A Norwegian father’s Christmas test

John Kelly
Columnist December 3, 2012

 When Urd Berge received a potato in the mail from a man she’d met in an AOL chat room, she thought they might have a future together. But the real question was whether he would eat her father’s sheep head.

Urd is the Norwegian Embassy’s cultural and information officer, and she told me her heartwarming story Monday morning at Union Station as we watched workers erect her country’s annual gift to Washington: a 32-foot-tall artificial Christmas tree. The tree will be dedicated at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Norwegian Ambassador Wegger Chr. Stromen will be there. So will U.S. Navy Undersecretary Robert O. Work, members of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Children’s Chorus of Washington and Santa Claus.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

But enough about them. Let’s get back to the potato. Urd’s mother lives in Texas, and 17 years ago Urd was visiting her there. The Internet was new, and Urd was poking around in a chat room when she got into conversation with an American named Todd Milbury.

“You know that movie ‘You’ve Got Mail’?” Urd asked. “We’re the original ‘You’ve Got Mail’ couple.”

Todd happened to be living in Idaho at the time, so he sent Urd the largest potato he could find. It so happens that Norwegians love potatoes. Urd was smitten.


Urd Berge Milbury stands in front of a Christmas tree that's being erected at Union Station. The tree is sponsored by the Embassy of Norway and will be lighted at 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday December 5th. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

But she knew Todd had to win over her father, an anesthesiologist who had grown up in Voss, a town in the mountains of western Norway. Voss is known for a single farmer who has kept alive an old delicacy called smalahove.

Here’s how to make smalahove: Take a sheep carcass. Cut off its head. Cut the head in half. Cook it, then smoke it in a smokehouse for a long, long time. This may sound extreme, but remember this is a culture whose cuisine includes lutefisk, codfish soaked in lye.

Smalahove is traditionally eaten around Christmas. Urd’s father made sure to always have some sent to his home on a Norwegian island for the holiday.

“This was his big test,” Urd said. “All my dates, he would invite them around Christmas time for a smalahove feast and then closely gauge their reaction. Would they eat it or not? Which part of the smalahove did they eat? Were they squeamish, and how much aquavit did it take to get the sheep’s head down? Some didn’t fare so well.”

And Todd?

“He was — how shall I say this? — very committed in his pursuit of me,” Urd said. “So he would do anything. He proceeded to clean his plate, which floored my father.”

The couple have been married for 12 years and have two children: Odin, 10, and Freya, 7. When they go to Norway even the kids eat smalahove.

“I could never get this in the United States,” Urd said. “I don’t think there’s any way I could get it through Customs.”

Out of gas?

Kevin Struthers keeps an eye on gas prices. With a commute that takes him from Shepherdstown, W.Va., to the Kennedy Center, where he’s director of jazz programs, he has to. And so he did a double take on Friday morning when he saw workers locking the doors and boarding up the pumps at the Watergate Exxon on Virginia Avenue NW. It’s famous as the Most Expensive Gas Station in D.C., with prices typically a dollar more than at the Sunoco across the street.

“I may have bought a soda there,” Kevin said. “That’s probably about it.”

What’s up? The station is closed for two-month a renovation. While it is still owned by Capitol Petroleum’s Joe Mamo, it is no longer operated by the man who set the outrageously high prices, which were designed to dissuade purchasers. Mamo promises that when it reopens, the station will have prices that are competitive with the market. That will force TV newsfolk to stand in front of some other station when filing reports on gas prices.

Falling behind for Children’s?

Giving up coffee shop java for a week or two would be a great way to save some money for Children’s National Medical Center. Our annual fundraising campaign could sure use it. Our goal by Jan. 4 is $400,000. So far we’ve raised $32,191.

If you’ve been meaning to give, please do it now. Remember that all donations go to the hospital’s uncompensated care fund, which pays the hospital bills of poor children.

Make a tax-deductible donation by going to www.childrensnational.org/washingtonpost or sending a check (payable to Children’s Hospital) to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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