MANKATO — Fresh off their flight from Norway, a college class studying emigration to the U.S. arrived to a warm Mankato welcome — and warm lutefisk.
And some of the Norwegian guests had never tasted the gelatinous fish before.
“It’s not my thing,” admitted Elin Brenna Øvereng after trying it, although she was quick to compliment the other Norwegian-American fare at a welcome dinner hosted by the local Sons of Norway lodge.
Øvereng is part of a University of South-Eastern Norway course held simultaneously with Minnesota State University students. The partnership includes a cultural exchange where the Norwegians visit Minnesota this week followed by the Americans returning the favor in Norway in May.
MSU professor and social studies director Kyle Ward said Tuesday’s reception at Bethlehem Lutheran Church served as an introduction to Norwegian immigrants' impact on Minnesota culture.
“The goal is to get a good understanding as to what were the push factors pushing (Norwegian immigrants) to come here,” he said. “And when they came here, what were the pull factors and what impact did they have on society.”
The Sons of Norway members were encouraged to share their family immigration stories during the dinner, while the Norwegian students marked where they’re from on a map.
“Maybe they came from the exact same places they’re from,” said Karen Abbott, president of the Sons of Norway Elvesvingen Lodge in Mankato.
The university, established in 2018, has eight campuses in southeastern Norway cities including Bø, Kongsberg and Porsgrunn. Grants are helping cover parts of the travel costs for the student trips.
The Norwegians and Americans later feasted on meatballs, lutefisk, lefse and cakes. Ward said lutefisk is a good example of a traditionally Norwegian food that immigrants held onto while their compatriots didn’t. Many of the immigrants coming to the U.S. were escaping poverty, so to them lutefisk was a way to preserve fish longer. It became a comfort food, while in turn tying their lives here back to the mother country they left.
“We eat a lot of it at holidays now,” Ward said. “It reminds us of our ancestry.”
While Øvereng didn't care for the “jelly-like” lutefisk, she described the rest of the food as a close approximation of what people might eat in Norway.
“It’s actually quite similar,” she said of the food. “There’s some things I can taste that are flavor-wise slightly different, but it’s not a lot.”
She and MSU student Samantha Mitchell both tried the lutefisk, although Mitchell had eaten it once before. Both noted eating the dish as fast as possible is key.
The two said they appreciated the cultural exchange aspect of the class. They’ve been exploring each country’s history, but meeting their counterparts helps them see the history through another perspective.
“Americans tend to put their own spin on things, so it’s interesting to learn it from their perspective,” Mitchell said.
Øvereng said she appreciates seeing the non-Hollywood version of America. Her first impression of Minnesota was that the weather seemed a little like home, but the architecture was a clear difference.
“We started seeing buildings and stuff and were like, ‘We would not do that with a building,’” she said with a laugh.
Visiting Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa, and attending MSU lectures were on the students' agenda during their weeklong stay. Professor Jens Hyvik said the trip is an immersive opportunity for his Norwegian students, a chance to see for themselves their country’s effect on the Midwest.
“It adds something when you study history not only to read about it and the theory about it, which of course is important, but also to be there you can see things more clearly,” he said.
Just as Americans trace their roots back to the Old World, he said Norwegians seem increasingly interested in genealogical research on ancestors who left for America.
The partnership between the Norwegian and Mankato institutions is growing. Last August social studies students at MSU gained teaching experience in Norway.
Ward also traveled to Norway to help develop the collaborative class on Norwegian immigration as part of a faculty exchange. Colleague Justin Biel, an assistant professor in MSU's history department, helped established a Viking Age history course between the two universities.
Ward said continuing the collaboration should open up more study abroad and educational opportunities in Norway and vice versa.