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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Stoughton’s Syttende Mai

Celebrating everything Norwegian

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  Here in the United States, the Chinese New Year, Cinco de Mayo, Oktoberfest and St. Patrick’s Day have taken on a significance beyond their countries of origin. Americans love to celebrate the culture and experiences of ancestry, whether it’s their own or not.

  Stoughton, Wis., a farming community southeast of Madison, had such a solid Norwegian influence by the turn of the 20th century that it was referred to as “Little Norway.” Every year on the 17th of May, the Norwegians celebrated Syttende Mai (pronounced “soot-n-d-my”) to celebrate the signing of the Norwegian Constitution on May 17, 1814. Stoughton suspended their informal Syttende Mai festivities during World War II. When the Chamber of Commerce decided to revive the festival in 1952, they formed the foundation for what would become the city’s most prominent event. What started out as a modest ethnic celebration evolved into a large and organized festival that celebrates everything Norwegian—from customs and genealogy to art, music, dance, fashion and, of course, food.

  “Our festival is a little unique as far as we don’t allow outside vendors to come in,” explains Margit Gerber, Syttende Mai coordinator. “All the food stands—there are 21 this year—are operated by local, nonprofit groups, like the Rotary Club, the Boy Scouts and the Relay For Life team.”

Dining_EatDrink2.jpgVisitors can expect typical festival food, including brats, hot dogs and cotton candy, but there will also be a large selection of traditional Norwegian cuisine.

  The Sons of Norway Lodge operates a food stand that serves Viking hot dogs wrapped in lefse, a soft, potato-based flat bread. On Saturday and Sunday, visit their lodge for a smorgasbord of authentic Norwegian cuisine offered a la carte. They will serve herring, Norwegian meatballs, potatoes, lefse and raw vegetables. For something on the sweet side, try the risengrot (rice pudding), rommegrot (cream pudding) and sot suppe, a creamy fruit soup made with dried fruits and tapioca. Many of the baking demonstrations and food stands will feature Norwegian baked goods, like waffles, krumkake (a delicate cone-shaped cookie that can be eaten plain or filled with whipped cream) and sandbakkel, a butter cookie baked in decorative tin molds.

  A Norwegian cheese-tasting will offer guests an opportunity to sample Gjetost, also spelled Geitost (pronounced “yay-toast”), Norway's national cheese. It’s a semi-hard cheese made from the liquid whey (instead of the curd) of cow's or goat's milk. It’s dark brown in color and has a sweet, caramel-like taste, making it a perfect dessert cheese. Nkkelost, a semi-hard, yellow cheese made with cow’s milk and flavored with cumin, cloves and caraway seeds, will also be available. Also try the Ridderost, a semi-firm Norwegian cheese made with pasteurized cow's milk. It has a smooth, buttery flavor that’s mildly sharp in taste. Many people will have already tasted Jarlsberg, as it’s the most common Norwegian cheese found in the United States. It has the consistency and hole formation of Swiss Emmental with a similar but milder sweet and nutty flavor. It’s considered a “Baby Swiss” cheese because water is substituted for the milk's whey.

  In Norway, citizens celebrate Syttende Mai just one day a year: May 17. The people of Stoughton, however, appreciate their ancestry to such a degree that they dedicate three days for everyone to come together and celebrate their commonality.

Syttende Mai takes place May 16-18. Events begin at 9 a.m. on Main Street in Stoughton. For more information, call (888) 873-7912 or go to www.stoughtonwi.com

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