How Norwegian-Americans Keep Their Ancestry Alive By Eating Lye-Soaked Fish Every Spring

Text: Mona Torgersen, Junior PR Manager at

Every year on the 17th of May, Norwegians dress up in traditional costumes, parade the streets and turn the country topsy-turvy.

On this fateful day in 1814, Norway got its own constitution. This marked the end of the Danish-Norwegian union, and while Norway didn’t become fully independent until nearly a century later, the day is considered by many as the Norwegian day of independence. And it’s celebrated. Really, really celebrated. Their love of the motherland is deeply rooted in the Norwegian people, they are bred to be patriotic. While they remain reclusive and humble for the rest of the year, the people of Norway uncharacteristically bring this patriotism to the surface every spring in a collective outburst of glee.

Simply put; The 17th of May is a big deal. But the Norwegian celebration extends far outside of Norway’s borders. Emigrated Norwegians around the world celebrate the day, and particularly one group of people have honed the tradition for decades – the Norwegian-Americans.

A long time ago, in a fjord far far away

Norway in the 1800s was a far cry from the wealthy state we know today. Much like the rest of Europe, the country suffered a financial crisis following the Napoleonic Wars. The timber and iron industries could no longer compete internationally, and Norwegians across the country found themselves in a difficult financial situation. Resources were scarce, yet the population kept growing at a rapid speed. Things were getting desperate.

Norwegians started looking to the west. Towards America, the land of hopes and dreams. The promise of a better life in a new world convinced as many as 800.000 Norwegians to take the plunge and cross the Atlantic. The voyage was long and harsh, people died and children were born onboard the immigrant ships. Those who endured the long journey settled down in America – most favoring the Midwest – where they started their own communities. The descendants of these immigrants still celebrate May 17th today, albeit somewhat differently than their Norwegian cousins.

DS-StavangerfjordDS Stavangerfjord: This ship transported Norwegians to America from 1918 to 1964. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

An important day for Norwegian-Americans

Embracing their ancestry is one thing Americans are far more accomplished at than Europeans. If you are born and raised in a European country, you usually just consider yourself to be from said European country. If you’re born in America, however, you’re not just American – you’re American-something. The United States is a young country founded by immigrants, and it’s only natural that the children of these immigrants are proud of what their forefathers managed to accomplish.

MarenFor Maren Kristina Bauer, a Norwegian-American living in Minnesota, her Norwegian heritage is part of her daily life:

“As an American, and a teacher who often teaches multicultural students, I love being able to embrace a heritage other than American. I love that I speak the same language as my ancestors and it’s a cool connection from the past to the present. I want to help contribute to a “salad” America rather than a “melting pot” America. When I embrace my heritage and learn about the culture of my ancestors and speak their language, I feel like it shows my students the importance of them hanging on to and embracing their native language and culture, rather than full assimilation and abandoning their first language and culture. I feel like this is especially important for refugee students.”

Maren is of course familiar with the 17th of May celebrations, and she’s had the pleasure of experiencing it in both Norway and the US. In Norway the day is full of traditions and people tend to do the same thing every year. There are parades in the streets, you wear your bunad and you eat hot dogs and ice cream. The hot dogs are definitely not a traditional Norwegian meal, and it seems an odd choice for such a traditional day. It’s a bizarre marriage of the old and the new, and statistics from 2014 show that Norwegians consumed an astonishing 19 million hot dogs during that year’s celebrations. If we consider that only 5 million people live in the country this number seems comically high.

In comparison, many Norwegian-Americans enjoy the very traditional lutefisk on the 17th of May. Maren believes the lutefisk is more than just a strange lye-soaked fish dish – it’s a symbol of her heritage:

“I think lutefisk is important because it represents the struggles the first Norwegian immigrants overcame in coming here to a new country. Whereas in Norway, it seems that the people are more future-oriented and looking towards progress.”

She must be onto something, because 19 million hot dogs do not lie.

Norwegians are still migrating

While the huge wave of Norwegian immigrants died down after the 19th century, the US still remains a land of opportunities for young Norwegians today. Particularly the world of Hollywood is tempting creative Norwegian minds to leave their fjords in search of a big break. Norwegian director Ray Kay (real name Reinert K. Olsen) is currently based in Los Angeles, and has directed music videos for artists such as Britney Spears, Beyoncé and Justin Bieber. Director Roar Uthaug has just been chosen to direct the new Tomb Raider reboot, and Norwegian actor Aksel Hennie could recently be spotted on the big screen as Alex Vogel in The Martian.

There’s just something about America that seems appealing to Norwegians. Perhaps the media industry is the reason for this, as the number of American entertainment shown on TV and in cinemas here far outrank Norwegian productions. We get a sense of the American people when we watch these shows, and perhaps that’s the most appealing of it all. You don’t move to America for the job security or the beautiful nature. You move there for the people.

AnnCecilie 3558234910058_nAnn-Cecilie G. Sønsteby was born and raised in eastern Norway. In October she is moving to Prairieville in Louisiana. This is what she thinks it will be like to be a Norwegian in America:

“I think it will be very exciting. I already lived there for one year when I was a student, and I really enjoy the American people. They are more open and friendly than most Norwegians, and you get so used to receiving compliments. Norwegians are seen as exotic over there, so a lot of people are genuinely interested in you.”

As for the 17th of May, she doesn’t have any huge plans for the day just yet, but she definitely wants to celebrate it with her American in-laws.

“It’s not an option for me to not celebrate the day, I am proud of my home country and where I am from!”

In a way Ann-Cecilie will be experiencing the same thing as the original Norwegian-American immigrants. She is leaving her country and culture behind, but by celebrating the 17th of May with her new American family she is fusing two cultures together and creating something new. Two cultures clashing together always result in interesting new things, and as more Norwegians move to America this is bound to happen. It’s impossible to predict what form this will take, but it will certainly be interesting. Who knows, perhaps new generations of Norwegian-Americans will eat hot dogs made from lutefisk in the future?

17MaiLutefisk2006-05-17Lutefisk: A syttende mai dinner in the Three Crowns Dining Room at Holiday Inn South, Rochester, Minnesota. Lutefisk, rutabaga, meatballs, lingonberries, and lefse. Photo: Wikimedia Commons