Monday, February 17, 2014

Mashed Peas and Other Missionary Food Hazards

I underwent a fair amount of culture shock after arriving in Norway to serve as a full-time missionary for my church. I had spent two immersive months at the MTC in Provo Utah learning the Norwegian language and learning about Norwegian culture. (Yeah, Norwegian is its own language; a fact that seems to surprise many Americans — who may or may not even realize that Norway is it's own country.) But no amount of training can fully prepare you to live in a different culture.

A couple of days after arriving in Norway, my missionary companion and I were invited to eat lunch with a family. They served us sausage (more like bratwurst) and sauerkraut. The sausage was spiced differently than anything I had ever tasted, but I had no problem eating it. The sauerkraut, on the other hand....

My father was German and my mother had served a mission in Germany, so I grew up regularly dining on German food. But I never learned to enjoy German sauerkraut. Or other cabbage based dishes, for that matter. Norwegian sauerkraut was somewhat different than the German version. I may not have liked the German stuff, but at least I was used to it.

Despite my utter dislike of Norwegian sauerkraut, I did as any good missionary would do and cheerfully choked it down while thinking that I was going to die from it. Having slogged my way through the nightmare, the lady of the house happily insisted on serving me a second portion. I managed to choke most of that down too. But this time I was wise enough to leave some on my plate, signifying that I had had enough.

A few days later the local branch president invited us to eat dinner with his family. Their home had what I eventually came to understand had a classic Norwegian upper middle class style and atmosphere. The wife served us a gracious meal that included far less meat than I would have liked, small whole potatoes with a delicious sauce, and mashed peas with a distinctive blend of spices that I came to realize was very common in Norwegian dishes.

When I expressed surprise at the mashed peas and whole potatoes, explaining that I was used to whole peas and mashed potatoes, the family members looked at me like I had a third arm growing out of my forehead.

A few days later it was my companion's turn to prepare breakfast. I saw him open both ends of a long can and systematically push out something that had an odd scent and looked like some kind of mashed meat. Maybe liverwurst? He kept slicing off half-inch thick pieces onto the skillet until the pan was covered with wafers that seemed to fry quite readily.

I could see the label on the can, but I didn't know what "Torskerogn" meant. My companion served the fried wafers and we ate them. The flavor was unfamiliar but not unpleasant. It was only after breakfast that he revealed that we had eaten cod roe, which is compacted codfish eggs. Go figure.

One of my companions introduced me to hvalbiff (whale beef). It had lots of protein. But it frankly tasted like beef liver; something I have never learned to like.

Not all Norwegian food was strange. There was the bread. Oh, the bread! So many varieties to choose from. And freshly baked each day. Oh, my goodness! And the cheeses! Along with the various delicious white cheeses (including nøkkelost spiced with cumin and cloves), I learned to love brunost (aka geitost), sweet brown caramelized goat cheese. I think I had only ever eaten cheddar and faux Swiss cheese prior to my time in Norway.

Norwegians served a rice porridge dish (riskrem, risgrøt) made of short fat rice grains in a creamy sauce that was very delicious. They had marvelous pastries that enticed us to visit bakery shops way too frequently.

One Thanksgiving Day, a lady invited us to dine, knowing that we would probably be missing our traditional American celebration. She couldn't serve us a traditional American meal, so she served us a traditional Norwegian meal that included these huge delectable potato dumplings that she called kumle (aka raspeboller). I subsequently had many opportunities to enjoy this dish. My mouth still waters when I think about it.

But back in my day standard American fare was pretty hard to come by in Norway. Things like peanut butter, root beer, McDonald's food, and the sugar sweetened breakfast cereals I craved were pretty much nonexistent. We made our own breakfast cereal by mixing corn flakes, puffed wheat, puffed rice, and dry oatmeal in a big bowl, sweetening the mass with a mixture of butter and light syrup. A hefty batch would last two weeks. Yeah, not too healthy. But it gave us our breakfast cereal fix.

The longer I was in Norway the more I liked Norwegian foods, including many different types of fish and other seafood. I never thought that the dreaded pickled herring was bad at all.

When I had been in Norway for about a year and a half, my companion pointed out to me that we were mutually relishing the idea of our weekly dinner of sausage and sauerkraut the following Saturday. His point was that both of us had gone from disliking Norwegian sauerkraut to craving it. How was this possible?

I still have fond memories of many of the dishes I ate while in Norway, including some that I initially considered to be barely tolerable. I even make or buy some of these foods from time to time. My children regularly pester me to make Norwegian pancakes, thin crepe-like concoctions filled and/or topped with whatever interesting delicacy you can think of.

So if you serve as a missionary in a different culture or otherwise have opportunity to live immersed in another culture for a fair period of time, you might find yourself later on craving foods that you initially found unpalatable. That's a good thing, no?

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