Where Mjöl Meets Menudo

Fred Petters

On the corner of 16th Avenue and Lake Street, a young black man leans against a building smoking a cigarette. He puffs and watches as city buses heave past. He tips a cool nod toward a group of smiling Latino women--all hair and fingernails--crossing the street. A Mexican mother and two boys round the corner and pass a shop that looks like Christmas: It's scrolled with ribbons and flowers on the outside; the windows display biscuits and candles and dolls wearing bright dresses and clogs. The smallest boy runs his hand along the glass, can't take his eyes off of the windows. The mother pulls his arm and they disappear into La Poblanita, the Latin market a few doors down.

When Ingebretsen's Scandinavian grocery opened here almost a century ago, in 1921, Swedes and Norwegians dominated this part of Lake Street. Since then, well, things have changed. Over the past several years, the neighborhood has become predominantly Latin, its streets lined end to end with Mexican groceries and eateries. The bulk of taquerias and pozole shops alone threatens to squash legendary mainstays like Pizza Shack. Most of the white people you see are headed for Ingebretsen's front door and are obviously not from around here.

Inside the store, the scene is largely the same as it's always been: The décor is dominated by warm pastel colors, and the air is laced with singsongy voices. Friendly older ladies with puffy, cotton hair, wearing white turtlenecks and name buttons, offer tips on needlepoint. "That's called Hardanger," explains Mary Knutson, who has worked the Ingebretsen's gift shop for six years. "It's a kind of Norwegian embroidery. As you can see, men do it too." She points toward a heavyset, middle-aged guy leaning over an expanse of light blue cloth covered with fine stitching. He responds with a feeble smile. "Myself," she says, "I knit."

When I ask Knutson whether anyone from the neighborhood ever comes through the door, she admits that such interactions are rare. She recalls one Mexican woman who stopped by looking for safety pins, but didn't know the word. "There was a language problem," says Knutson. "So, we fumbled around and finally the woman pointed to my name button and said, 'Like that, only no button.'" That conversation represents quite a departure from the days when the shop's most pressing concern was the perception that it favored Swedes and Norwegians over other Scandinavians.

In Minnesota--a state often discussed with pursed lips and a Coen Brothers lilt--questions of Swedes versus Norwegians versus Finns held great import back in the early 1900s, when millions of immigrants arrived from those dark, fjorded lands. They lived huddled together in neighborhoods where they could drink "kaffe" and speak their native languages. Today, although Norway and Sweden both still maintain consulates in Minneapolis, the population has largely blended in and dispersed. There is no Swedish ghetto. There are only Swedish suburbs.

The oldest section of Ingebretsen's is the meat counter, a glass-covered buffet of pickled fish, mutton, special-recipe sausages, and ready-made meatball mix (one of their best sellers)--food referred to by shop workers as "Scandinavian comfort food." Steve Dahl, the son of one of the two owners, has worked behind the counter for 38 years. Half Swedish and half Norwegian, he's got piercing blue eyes and a graying mustache. "Only 10 percent of our customers are from the immediate area," he says. That means occasional pressure from suburban shoppers to relocate the store. "People have the perception that they are going to get mugged here," says Dahl, "but we've never had a problem. It's nice to have the Chinese and Mexicans. I'd like to see even more diversity, maybe some Germans and Italians." He adds that Ingebretsen's is committed to staying right where it is, both because of its central location--customers come from all four directions--and because "this is our store."

Down a few doors, inside La Poblanita, the setting is completely different. The ceilings are hung with piñatas, the walls with international phone cards. The smell is more spicy than sweet. Atop the meat counter, which also contains sausages (the kind that would send most Scandinavians running for their milk glasses), rests a giant jar of pig's feet floating in a mixture of vinegar, carrot, and jalapeño pepper. When I ask the owners' daughter, Carmela Morales, whether she's ever been inside Ingebretsen's, she answers, "Where is that?" When I describe the place in more detail, she recalls buying some aprons there for the shop's deli workers. "We don't go in a lot," she adds. Then she smiles at her brother Primitivo Morales and they both clam up.

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