From Smorgas to Larb: Minnesota Food Culture Has Diverse Origins

By Brian Fanelli

Patrice Johnson leads a Nordic Table Workshop
Patrice Johnson leads a cooking and culture workshop at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis

These days, you can find uniquely Minnesotan-Swedish cuisine at a number of our state’s popular, nouveau Nordic restaurants like The Bachelor Farmer, Tullibee and Fika. But for those who truly want to understand the community, culture and cuisine, you can’t beat the American Swedish Institute’s “Nordic Table Workshop” series.

Patrice Johnson—a self-proclaimed meatball historian who wrote her master’s thesis on Swedish food history in Minnesota—conducts a semi-regular workshop on Sweden’s ubiquitous open face sandwich, “smorgas.” Held in the American Swedish Institute’s brightly lit basement kitchen, it begins with a crash course on the dish’s two guiding rules:

“The first rule is that bread is important. Good rye bread. There are strict laws about bread,” she says. “The second rule is that there should be only one star ingredient. For our first smorgas, it’s gravlax.”

Assembling a Gravlax Smorgas at the American Swedish Institute's Nordic Table Workshop
Johnson assembles a gravlax smorgas during her Nordic Table Workshop
American Swedish Institute Smorgas Assortmans
Johnson's apple-bacon-cheese smorgas is a show-stopper—beautiful and delicious

Over the course of three hours, the class consumes and learns about a truly absurd amount of smorgas—seven sandwiches in total, from Sweden’s traditional gravlax with mustard sauce variety, to more Minnesota-tinged bites like an apple-bacon-cheese and, Johnson’s pride and joy, an orange-pickled vegetable smorgas that once earned a blue ribbon at the Minnesota State Fair.

The gravlax smorgas is excellent, but the Minnesotan variations are a true revelation. They take the sandwich’s disarmingly simple template—rye bread, salted butter and your star ingredient—and localize it to Minnesota’s particular bounties. The dish holds onto its Swedish identity, but becomes unmistakably Minnesotan in the process. A classic immigration story if ever there was one.

Notable Nordic Table Workshops this fall include Classic Cookies and Bars (Sept. 12), Fermenting the Fall Harvest (Oct. 4), New Nordic at Home with Chef Scott Graden (Nov. 3) and Butter, Cheese and Herring (Nov. 14).

New Flavors of the North

Yia Vang leads a Union Kitchen cooking class at The Good Acre
Yia Vang leads a Union Kitchen cooking class at The Good Acre in Minneapolis / Photo by TJ Turner

The Swedes are hardly Minnesota’s only immigrant group influencing the state’s culinary traditions. Elsewhere in the Twin Cities, many of the state’s more recent immigrant and refugee groups are staking their claims in the grand tradition of blending traditional foods into their new home.

Yia Vang—founder of “pop-up” Hmong restaurant Union Kitchen and one of more than 100,000 Hmong refugees who settled in the Upper Midwest following Laos’ extended civil war—teaches his cooking classes with an emphasis on cultural understanding and storytelling. Like the traditionally nomadic Hmong people, Union Kitchen doesn’t have a space of its own. Instead, they host kitchen takeovers at local restaurants in Minneapolis and St. Paul (Lowry Hill Meats and Cook St. Paul, respectively, this fall), and offer private cooking classes by request.

Like all nomadic cultures, the flavors found in Hmong cuisine don’t tell the story of one place, but many. For just one example, look at Union’s uniquely local take on larb (pronounced “laab” or “laap”), the unofficial national dish of Laos and a staple of many Hmong kitchens. Union originally served a more traditional beef version of the dish, but Vang says that lately—inspired by Minnesota harvests and customer requests for vegetarian options—they’ve “been dorking out on roasted beet larb.” Moreover, as evidenced by Union’s now-infamous Hmong Hotdish, the cultural exchange goes both ways.

Union Kitchen Korean BBQ at The Good Acre
No Union Kitchen class is complete without a communal meal / Photo by TJ Turner

North of Minneapolis in the suburb of Osseo, the talented and diverse trio of chefs at Ethnic Foods Co. bring students on a multicultural culinary journey through Thailand, the Middle East and India. Monthly, seasonal cooking classes are on the menu as well, and their vegetable-heavy fall meals deliver a potent mix of hearty local produce, international spices and undeniable flavors.

Dinners on the Harbor

North House Folk School Ovenbuilding Class
At North House Folk School, you don't just learn to bake bread—you build the oven, too

Keep your compass pointed north and head to North House Folk School in Grand Marais for classes that last nearly a week, delving deeply into the ever-present and constantly shifting connections between geography, food and culture. Classes range from a short couple of hours to immersive, multi-day events, but the thread connecting them all is a shared yearning to foster understanding and appreciation of Minnesota’s myriad food cultures.

North House weaves the northern Minnesota landscape and culture into everything they do. Over the course of the four-day Ovencrafting program (Sept. 19-23), students learn the history of masonry ovens and artisan breads, and even work together to build a brick oven of their own. The rich and multifaceted class covers everything from what grains to use in your dough, to the baker’s percentage and how to fire and bake breads in a brick oven you’ve built yourself.

Other culinary experiences at North House run the gamut from preparing and cooking with local apples (Sept. 29-30), baking lefse (Nov. 9), winter squash and pumpkin dishes (Nov. 17-18), and a recurring “Cooking with the Seasons: Dinner on the Harbor” class that’s even more fun than it sounds (Sept. 6, Oct. 4, 25).

Continue exploring Minnesota's diverse food and beverage culture at a local restaurant, craft brewery, winery or distillery.