Every winter since 1962, Nordic House, in Berkeley, has kicked off the holiday season by serving up a typical Scandinavian Smörgåsbord for its customers.
A giant table sits covered with traditional holiday foods -- plump round pancakes known as Aebleskiver, served with black currant or lingonberry jam; three different types of herring; red cabbage salad and a very, very sweet traditional Scandinavian holiday drink called Gløgg.
Owner Pia Klausen reveals the secret of her family’s recipe: “Raisins, lots of raisins, cinnamon, cardamom, orange peel and ginger, and that you would let sit overnight and the next day you would cook it up with 3/4 cup sugar.”
It’s definitely not something you want to drink a lot of, but it is an indispensable part of the holiday experience for those dare to try it.
Between Thanksgiving and New Year, Nordic House is chock full of holiday items from Denmark, Norway and Sweden, including a wide array of foods and tchotchkes, like small wooden elves, pink marzipan pigs and advent calendars.
Customers can order online or by phone from all over the United States. But many Scandinavian-Americans will drive for hours -- from all over California -- to buy the authentic holiday meats. Klausen says Swedes are very fond of the Christmas hams that the Nordic House family prepares on site.
“We cure them with a salt-sugar mix. And they need to sit for a month before we sell them,” Klausen says.
Nordic House also makes special dishes such as Danish Flaeskesteg, which is the pork roast with the rind on top, and the Norwegian Ribbe, which is the pork belly with the skin and ribs on it. Another favorite is a spicy sausage potato combination, which is either called Medisterpølse or Potatiskorv, depending on who’s eating it.
“We always tease that the Swedes put the potato in their sausage, and the Danes eat it outside of their sausage,” Klausen says.
At the recent open house, 23-year-old Chris Ofstad served up Swedish style hot dogs with fried onions and a mayo-relish combo on top.
Ofstad and his large extended family will work seven days a week, 12 hours a day in to ship out hundreds of orders in time for Christmas. He says even as a little kid, he couldn’t wait to help out at the family store. Now it’s like one big reunion.
“I get to see cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, everybody is here and seeing people every year that come to the store -- regular customers that I haven’t seen for a long, long time,” Ofstad says.
The family patriarch, Peter Karoe took over Nordic House 50 years ago as a total fluke. A Danish exchange student who was living with Karoe’s family went to the previous owners looking for work. Instead of a job, they offered to sell him the business.
“This Jens fellow came home that night and said you have to buy it,” Karoe recalls. “Two weeks after we bought it. So we opened it Nov. 1, 1962.”
Nordic House has kept track of its customers since the very first day and invited all of them to the open house each year. Karoe says that’s why customers are so loyal. But Nordic House has also picked up customers from other Scandinavian stores who were driven out of business by rising import costs and red tape. When IKEA opened up in nearby Emeryville, Karoe says it actually drove more customers to Nordic House.
“For us it’s a very good combination because they’re only a mile from here and they have good prices, but they don’t carry half of what we have. “
Despite the economic downturn and an aging customer base, business has remained steady. Ofstad says that’s because Nordic House has become a sentimental place for generations of Scandinavian-Americans.
“I’ve seen more younger people getting involved, and they come in saying ‘oh my grandparents used to always come here, or my parents used to always serve us herring, and I just wanted to come in and this was the only place I could find it,’” Ofstad says.
Mel and Zena Lunberg have been coming to Nordic House since it first opened. Mel’s parents and Zena’s grandparents were all from Sweden. For them a visit to Nordic House is so much more than a retail experience; it rekindles the spirit of Christmas past.
“It’s the nostalgia, the wonderful wonderful memories,” Zena says. “Everybody’s gone that we knew many years ago. It makes me want to cry... but it’s life, and it is our nationality.”