. Of course the first thing that comes to mind is chicken soup, which is after all boiled chicken. But let me tell you about a few other things. Boiled codfish for example.

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Alfa-Betty Olsen is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and television writer. More

Alfa-Betty Olsen is an award-winning author, screenwriter, and television writer. After graduating from The State University of Iowa in Iowa City, Olsen returned to New York and worked with Mel Brooks on The Producers and was the casting director of that film. She then worked with Marshall Efron on the landmark PBS series The Great American Dream Machine followed by an Emmy-winning career writing for television with Efron. They have also written many film scripts. Other Olsen-Efron collaborations have appeared in The New Yorker, New York Magazine, Esquire, National Lampoon and Spy. Their seven published books include several children's books, most recently Gabby The Shrew (Random House), illustrated by celebrated New Yorker cartoonist, Roz Chast.

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