Of Norwegian Churches and Tacky Bar Mitzvahs
Last time I checked in I wrote, "I don't usually take photos at buffets." In an effort to make an exception that proves the rule, I brought my camera to the Wednesday lunch smorgasbord at the Norwegian Seamen's Church and shot the above photo of my first plateful of goodies.
When I was a kid smorgasbord meant two things. First, and foremost in my microcosm, there was the pre-dinner spread at bar mitzvahs and Jewish weddings at places like the infamous Leonard's of Great Neck, where my own lamented bar mitzvah took place. By the time my bar mitzvah date had rolled around I was already a resolute atheist, but these things are planned so far in advance that I still considered myself Jewish when the hall was booked. It was during my bar mitzvah lessons with Mrs. Goldstein, the gonzo haftorah coach, that I realized that all that bible and god stuff was a load of hooey, but I went through the motions nonetheless, in my rented tuxedo from Zeller's Formals, a black brocaded number reminiscent of tacky wallpaper.
In addition to smorgasbords, bar mitzvahs of this type featured menus where all the dinner items were listed in French, in an attempt, I suppose, to add a little extra class to the affair. Most ridiculous was the transformation of stuffed derma into "derma farci." And if you really wanted to impress the guests you'd splurge for the Viennese table, the lavish pastry table that is rolled into the darkened hall with sparklers a-sparklin'. Pardon my detour.
Back in the 'sixties there were also real Scandinavian smorgasbord restaurants in New York, and they were quite popular. The two I'm aware of were called Stockholm and Scandia, and were located in midtown; I never experienced either as a child. By the mid-seventies they were gone, and only recently has Scandinavian food made a comeback in Manhattan.
Though far from Minnesota, New York does have a certain Scandinavian history of its own. The Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, for instance, were originally settled by Norwegians. You won't find many vestiges of Scandinavian history in those neighborhoods, however. Sunset Park is mostly Asian and Latino, and within the last couple of years Halvorsen's funeral parlor on Eighth Avenue finally got a new Chinese name. Bay Ridge is largely Italian and Middle Eastern.
The Norwegian Seamen's Church, at 317 E. 52nd Street (in Manhattan, that is), serves their buffet lunch most Wednesdays from September through May, from noon to 2 PM (according to the website, the next, and likely last, is on May 28). It's a great deal at a flat $18, which you pay up front, no additional tax or tip. The smorgasbord features a range of seafood, cheeses, cold cuts, salads, fruits, spreads and breads. I don't know if they vary the selection, but when I visited they had, among other things, smoked salmon, baked peppered salmon, gravalax, several kinds of marinated herring, cooked ham, a prosciutto-type ham, chunks of pork, roast beef, and some kind of aspic loaf that may or may not have been a kind of head cheese. There were probably about five or six kinds of cheese, including the quintessentially Norwegian brown cheese (at 7 o'clock in the photo), which I didn't really care for. They serve one hot item each Wednesday, and this time it was an excellent beef stroganoff. Dessert consists of little heart-shaped waffles and jam, and good, strong coffee. More than half of the diners are Scandinavian.
The icing on the cake, as it were, is the fact that the buffet takes place in a non-restaurant setting and only one day a week, so if you go you can feel as if you're in on a secret. And then you can tell it to everyone you know.