My mother already lived in Virginia when I moved here in the early 90’s. Soon after I arrived in Charlottesville she introduced me to the thriving Scandinavian community there. The large group of immigrants and first generation Americans became the focal point of life here in Virginia. Parties, dinners, and simple gatherings with the food, drink and social interactions that I grew up with made the transition here to Virginia very easy.
One Christmas party in particular stands out in my memory. Held at the Flemings huge home in horse country of Albemarle it is an evening that burns through the fog of alcohol consumed that night. The house was amazing. Newly built on a high ridge the view at sunset was beautiful and set the mood for the evening. In the kitchen dishes were being prepped for platters or to be finished in one of the ovens. A log was crackling in a fireplace large enough for a dining room table. Everywhere you looked you saw special treats and delicacies brought over from the homeland or prepared with decades old recipes.
Having just arrived in VA and not yet sure of my cooking skills I decided not to cook that night and instead I had searched out a couple hard to find items to share with my new extended family. Carlsberg beer and a bottle of JUBILÆUMS Akvavit. The beer didn’t impress, many others had found the same or similar sources. The akvavit, however, did. Many had found the Taffel version but not the JUBILÆUMS. Both have the same basic dill, coriander and anise flavour but the JUBILÆUMS is distilled through amber changing the colour and flavour. The bottle went into the freezer with the others and the evening got well under way.
The evening progressed as normal. Lots of food. Lots of drink. A swirl of activity. Once the main dinner was over the serious drinking began. Many had already had too much and I was left looking rather foolish looking for a drinking partner. Finally, I had a taker – Hanne-Bjerg. Mid-60’s, Norwegian, leathered farmers skin and a raspy voice from too many Marlboro reds. She wanted to drink, and drink hard. The older generation wanted to die sober and the younger generation were wimps, she said. So drank, and chain smoked, we did. For a time we had a third person with us – name and face forgotten – but we started and finished that bottle of akvavit. For any who have drank it should no that is no small feat.
After that party I saw Hanne-Bjerg several times a year. She could always be counted on to tell the truth, no matter how brutal. Some found her impolite or difficult. She was simply who she was a made no bones about it – a woman farmer who had no time in the day for anything less then honesty and action. I admired her greatly.
Very quickly my favourite party of the year became her May 17th celebration, Norwegian Independence Day, held on her farm out near Zion Crossroads. The food would always be amazing especially with the ex-pats trying to outdo each other on specific dishes. The discussion around the different roast pork, frikkedeller (meatballs), or a dozen other dishes could be intense as each was judged to be most traditional or a best new take. It was at these parties I was inspired into cooking at nearly a competitive level and chose as my weapon gravlax. The first year was, well, ok. My mother liked it and ultimately nothing was left but it was a tad salty. Subsequent years saw my skill improve till Hanne-Bjerg gave me a compliment – ‘You cook like a Norwegian.’ Considering I am Danish – and we were celebrating independence from Denmark – I took that as a compliment.
Through the 90’s and into the new century we would make the trek out to her house every year. In addition to my food – I had moved on from lax and was now cooking original dishes with Scandinavian inspired flavours and ingredients – I would always bring Hanne-Bjerg a bottle of akvavit and a carton of Prince cigarettes. No year was the same – sometimes less than 50 sometimes more although the number of children was always increasing – but the basics were always the same. Food and cooks to the kitchen others with coolers to the lawn with many kids underfoot. Some of the wine was cheap but the beer was always Scandinavian and all the food was made from scratch. Most years you could even find a kransekake – a cake made not with flour but gound almonds – very difficult but worth the effort. Before we sat down to the full meal we stood around the flag pole flying the Norwegian flag and sang the anthems of the old countries as well as out new one. To follow was a speech, full of history and usually the source of alcohol and nationalistic debate for the rest of the day.
In a world of change this was a constant every year. A time to meet friends, fellowship and an anchor for a chaotic life. But one cannot stop change.
Late in 2006 Hanne-Bjerg husband, Lennart Heimer (also Norwegian), was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A respected professor of Otolaryngology, head and neck surgery, at UVA he spent his last year taping his lectures and trying to preserve his life saving knowledge for future students. A few weeks before that years Mai 17th celebration he passed, the Scandinavian community, in mourning, did not celebrate that year.
In 2008 we speculated. Would we gather in May or was it all over? Word came out that the party was on – but what to expect? I decided to braise a pork shoulder with apples and fennel. For an experiment it came out pretty good, the rest of the day was not. The core of the ex-pats were there but very few of the first generation or their kids arrived. The beer and wine was cheap and domestic, some cooked like I did but many just picked up platters from Ukrop’s or Food Lion. The very gray day matched the mood. Hanne-Bjerg put on a stong face but there were cracks in the facade. I told my wife on the way home that I thought this may be it for the annual gathering but hoped it would not.
Last week, while the rest of us were putting together potential recipes and looking at potential dates and rain-day back-ups if the party was to go on, Hanne-Bjerg got out of bed and her heart simply stopped. I suppose the timing was right. We always thought of her at this time of year and her death within days of her party will cement the day in our memories but the tradition is over. You cannot reclaim a tradition that is lost but sometimes you can remake it. The Scandinavian tradition is strong enough that many of the second generation children are not taught English till they reach school age. While I may go that far I do intend to keep the traditions alive and maybe I will inspire my children the way Hanne-Bjerg inspired me.