When people think of Bay Ridge, they most likely think of Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero strutting along 86th Street scarfing down two slices of pizza folded atop each other, or later rehearsing disco moves in a mirrored studio. I don't quite think of it that way, myself, even though my parents practiced in that same Phillips Dance Studio before Tony Manero was a glimmer in writer Nik Cohn's overheated imagination. The Bay Ridge I think of is the one in which Scandinavians so predominated that it was once known as Little Norway. The one in which my father's own Norwegian roots go back generations.
Even into the 1980s, the Scandinavian presence was still strong enough that, when the sole remaining Norwegian restaurant was sold to a Chinese couple, the outcry was so overwhelming that the couple agreed to take lessons in Norse cooking from the previous owners. Thus was born Wee Kee's, Brooklyn's first and only Norwegian-Chinese restaurant. It remained open for about ten years. In trying to track down its name (I had only been there once), I came across several articles claiming the restaurant served Norwegian-Chinese fusion. Nope. No fusing. Each cuisine had a menu page to itself. Alas, no sweet-and-sour venison, or even a herring stir-fry.
Bay Ridge now contains a great jumble of ethnicities and, mercifully, a minimum of chain stores. The stores I passed, under the unmistakably wide Brooklyn sky, included Food City, King of Third Avenue, and Closeout Heaven. Within a block of Nordic Delicacies, which I recently visited, you can buy rice balls, freshly strained yogurt with sour cherries, fish and chips, and Mexican peppers. Pizzerias, butchers, and fishmongers abound. The children look like children, not as though they are resting up betweenRalph Lauren gigs. I didn't hear a single conversation about real estate or Wall Street. It was good to be home.
Nordic Delicacies opened in 1987, well after the near-complete demise of Little Norway. It nonetheless thrives not only on those of the Bay Ridge diaspora returning to stock up on foods that can't be found this side of Minnesota, but also on a successful mail-order business. The store itself is quite small but packed with Scandinavian staples including lefse, a crepelike pancake with a potato base; lingonberry and cloudberry preserves; canned fish balls; and tubes of fish paste. Store-made treats include krumkaker, a large rolled cookie; herring salad; and Norwegian meatballs.
In surveying Nordic cookbooks, it's rather hard to tell the difference between Norwegian and Swedish meatballs, so, in the recipe that follows, I'm going to stick with the more familiar nomenclature. But first here's a quick, authentic, and delicious Scandinavian treat that doesn't require a recipe. Heat a piece of lefse (microwave will do), spread with butter and lingonberry jam. Roll up. Eat. Repeat as required