From the 1920s to the 1960s, when Bay Ridge and Sunset Park were home to the largest Scandinavian community in the country, the area was affectionately known as Little Norway and the strip of Eighth Avenue from 45th to 60th Streets was colloquially called Lapskaus Boulevard after Old Norse beef stew.
Since the ’70s, Asian immigrants have reseasoned the region, and that stretch has been rechristened Little Hong Kong, but one shop in the vicinity still sells the foods that nourished the Norwegian neighborhood.
Helene Bakke and her cherubic children, Arlene and Steven, run a shop in the shadows of Leif Ericson Park, which they founded to preserve their heritage one reindeer meatball (joika) at a time. Scandinavian Rudolph meat can no longer be sold on the American market, but everything from house-cured herring salad (sursild), fish pudding (fiskepudding), and salted lamb ribs (pinnekjott, of which they sell over 4,000 pounds a year), still deck the halls at Nordic Deli.
The business is the country’s largest mail-order service for Scandinavian delicacies, and this time of year the store is a winter wonderland. The family offers an ornamental array of Christmas cookies made by hand with the same cookie cutters that have been used for generations: sirupsnipper gingersnaps; sandkakers, which resemble a tiny tart shell; krumkake crisped with an electric waffle iron (you can buy the home version at the store) and filled with sweet cream and berries; and a diamond-shaped fattigman, whose name means poor man’s cookies, despite the fact that it’s flavored with top-shelf brandy. Their julekaker holiday bread, studded with plump raisins and scented with toasted cardamom, is now so popular they bake it year-round. And the freezer case is stocked with the trusted Mrs. Olson’s brand of potato lefse, a soft flatbread for both sweet and savory applications—use it in place of a bun for sausages or as a breakfast crepe.
Nordic Deli also offers naturalized Norse foods like Wasa crackers, lingonberries in syrup, gjetost (caramelized goat cheese often served on waffles), Melkesjokolade chocolate bars and the lauded Norwegian cod liver oil sworn by since long before omega-3 fatty acids swam into the lexicon. But it’s glögg, the mulled red wine that conjures up the classic Lars Jorde Julegilde painting in Norway’s National Gallery, a Christmas eve sledding scene that, despite being set in a Norse winter, glows with a copper radiance of hearth and home. After a hot cup or two, you’ll be ready to conquer the snowy slopes of Prospect Park on the darkest day of the year.
Editors’ Note: As of January 2015, Nordic Deli is closed.