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A Christmas haven for Scandinavians

Especially at yuletide, Olson's Deli in L.A. offers a taste of the homeland for nostalgic Swedes. But about the lutefisk....

December 24, 2006|Mary MacVean | Times Staff Writer

Outside the white metal screen doors of Olson's Delicatessen and Gift Shop, the world has transformed in the last half a century. Little Ethiopia is a short walk away, and the beginnings of an arts and shopping strip glimmer just down a gritty stretch of Pico Boulevard.

But go inside and you're transported to another time and place: The language is Swedish (or Norwegian or Danish); the joking, gentle; the smells, of liver pate. This last week, Olson's was the essence of Christmas in Scandinavia and the warm feelings of its patrons for their homeland.

The stove is 50 years old, the freezer a little older. A list of offerings is pressed into a black board with white plastic letters; other signs are written by hand with marker -- frequently not in English.

During much of the year, the shop is sleepy, the shelves sometimes clearance-sale empty. Workers from neighborhood businesses come in for sandwiches at lunchtime, but it's easy to be the only customer.

More than half of Olson's annual business is done at Christmastime, and come mid-December, the store is stuffed with imported and homemade products. Former workers are rehired to help out. And as of early November, a sign goes up announcing "No Sandwiches Nov. 12-Jan. 14."

On a Saturday shortly before Christmas, 15 people were lined up in the chill before the shop opened. All morning, the chimes at the door rang as families made their holiday pilgrimage, waiting in line at the counter to order their food.

At the heart of it all is the owner, the maestro of the pre-Christmas bustle: 83-year-old Bertil Ohlsson.

"Some people don't eat this food all year long. A lot of people, you only see them in December," said Ohlsson (not the store's original Olson), as he let people in, wearing crisp khakis and a blue shirt covered with a white apron.

Many of his customers know him by name and greet him affectionately.

"This is our tradition. This is part of Christmas," said Elaine Bryant of Wildomar, shopping with her father, Harry Oberg, her sister, J.J. Oberg, and her 10-year-old son, Troy.

Bryant has shopped at Olson's most of her life and said she misses Ohlsson's wife, Helene, who died a few years ago. "When I was a kid, she would pull us in the back for cookies."

During the holidays, Olson's produces 1,100 liver pates (from Helene Ohlsson's recipe), dozens of sugar-cured hams called Julskinka, potato sausage, container after container of baked brown beans and pickled herring salad.

The deli also sells Danish pork sausage, hundreds of loaves of a brown rye bread called limpa, smoked eel, havarti cheese, and cloudberry and lingonberry preserves.

Some customers come for the ornaments and small red painted wooden horses from Sweden, or for the candy and the candles and the tiny paper flags of each country that are placed on holiday tables or strung on Christmas trees.

But shoppers also come to see Ohlsson, who comes from a town in southern Sweden and greets people as he works as if he's having a party -- a Swedish party where other Scandinavians are generously tolerated.

"Mr. Ohlsson is always a little disappointed that I'm Norwegian and not Swedish. And he doesn't hide that fact," said Kelly Rundle, who has been coming with his wife, Tammy, each year since 1989 to stock up for Christmas Eve dinner at their Mar Vista home.

When another patron hands over more than $400 for his purchases, Ohlsson chides him for spending so little. And when someone brags that he's been coming to the store for 25 years, Ohlsson retorts: "Where were you before that? I've been here 50 years."

Tom Westbye, a native of Sweden who came to the United States 58 years ago, lives in Carlsbad and has been coming to Olson's a few times a year for 20 years. This time, he's filled three baskets with such things as potato sausages and has three brown bags with Swedish bone-in hams.

"You try to create at Christmastime a sense of your heritage," he said.

Ohlsson "tried to close once, four or five years ago," Westbye said; Ohlsson's daughter is not interested in taking over the business. "There was such a protest: 'You can't!' "

And he didn't. Not yet.

"We get worried it won't be here next year; he always talks about retiring," said Tom Newquist of Valencia, who was shopping with his wife of 42 years and grown daughter for the makings of Christmas Eve dinner for 15 to 20 people.

His family's table will hold ham, beans, potato sausage, liver pate and meatballs.

But no lutefisk. "That's one thing I never could get next to," Newquist said.

Even Ohlsson won't eat lutefisk, a lye-treated fish. On a shelf of his shop there's a mug that says: "It's Better to Give Than to Receive Lutefisk."

And did you hear the one about the folks who put out lutefisk in an effort to catch some pesky raccoons, Kelly Rundle asked as he held a big package of frozen lutefisk.

"They ended up with a bunch of Norwegians under their house."

But for many people, including the Rundles -- who hope to make a documentary film about this food that people love to hate -- it would not be Christmas without lutefisk.

On Sunday, Tammy Rundle will use her husband's grandmother's recipe for potato pancakes called lefse. Kelly will make the lutefisk. They'll spread a layer of mashed potatoes on the lefse and then the lutefisk, melted butter, and salt and pepper.

For Tammy, who first celebrated Christmas with Kelly 27 years ago, it is an acquired taste. She went to dinner with his family thinking: "Oh, this is going to be great. And then they rolled out the lutefisk.... They all watched me."

This year, at their Mar Vista feast, they won't have too many people at the table.

"We're serving lutefisk," Rundle said, "so you can't expect a lot of people, after all."

mary.macvean@latimes.com

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