Food can be at its most fascinating when we look beyond flavor, texture and ingredients, into history. Food embodies history. A bite of an otherwise humble dish can offer a portal into exotic cultures, traditions, and stories from times past which, if we stop at the palate, would never be revealed.
Take, for example, the Fastelavn boller, a simple sweet roll used to celebrate Fastelavn – an annual Scandinavian festival with pre-Christian roots that was recently resurrected in Sunset Park. Turns out, a bite of the boller offers a fascinating look at the history of the once-thriving Scandinavian community in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge – a community that has largely dispersed, ceding the old neighborhood to a newer wave of Mexican and Chinese immigrants.
Victoria Hofmo is a life-long Bay Ridge resident with Norwegian roots, and the founder of the East Coast Scandinavian Museum, a project intent on preserving the history of what was once one of the largest concentrated populations of Scandinavians outside of Northern Europe. After unwittingly stumbling into Fastelavn on a trip to Norway five years ago, Victoria decided to resurrect the tradition in Sunset Park, hosting a Brooklyn-version of the celebration at the hundred and twenty year-old Danish Athletic Club each February.
We met with Victoria for a bite of the boller and an unexpected trip down the rabbit hole of history.
So Victoria, tell us about Fastelavn bollers and how your discovery of this sweet treat in Norway led you to revive Fastelavn here in Brooklyn.
It actually started with branches. When I was in Norway about five years ago, around this time of year, I was in a place kind of like a 7-11 – a gas station with a coffee shop and convenience store. And I noticed these garishly-decorated branches on display everywhere, which seemed very un-Scandinavian. Nothing in Scandinavia is garish. So I asked about them and they said they were for Fastelavn. That was really the first time I heard of Fastelavn.
Later on that trip I came across the Fastelavn boller. I was in a town in the mountains in Norway. The kids from town would go sledding on the mountain with their dads. Up above where they were sledding there was this big old elaborately carved wooden house. It was like a cabin gone wild, up on the mountain. And inside this amazing wooden building, they had these giant Fastelavn boller everywhere. They were these enormous, garishly-decorated sweet rolls. They were like three feet tall, filled with cream, and decorated with cloudberries and lingonberries.
Just like the branches in the 7-11-type place, they struck me as being very un-Scandinavian. The aesthetic there is all simple and natural, but they celebrated this Fastelavn holiday with these crazy looking branches and sweets.
I’m from a Scandinavian family that’s been in Bay Ridge for a long time, and Bay Ridge and Sunset Park used to have a huge Scandinavian population, so I was curious about this whole Fastelavn thing. When I came back to Bay Ridge I started researching it. It turns out that it started out as a pre-Christian holiday, and became a pre-Lenten spring festival in Christian times.
There was a trick or treating element to it. Everyone would dress up in costumes and the children would go door-to-door collecting these sweet rolls, saying something like, “Fastelavn is my name. If you don’t give me a boller I’m going to play a trick on you.”
So I think it might be where trick-or-treating actually comes from. Halloween came from the Celts, but trick-or-treating wasn’t originally a part of the holiday. Older people have told me that when they were younger they didn’t trick-or-treat on Halloween – they did it closer to Thanksgiving or Christmas. So I think the Scandinavian and Celtic traditions combined at some point.
You can actually get boller at the Nordic Deli in Bay Ridge. They sell them pretty frequently there. Everyone has a different recipe. The ones they sell there are small sweet rolls with raisins and cardamom. For our Fastelavn celebration they slice them for us and top them with fresh whipped cream and powdered sugar.
Another Fastelavn tradition is the branches. They decorate branches to celebrate the coming of spring. It was common in Norway to force the blooms on the branches and to decorate them. We decorate ours with ribbons and feathers. In Norway, the bachelors and maidens in a town would hit each other with the branches and throw ashes at each other – it was a kind of very old fertility rite.
They also used to put a black cat in a barrel, and they’d hit the barrel like a piñata and chase the cat out of town in hope that the cat would take all the town’s bad luck with it. The Danish Athletic Club in Bay Ridge, where we’ve held our Fastelavn celebration for the last five years, used to celebrate Fastelavn celebration years ago, but they stopped. I had no idea they used to celebrate it. So it’s kind of nice because we’re reclaiming a tradition that had been lost in the Scandinavian community here.
The Danish Club used to actually have a barrel years ago – there’s actually a hook in the ceiling that they used to hang the Fastelavn barrels, that’s still there. We haven’t been able to find a barrel, so we use piñatas, but we hang it from the same hook. We used to use a cat-shaped piñata, but a friend of mine who’s a member of the club loves cats, and she won’t let us use a cat piñata anymore. So now we use a Dora the Explorer piñata or something.
I told her, “So it’s OK to hit a piñata shaped like a little girl but not one shaped like a cat?” Ha ha ha.
So along with the Fastelavn boller, those are the main parts of the tradition.
So tell us about the history of the Scandinavian community in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge.
The Dutch settled New Amsterdam, which became New York, and there’s a long connection between the Norwegians and the Dutch. Holland got most of its timber and stone from southern Norway. There’s a saying in Holland that if you turn over Amsterdam, you’ll find a Norwegian forest – there’s not really any wood in Holland, so they got it all from Norway.
Norway was an old kingdom, but they lost their royal line to the black plague in medieval times, so they took a Danish king. There wasn’t a big battle or war or anything – they just needed a king so they took on the Danish king. Norway was under Danish and Swedish rule for hundreds and hundreds of years. It was an agricultural country, and poorer than its neighbors. For a long time in Norway, the oldest son would get the farm and the rest would have to fend for themselves. The Norwegians had a long history of sailing, a lot of people knew their way around ships. So for a long time the sons who didn’t get the farm would go to Holland to sail on Dutch ships.
And that’s why there were a lot of Norwegians and Scandinavians in New York since the earliest days of Dutch settlement. The Bronx is named after a Scandinavian farmer – Jonas Bronck. And the first Norwegian to get a patent for a farm from the Dutch was Hans Hansen Bergen, whom Bergen Street is named after.
How did the community end up in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge?
The Scandinavian population basically followed the waterfront, and moved along the waterfront. The community started in Manhattan, then moved to downtown Brooklyn, then Red Hook, and eventually to Bay Ridge. The oldest Norwegian church in Bay Ridge is from about 1866.
The Scandinavians were famous for working on the waterfront – for being ships’ captains and engineers, not longshoremen. In the 70’s, before all the shipping moved from the Brooklyn and Manhattan waterfronts to New Jersey, one or two out of every three ship captains and engineers on the harbor were Scandinavian, and a lot of them lived in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge. When the shipping left the Brooklyn waterfront for the container ports in New Jersey, it had a really big impact on the community here. The Scandinavian community in Bay Ridge now is much, much smaller than it was then.
The construction of the Gowanus Expressway and the Verrazano Bridge had a real impact too. At one point when they were expanding the Expressway, every building on the East side of 3rd Avenue, the heart of the community, was torn down. When they built the Verrazano Bridge, 2,000 homes were lost.
Sunset Park was considered part of Bay Ridge until the 70’s – just like Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens were just part of Red Hook for a long time. As the Scandinavians started leaving when the waterfront jobs went away, the Chinese and Mexicans started to move in and the numbers of Scandinavians really started to decline.
Tell us about the Danish Athletic Club where you’re holding the Fastelavn celebration.
The Danish Athletic Club is 120 years old this year. It was founded as an athletic club, but now it’s mostly used for dining and social events. It’s a gathering place. In the 60’s they had over 700 members, but now it’s down to fifty or so. There’s been a lot of negativity about their future, and a lot of talk about them shutting down and selling the building. But it has such a long history and it’s an important reminder of the Scandinavian history in Sunset Park and Bay Ridge, so I hope the building isn’t sold. I think they should really look at their future as a cultural center. It could be the end, and I don’t have control over it, but I’m going to do what I can to help keep it open.
The Scandinavians here had an amazing sense of social responsibility. There’s a Norwegian Athletic Club that’s a hundred years old, and a Swedish Club that’s really old too. To start organizations like that isn’t easy, but to keep them going that long is amazing.
The Lutheran Medical Center began as the Norwegian hospital here in Bay Ridge. The community built that medical center. They built children’s homes, old-age homes, and churches and clubs. They did it themselves. During World War Two, when a lot of Norwegians were displaced by the German occupation, the community bought a building to house refugees who came to Brooklyn. I did my thesis for my Master’s Degree on the Norwegian merchant marine community here in Bay Ridge. I focused just on organizations related to the sailors, and it’s incredible how many there were.
I’m kind of like the end of an era. I missed the heyday of the Scandinavian community in Bay Ridge. I feel like I’m following the elephant in the circus, cleaning up. But to me it’s not about how many are left, it’s about what they created and the traditions and legacies they left behind. That’s what’s amazing to me.
What’s your background in the neighborhood? How did you become interested in the history?
My father’s parents came to Brooklyn from Norway in the early 1930’s, during the depression. My mother’s mother’s parents came here from Denmark around 1900. They met here. And my mother’s father’s side is German, Irish and French, and they’ve been here since about 1800.
I’ve always been interested in history. I was totally Americanized, and when I was younger I was fascinated by other people’s history. When I was nineteen I studied at a program called Ethnic New York. We’d go to places like the East Village, to the Ukranian section, or to the Lower East Side Jewish neighborhood. We’d try to learn something about the neighborhoods’ histories through what had been left behind, and through that I started to get interested in my own background.
When I was in college in the early 80’s I wrote a paper on Scandinavian history in Bay Ridge and I just got really interested in it. I started talking to people at all these old clubs and churches. Everybody had photographs and things, but nobody wanted the responsibility for storing and preserving the stuff. People started handing me things, and that led me to found the Scandinavian East Coast Museum. I’m the poor founder of a poor museum. Everyone’s like, “When are you getting a building?” And I’m like, “Give me ten million dollars and I’ll get a building!”
Any particular memories related to traditional Scandinavian food from when you were growing up in the neighborhood?
I remember going to my grandma’s house on Sundays. She was Norwegian. She made these amazing Norwegian pancakes called pannekaken. They were kind of like crepes, but better. They were really thin and moist, and amazingly good.
At Christmas she’d make this traditional hot rice porridge with cream. She’d hide a nut in the porridge and if you got a nut you’d win a prize. Of course, all the kids always found nuts and got prizes.
You see spices a lot in traditional Norwegian desserts, and that comes from the sailing tradition. Norwegian sailors brought things like cardamom and saffron back from the Far East, and you find those in a lot of Norwegian sweets to this day.
The nickname for 8th Avenue here is Lapskaus Boulevard. It’s named after a traditional Norwegian stew. A Scottish guy wrote to me a while back saying he had thought the name came from a Scottish dish, and while he was researching its origin, he found that it really was Norwegian, and he found dishes with similar names in a lot of places where the Norwegian sailors went. Traditionally it was made with salted meats, but he found dishes with similar names made in similar ways with fish as far away as Southeast Asia.
That’s kind of normal, right? But it’s fascinating too. I think human beings are kind of arrogant. We forget everything. Every generation thinks everything is new. But when you start studying the history of things, you realize that we’ve been really interconnected in a lot of ways for a long time.
All photos © Alex Brown, of Alex Brown Photography. All rights reserved.