Norway’s Potato Problem

June 24, 1994
Oslo, Norway

We have been eating well in Norway. The food has been fresh, healthy, and served with love (if not spice), and I don’t care what the snobs (or the French) say. Nonetheless, I am most perplexed by the omnipresence of boiled potatoes. Don’t get me wrong: I LIKE boiled potatoes. I like potatoes of most any kind. There are, however, some billion things a curious cook can do to potatoes. But in Norway, there are only boiled potatoes. And more boiled potatoes.

They are served with most every meal. Fish? Served with boiled potatoes. Smashed meat dealies (of various names)? Gotta serve it with boiled potatoes. Traditional holiday feast (be it reindeer, lamb, or lutefisk)? Always served with boiled potatoes.

Typically, these boiled potatoes are served without any particular gravy, butter, or treatment. The diner may be hard pressed to find even salt or pepper on the table. On the other hand, with a CERTAIN smashed meat thing, the boiled potatoes MUST be served with a certain thick, brown gravy that tastes approximately like the smashed meat thing (whose name, for non-Norwegians, can be pronounced only while simultaneously masticating that certain smashed meat thing). With “poached” ( which means boiled) salmon, boiled potatoes are to be served with good melted butter—the same melted butter that you’ll also pour over the fish, and your vegetables which have been boiled to oblivion and, unlike the potatoes, don’t have the starch to handle it.

Poached torsk (which is really boiled cod), is served ONLY with hollandaise sauce—and boiled potatoes—that you can use to glop up the extra hollandaise sauce that the savvy diner pours on the plate. Of course, certain radical, nouveau cooks (including my famous chef-relative Arne Brimi) might sneak a little chopped parsley or chive onto the boiled potatoes. Who knows? But the cautious traveller will not expect any of these accoutrements to boiled potatoes any more than he expects to be served a fine claret—which, in Norway, could set you back a second mortgage or so.

In Norway, silly little Norway (as they say in their tourism-center video) boiled potatoes are so important, they’re usually personalized, and referred to as YOUR boiled potatoes. As if they’re your blood type. Or your last will and testament. Or your personal parts. It’s like they’re assumed to be a part of YOUR every meal, “You caught salmon today? Great! Well, let’s clean it, poach it, and then we can serve it for dinner with your boiled potatoes…”

Let me say it again: I LIKE boiled potatoes. It is, after all, a genetic thing, isn’t it? But then, I’ve never met a potato I didn’t like. And therein lies the rub. You see, I like potatoes because they’re so damn filling and versatile that most anything can happen to them, and they’re still edible, and possibly delish. Now, I can’t expect the Norwegians to understand this, as nonhomogeneity is in their nonvocabulary. But honestly, there are countless ways to do up a potato.

For example, you can mash them. Even with the skins on! And then you can mix that mash with sour cream, butter, spices, onions, carrots, sweet potatoes, or even roasted garlic. You can fry them. And while you’re at it, you could throw in some scallions, some peppers, some herbs, or olive oil. You might consider baking them, as even tiny potatoes make great bakers. And you can rub those babies with sesame oil, herbs, vinegars, seasalt, or crushed peppercorns. And you could serve them with all kinds of coverings—cheeses, and so on. Come to think of it, you can also bake big potatoes! And they can be split open at the end, and then filled with blue cheese, cream cheese, or Jarlsberg cheese (which is Norwegian!).

Or think of this: Bake them, then cool them, then carefully hollow them out, mash the guts with other good stuff, stuff them again, bake them again, and call them twice-baked! Slice them thin into fresh chips. Slice them thick and breaded into jojos. Try them diced with cream and cheese into au gratins. Cut up with onions and herbs and chicken broth and cooked into what our friends the French called pommes de terre boulangere.

Heck, speaking of French, what about French fries? Or in Italy, they make them into balls and call it gnocchi. Or go German and try dumplings. Not to mention that the leftovers of any of these—yes, most any stupid potato—can be smashed and fried into cakes, and then served with breakfast, lunch, dinner, or late-night munches. And I haven’t even mentioned another rare delicacy in Norway: Ketchup!

Now I may be getting loose,
But why not serve them a la Seuss?
Where the potatoes this time,
Must be served in a rhyme!
You know, perhaps broiled.
Or hashbrowned—after boiled.
Spearcut and then roasted.
Or grilled til their toasted.
Deep-fat-fried with a chicken.
Souped with leeks; potatoes thicken!
Mixed with beets that the store selled,
(Even ones that Dan Quayle spelled!)
Or sauteed with oil de sunflower,
Or pureed with peanut oil power.
Or pan fried in a friend’s oil—
Or most any but Penzoil!

The good news—perhaps the only good news—is that provincial Norway serves only Norwegian potatoes. And they are mighty fine, much more solid and flavorful than the mushblobs from America’s supermarkets. The bad news—perhaps the only bad news—is that they’re served boiled. Only boiled.

And if you don’t like it, well, you can make like a mashed potato…and lump it!

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