Please visit Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona on Friday June 4th at 6am for virtual undset drinks P.M. on The Paris ReviewInstagram account. For more information, please visit our events page or scroll to the bottom of the article.
The most common food in medieval historical romance Kristin Lavransdatter, written by the Norwegian author Sigrid Undset (1882–1949), is porridge, a dish that I artfully perfected in the early years of my children. The porridges in Undset’s book are good and nutritious, but plain (although in one scene a young Kristin eats her “thick cream” from her father’s spoon). Mine, on the other hand, were ridiculous. I flashed half the oats in the baby food mixer before I cooked. I’ve tried different combinations of milk and water. I made fruit puree strudel. I had a two-year-old daughter, a young son, and an office job that I fled to every day in great relief to take a moment and then tried not to leak breast milk on my work clothes. My husband was not helpful with the kids. Childless people found my troubles boring and embarrassing. I never thought that being a woman was important, but suddenly it seemed like that. I was unhappy and when I perfected the oatmeal I felt better.
Kristin Lavransdatterthat unfolds over the course of three volumes –The wreath, The woman, and The cross– is a woman’s story. It’s also exciting read and an impressive achievement by the historical replica that helped Undset win the 1928 Nobel Prize in Literature. The structural and textual allusions of the epic are so numerous that, as Professor Sherrill Harbison remarks too dryly in her introduction The cross, they “show no signs of exhaustion by scholars.” (She also believes – rightly, I believe – that the book will be overlooked.) While writing Kristin LavransdatterUndset drew on legends, ballads, Scandinavian oral tradition and all kinds of medieval texts, especially allegory Le Roman de la Roseto tell the story of a woman in the early 14th century, a time when society was changing for women, taking their new right to consent to their own marriage a step further and demanding their own choice of husband. It was not by chance that Undset wrote in the 1920s, another time of rapid social change.
The story follows Kristin, Lavrans’ daughter, from childhood to death. Lavrans is a salt-of-the-earth Norwegian, “a strong and courageous man, but a peaceful soul, honest and calm, humble in demeanor but polite in dealings, a remarkably capable farmer and a great hunter.” As a valued offspring of this strong and good man, Kristin herself is strong and good and destined to carry on the legacy of her family’s virtue. But in the first section of the book, Lavrans takes her to the mountain meadows with a handful of children and servants to take care of some farming tasks. The group has lunch outdoors amidst the breathtaking mountain views – “soft bread and thin lefse, Butter and cheese, pork and wind-dried reindeer meat, lard, boiled beef brisket, two large barrels of German ale and a small mug of mead. “Lavrans gives Kristin” all the beer she can drink along with frequent sips of mead “and says,” God Gifts will do you good, not harm, all that are still growing. The ale will give you sweet red blood and let you sleep well. “The whole party falls asleep in the midday sun. Kristin, who is not used to drinking, watches with them Headache and dry mouth and accidentally wanders down the wooded slope, where she is first tied up by her reflection in a stream and then sees an apparition, a woman with a “pale face”. “Flowing, flax-colored hair” and “full breasts”, who are “covered in brooches and shiny necklaces.” Kristin flees in fear, but the damage has been done.
The woman is an elven maiden. In Norwegian folklore, writes Harbison, the elven maiden stands for “kidnapping and erotic abandonment; It is their misery to lure young girls into the mountain for orgies with the mountain king. “Later it will be Kristin’s fate to defy the advice of her wise and good father, the values of her community and the expectations of her religion, and to turn down a most appropriate fiancée, Simon Darre, for another man, Erlend Nikulausson, whom she in wild , sootty, sexual love falls. The reflection in the water is a reference to the myth of the daffodil, an inspiration for Le Roman de la Rose, which is about a dreamer who falls in love with a beautiful rose at the bottom of a pool, but is eventually persuaded to make the “more responsible” choice: marry a woman and reproduce. In the entirety of Kristin LavransdatterThe title character struggles with her decision to choose Erlend herself and her passion for the values of her community – which with fear are also her own values. The motifs of Narcissus, the Elven Maiden and the Mountain King still appear.
Familiarity with the source material deepens the appreciation of the book’s priceless subjects and makes Harbison’s introduction to The cross Required reading. She explains that even the idea of romantic love as Kristin experienced was relatively new in the 14th century. Romantic or courtly love was “invented by poets in France in the 12th century” and represented an advance in the status of women because they were suddenly seen as worthy to inspire inspiring heights of passion. (Previously, sex with women was considered a tedious and lowly preoccupation that kept men from their real work.) Court love, however, wasn’t quite the same as we see romance today – it claimed the highest status for doomed, forbidden, secret passions , usually between people who were married but not to each other. The beautiful, unreachable rose at the bottom of the pool in Le Roman de la Rose is a reminder of that kind of love. In an echo of his symbolism, Kristin and Erlend’s first trip together is in a rose garden.
Le Roman de la RoseHowever, it is a forked text. The first part, extolling the values of courtly love, was written by an author; The second, a Palinode rejecting this form of love, was written by another author 45 years later. Meanwhile, Harbison explains, Christian tradition has caught up with the newly discovered concepts of romance and erotic love and sought to tame its antisocial tendencies by pointing out that such feelings had their right place – between married men and women, around achieve the ultimate goal of procreation. Erotic abandonment became an inferior echo of divine love.
Undset’s genius, in my opinion, was the first in what Harbison calls her “brutal realism”. Kristin is pregnant even before her wedding and then almost continuously for the duration of The womanand finally gave birth to seven sons. Birth, breastfeeding and the mind and body destructive state of an almost constant pregnancy are presented realistically. Undset is also realistic when it comes to human nature: living in Kristin Lavransdatter are still recognizable to us today despite the convincing medieval backdrop of the book. Isn’t it still true that forbidden passion is the most electrifying? Could the early writers on romance have been more right than we are now? And isn’t it also true that marriage and wild, erotic love are not states that can easily coexist, and that the former is a use of the latter in the service of property, social stability and procreation, as the medieval church encouraged? The relationship between Kristin and Erlend, which is based on erotic love, is never quite right after their marriage. The motifs of the elven maiden and the daffodil reappear in the third volume when Erlend tries to convince Kristin to leave her (almost adult) children and live with him on a mountain farm, which reveals a conflict between family life and sexuality.
Undset was an outlier in its day with views that would be even less popular today. Kristin’s fight is not about sexual freedom or the ability to assert her selfhood or rights in the feminist sense, but about virtue and God. What interests me is that this does not mean to condemn sexuality, but to fully engage with its harsh and intoxicating demands. Kristin’s passion for Erlend is one of the invigorating forces of her life. It is not wrong; it participates in the divine. But it hurts other people and causes scandals, problems, complications and hardships that are indelible to Kristin’s conscience. In a way, it enriches and hurts too youwith all these babies.
Undset became a Catholic shortly afterwards Kristin Lavransdatter was published, another choice that made her unpopular with her literary counterparts. But she called herself a “pagan Catholic” and rejected the Puritan anti-sex form of Catholicism, which she believed was particularly widespread in America. The Church, as Undset writes, helps Kristin overcome the painful contradictions between their competing values.
In my own form of conflicting values, I’ve never really gotten used to the loss of self caused by motherhood – it’s worth it, but it’s always difficult. I have never found the combination of sexuality and committed relationships easy either. Undset’s vision comforts with the suggestion that such a struggle with our embodied fates is not a failure, but a form of success. “As impatient, persistent and rebellious as Kristin was,” writes Harbison on her deathbed, “she suddenly understands that her full commitment to her earthly marriage has indelibly marked her as God’s own.” (By “marriage” I would mean the broader sense of what we choose to do, whether or not to commit ourselves to another person.) Embodiment can take all forms these days. Procreation – or the choice not to reproduce – can take place in any combination of people, single or connected, of any gender, but we all have our own forms of embodied struggle and they seldom correspond to what they “are meant to be”. Undset’s brutal realism was to admit it and then offer a church that admitted and helped too. I’m not sure if there ever was a church – strictly forbidding and condemning sexuality in various ways is more what we expect – but I wish it were. It would have been a miracle for me to feel less alone over the years with perfect oatmeal.
I didn’t make this oatmeal for my Undset inspired feast (and I hope none of you ever do – the blender step really is unnecessary). Instead, I turned to the other foods available in Kristin Lavransdatter, simple dishes like the aforementioned “boiled brisket” and “soft barley bread”. The only dessert mentioned is “Gingerbread from Oslo”, and it appears twice, so I also shaped it with a fancy rolling pin that looks Scandinavian to me. The food descriptions are easy to flavor and detailed (possibly because there wasn’t much seasoning in 14th century Norway), but I learned a lot of interesting things about the food traditions. In a long passage, Kristin explains an old style of table that can be easily folded and removed so that the extended household can sleep on the hallway floor. In another case, Erlend instructs them to sprinkle “junipers and flowers” on the floor, “to put the best pillows on the benches” and to cover the table with a linen cloth. When styling my food, I spread dried grass and flowers on the table to evoke this spirit. I also cheated and added the garden and orchard ingredients mentioned in the rose garden scene – one of the nicest in the book – to my beef brisket: dill and celery, onions and cherries.
Everywhere in medieval Norway there was food, drink and often many varieties on the same table – wines and meads, ales strong and weak. The resulting drunkenness is another aspect of the harsh realism of the books and another example of the dual nature of God’s gifts. My spirits advisor Hank Zona found me not just as mead, but as a mead trend that happens to reflect both Kristin LavransdatterPagan Catholic spirituality and some of our more modern struggles to live virtuously and position ourselves in our broader human community. First, I spoke to a mead maker named Eileen Coles, whom I met through the Norwegian immigrant community in Brooklyn. Coles brews mead as a holy drink in pagan tradition. (Pagan is a term used for the pre-Christian Scandinavian and Northern European religions.) Coles noted that mead can be found worldwide “everywhere you can find beehives, in places as far away as India, Ethiopia and China,” but that it and beer are more common in Northern Europe due to the climate. Since the grapes do not grow well in the cold, “people get by with what was available – grains, herbs and honey”.
For those of us who can’t make our mead at home, Zona suggests two commercial mead makers: Melovino (a name that includes the Latin words for “honey” and “wine”) in Vauxhall, New Jersey, and Enlightenment Wines, in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Sergio Moutela, the owner of Melovino, started out as a home brewer; He became interested in mead because it was a kind of crossover from the local winemaking tradition of his Portuguese immigrant family. Zona and I chose two bottles from Melovino: Au Contraire, a puristic sip “only vinified honey and no aromas,” says Zona; and Once Bitten Twice Dry, a mead cider co-ferment made from local apples. Our Meads from Enlightenment are St. Crimson – a “dry black mead” made from local blackcurrants and honey that has been spontaneously fermented in oak barrels for more than a year – and Naught, a dry mead made from raw wildflower honey that is also spontaneously fermented ( This means that the natural organisms present in honey are used to start the fermentation process. Enlightenment mead maker Raphael Lyon also emphasized that while it is correct to associate mead with a Northern European tradition, it is not Whole story is: The drink is an ancient and global tradition. His method of using only local ingredients found in New York State connects him to this wider community. “If you look at the making of mead, make it is different wherever he is, “he said,” but you do it the same way, namely that people use what grows locally st. “
The black currant mead went particularly well with my beef stew. To determine this, my photographer and I tried all four generously and found for ourselves that the high alcohol content of mead and the added sugar in the honey make it, as Coles said, a “sippin drink”. We got drunk. In contrast to Kristin, we didn’t fall asleep or wake up on a mountain slope afterwards to be lured away by elf girls – unless this is connected in a broader sense with embodiment and has already happened to all of us.
Medieval barley bread
Adapted from Medieval-Recipes.com.
4 teaspoons of yeast
1/3 cup of brown ale
12 ounces of bread flour
12 ounces of barley flour
1 1/2 teaspoons of salt
1 1/2 cups of warm water
2 teaspoons of honey
Preheat the oven to 450.
Mix the yeast, ale, warm water and honey in the bowl of a stand mixer and let sit for five minutes until the yeast bubbles. If the mixture doesn’t puff up, the yeast is dead and you will have to start over with another yeast.
While the yeast is testing, mix the bread flour, barley flour, and salt in a large bowl. Once the yeast has become bubbly, add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and mix with the batter attachment. If it doesn’t come together, gradually add more warm water until you have a cohesive batter.
Grease a large bowl with a little neutral oil. Put the dough in it, cover and set aside in a warm place until the volume doubles (check after half an hour). As soon as the dough has risen, knock it down, shape it and place it in the cooking vessel so that it rises again. (A three and a half liter Dutch oven or nine by four inch loaf pan would work.)
Once the batter has risen, place it in the preheated oven and bake for forty-five minutes to an hour, until the top is golden and the bottom makes a hollow sound when you tap on it.
Serve with butter.
Beef stew with dill and cherries
a pound of brisket, cut into three-quarter inch pieces
Salt (to taste)
Pepper (to taste)
2 tbsp flour
1 tbsp butter
2 tbsp neutral tasting oil
a small chopped onion
a rib of celery, chopped
1 1/2 cups of broth or water
1/4 cup black currant mead (optional)
1/8 tsp celery seeds
1/3 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup dill, chopped
Add plenty of salt and pepper to the brisket. Place the pieces of meat in a freezer bag, add flour and shake until the meat is evenly coated.
Put a three and a half liter Dutch oven on medium heat and add the butter and oil. When the butter has melted and the foam has subsided, add about half of the brisket, far apart, so that the meat turns brown instead of steam. Fry until the meat is well browned on all sides. Remove the first batch of meat and brown the second batch. Remove and reserve.
Take the pan off the heat to cool down a bit and turn the heat on low. After a few minutes, put the pan back on the stove, add the onions and celery and cook until the vegetables are wilted.
Return the meat to the pan along with the broth, celery seeds, and blackcurrant mead (if you are using it). Bring to a boil, then bring to a boil and cook covered for an hour. Remove the lid and cook for another 45 minutes, until the brisket is tender. Add the cherries in the last five minutes of cooking and the dill at the very end. Flavor for seasoning.
Gingerbread from Oslo
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen.
3 cups of flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 teaspoons of ground ginger
2 teaspoons of ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon salt
a piece of butter at room temperature
1/2 cup wrapped in dark brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking powder, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, and salt and set aside. In a large bowl, beat the butter and brown sugar with an electric mixer until frothy. Mix in the egg and molasses. Add flour mixture and mix on low until just combined. Divide the dough in half and wrap in plastic. Chill to medium firm, about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured work surface until it is an inch thick. I rolled mine a second time with a special rolling pin to create a pattern, but you can also use knives to create shapes of your choice. Spread on baking sheets lined with parchment paper two inches apart and refrigerate again for about fifteen minutes. Bake the cookies crispy but not dark, about twelve to fourteen minutes. Let cool on wire racks.
Please visit Valerie Stivers and Hank Zona on Friday June 4th at 6am P.M. for virtual drinks with an undset theme The Paris ReviewInstagram account. We’ll discuss food and drink in Undset’s paper. Special guest Raphael Lyon from Enlightenment Wines will join us.
The meads featured in the story are Au Contraire and Once Bitten Twice Dry by Melovino and St. Crimson and Naught by Enlightenment Wines. Most can be ordered through the mead manufacturers’ websites. If you don’t have mead on hand, bring wine or beer – or all three, as they did Kristin Lavransdattar. Anyone who wants more specific advice on choosing a drink to taste can email us ([email protected]).
Valerie Stivers is a writer and lives in New York. Read previous installments of Eat Your Words.