Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Norwegian Food and Culture


There is more to Norway and Norwegians than meets the eye. Outwardly the country is the most sparsely populated in all of Europe with less than 25 percent of the land inhabited and more than 75 percent of it a vast stillness of barren mountain ranges. Outwardly Norwegians appear to be a literate, calm and homogeneous people, with conformity appearing to be the key to their way of life.

Yet the Norwegians were the first in Europe to recognize the potential of water-powered electricity and in 1891 installed in northern Hammerfest the first hydroelectric plant in all of Europe – while the rest of Europe lit their candles and kerosene lamps. As early as the 700s, when the rest of civilization was still nascent, Norwegian Viking ships set out to far off coasts of the Arab world and even North America, to explore, to trade, and to plunder. Stone Age carvings visible throughout Norway on mountainsides and rocky strata are said to be more than 4,000 years old and depict a vivid way of life with images of the sea and the land and even well-drawn skiers.

Even today, with little more than 3 percent of the land arable, Norway has an efficient mechanized system of agriculture, a bustling industry in forestry and fishing products, and a merchant shipping fleet that is one of the largest in the world. And while much of the rest of the industrialized world concerns itself with problems of pollution, Norway exports an increasingly prized resource: pure spring water.

Norwegians freely admit to being hooked on sports and physical fitness and to being avid readers – there are said to be three times as many daily newspapers in Oslo as in New York. They also admit that alcoholism is one of their oldest problems. And while they enjoy parties after skiing, skating, sailing, or mountain climbing, there is sure to be at least one guest abstaining from alcoholic drinks in order to drive the others home. For in Norway impaired driving carries the stiff penalty of jail term and this is strictly enforced. Special government stores dispense alcohol at high prices and close for weekends. Perhaps it is a spark of the old Viking fire that accounts for the Norwegians openly adhering to the letter of the law, while many of them quietly make good use of a still hidden in the cellar!

And while 96 percent of the population profess to the Lutheran faith, complete with the celebration of Christmas, Easter, confirmation ceremonies and parties on the fifteenth birthday, examples of still older beliefs are much in evidence. Dotted throughout the rugged countryside are gnarled and grotesque rock formations which the Norwegians – only slightly hesitantly and more than half-jokingly – will tell you are fossilized trolls. Many inexplicable events are quietly attributed to the varying dispositions of the mischievous trolls inhabiting the rocks and trees throughout Norway and there are few who would dismiss their existence completely. There is scarcely a Norwegian family that would not set out a plate brimful of creamy rommegrot for julenisse, the Christmas troll dressed in a red cap and sporting a white beard. With a full belly on Christmas Eve, he is not so likely to play tricks on the family the rest of the year.

The Norwegian’s apparent contradiction between the inner and outer self is an ancient trait. Although daring and violence seemed to characterize the Viking abroad, at home he organized things – special meeting places where village grievances and disputes could be heard and settled. This surprisingly democratic system was in existence before the 600s. And while the Viking held the belief that to fall in battle meant a place in Valhalla with Odin in the afterlife, he also clung to a firm belief in ragnarok, “the final confrontation between Good and Evil,” and the accounting of man’s deeds.

But it is history as well as ancient cultures that have molded the Norwegian lifestyle. The flamboyant era of the Vikings ended in 1066 followed by almost 500 years of internal strife, domination by Sweden and Denmark in ill-fated unions and finally the Black Plague which reduced the population. Pressure from the German Hanseatic League controlled Norwegian trade for almost 200 years, while the Danes ruled and taxed the people and spread the Lutheran faith.

Finally, toward the end of the 1700s, with her population increased, her economy strengthened, and a resurgence in rich peasant art, Norway adopted English manners and culture and stepped towards independence.

The democratic constitution was signed on May 17, 1814, and is celebrated today with children’s parades and a buoyant sense of freedom just as though “the ink were still wet on the paper.”

Wherever Norwegians have emigrated, they have adapted themselves quietly into the community, retaining their Lutheran faith and their love of sports, everywhere their calm natures and gentle strength pervading their lifestyle. Unquestionably their long historic struggle with the elements of nature and their life in a vast quiet country have left them with a deep sensitivity to the concerns of others as well as a personal need for solitude.

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