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They choose to eat lutefisk

If you've ever enjoyed Jell-O salad and hotdishes at a church potluck, you probably have some connection with Scandinavians. If you have fond reminiscences of egg coffee, cod liver oil or lutefisk, you probably are Scandinavian.

Author Eric Dregni has documented the Scandinavian-American and Finnish experience in Minnesota in "Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America," which was nominated for the 2011 Minnesota Book Award. From the early days of immigration in the 19th century down to the legacy of Scandinavian culture today, Dregni captures the flavors and foibles of what it means to be Scandinavian-American. Wool underwear made from old sweaters, cooperative creameries, and Viking hoaxes make appearances in his catalog of the customs, foods, work, politics and religion characterizing immigrants from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland.

The hardscrabble life and prejudice faced by the early immigrants is a neglected chapter in Scandinavian-American history which Dregni recounts poignantly. They were politically suspect during World War I, thought to be German sympathizers. Speaking Finnish was considered subversive in some locales, and even where it was not, the schools treated non-English speakers harshly.

"Many immigrants gave up their original language not willingly but from a fear of being blacklisted," Dregni wrote.

Myths and prejudices were perpetrated, such as that Finns practiced witchcraft in their saunas. Scandinavian customs were viewed as strange, and activities judged as immoral, such as "night courting," were quickly squashed in the new American culture. But there is plenty of room in his account for anecdotes about church dinners, Jell-O salads, hotdishes, and the fact that everyone in heaven speaks Norwegian.

Dregni will talk about the Scandinavian-American experience at Encore Performing Arts Center at 1 p.m. Saturday, June 9, on Frontage Road, 2035 Highway 33 South (exit north of the I-35 ramp). A reception following his presentation will be hosted by the Sons of Norway-Heimsyn Lodge. Refreshments (including lefse) are being donated by Takk for Maten and volunteers from Sons of Norway. Bergquist Imports is also donating to the event, which is free and open to the public. For questions, call the library at 218-879-1531 or Encore at 218-878-0071.

For those of you who want to know a bit more about Dregni...

Q: For the record, just how Scandinavian are you?

Eric Dregni: I'm a bit more than half Scandinavian. My dad is Norwegian and Swedish and my mom is distantly related to Rollo the Grandeur who was so fat and short he had to ride on a mule. The French were so fed up with all of his Viking raids that they cede Normandy to him and his berserkers.

Q: How did having a Nordic heritage affect you growing up (or did it?)

Dregni: I didn't realize how much it had affected me until we lived in Norway and Italy and I could see how I was so similar to the Scandinavians and confused by the Italians. Mostly, though, I remember my dad's monthly "Norwegian dinner" with white food on a white plate. The dinner became more interesting when he added aquavit and beer.

Q: Scandinavians are sometimes seen as humorless. Have you found that to be the case, either in Norway or among Scandinavia-Americans?

Dregni: No. It's a subtle sense of humor. Apart from the Sven and Ole jokes, the dry wit is not followed with a punchline. While most Hollywood comedies rely on slapstick, physical jokes, Scandinavian humor is often self-deprecating and quite funny. Outsiders may just not recognize the humor because it's not so obvious.

Q: Scandinavians in the U.S. haven't always gotten along. Have old tensions disappeared?

Dregni: A healthy rivalry still exists between the Scandinavians. My great-grandparents had a "mixed marriage" of a Norwegian and Swede back when Norway was still controlled by Sweden. Many Norwegians referred to those "Swedish devils," but ultimately they had to cooperate somewhat in the New World.

Q: What is the greatest misperception Americans have about Scandinavia?

Dregni: One notable misperception is that the food is bland. Try gammelost (similar to chewing an old sneaker), lutefisk (fish-flavored, Jell-O-like sponge), salt licorice (essentially a salt tablet only edible by native Scandinavians), or my favorite gravlaks (Scandinavian sushi).

Dregni's appearance June 9 is sponsored by the Cloquet Public Library in association with the Minnesota Book Awards, with a grant from The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library.