Stan Nelson's Julbord party 'honors everybody who has touched his life'
Preparations for the next party start as soon as this year's ends.
ST. PAUL — The preparations for Stan Nelson’s next Julbord party start as soon as this year’s ends.
Nelson and his catering staff carefully weigh how much is left of each of the approximately 50 Scandinavian dishes he serves at his St. Paul home on the Saturday afternoon before Christmas.
“We do ‘lessons learned/best practices’ of what we need to change,” he said. “It’s an inventory of things at the end of the night. We record the amount we made and the amount of leftovers. Does something get pared down to half? Or does it simply have to come off? It’s a different time now. People don’t eat carbs the way they used to. You need to meet guests where they are at and figure out what they will enjoy.”
The dishes, which Nelson starts preparing and freezing in October, include Janssons frestelse, a Swedish potato and fish gratin; Lammekjøttboller, Norwegian lamb meatballs; Laks i Butterdeig, a Norwegian salmon pastry; and Lantterrin med Anka och Vildsvin, a Swedish terrine with duck and pork.
Nelson, 52, started inviting friends and family to his home on the East Side of St. Paul for a traditional Scandinavian feast on Christmas Eve in 2004. About 30 people showed up.
Now, the guest list for the Julbord, literally translating as “Christmas table,” has grown to include more than 150 people.
So many people show up that Nelson had to switch to timed entries a few years ago. The first shift includes friends from Zion Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis; the second shift includes longtime friends and friends from Concordia College in Moorhead and the University of St. Thomas and old work friends; and the third shift includes neighbors and current work friends from Securian, where Nelson works as an operations manager.
Almost all of the dishes are handmade by Nelson and his 78-year-old mother, Jean. Nelson visits his mother in his hometown of Stanley, North Dakota, for a week in November, and the two spend “four full days over the course of seven days” baking and cooking, he said.
The machinations involved in getting the dishes back to St. Paul are extraordinary. First, Nelson flies to Minot with three large empty Samsonite suitcases.
“I can just see the horror on the faces of the people at the airport,” he said. “It’s so funny because when you’re going there, you pick up this empty suitcase and put it on the scale, and the (airline employees) are already getting out the stickers that say ‘Heavy’ ready. I stop them and say, ‘It’s empty.’ ”
After cooking and baking all week, Nelson and his mother pack dozens of Rubbermaid food containers with food and freeze them.
“I like the Rubbermaid ones because they’re easily stackable, and they hold up better than the others,” he said.
Each container is secured with clear packing tape and labeled with blue painter’s tape.
“We have this whole padding system for each suitcase,” he said. “The containers have towels wrapped all around them, so it’s a tight pack.”
Nelson uses a portable scale to weigh each bag at his mother’s house.
“We pack, zip, and lift,” he said. “Check the weight. I try not to have anything over 48 pounds just in case the scales at the airport are different. It’s a lot of food that’s coming back, but everything gets home just fine.”
His luggage this year included: 600 frozen Swedish meatballs; multiple servings of frozen klubb, which are Norwegian potato dumplings; frozen Norwegian lamb meatballs; and frozen potatiskorv, a Swedish Christmas potato sausage.
“We make a lot of the meats in Stanley because it’s just easier to make all of that stuff in my mom’s larger kitchen,” he said.
By the time Stan Nelson arrives in Stanley for the food marathon, Jean Nelson has already visited Valley Custom Meats in Minot to get fresh ground lamb and other items, he said.
“When she picks me up at the airport, she’s gotten all the specialty stuff, and it’s just a final run to the grocery store for anything that is non-specialty,” he said.
Upon his return, Nelson continues to cook and bake for the next several weeks. A loyal group of friends, including Ann Starr, Tom Starr, Mary Wright and Margaret Guelzow, help each year.
Jean Nelson comes in a week before the party to help, as well.
Nelson said he has learned not to share the menu with his Norwegian mother during planning stages.
“She’ll ask questions like, ‘Do we really need three different kinds of homemade crackers?’ ” he said. “I’ll say, ‘Yes, we do, because we need the variety.’ ”
Nelson is half Swedish and half Norwegian, and he tries each year to have an equal number of Swedish items and Norwegian items on the menu.
Nelson said he stopped tracking how much he spent each year on his Julbord because knowing the dollar amount “would give (me) anxiety.”
“It’s worth the expense,” he said. “I stopped tracking because I don’t want to worry. My biggest expense is labor.”
He started hiring caterers a few years ago so that he and his mother can “fully enjoy the party” once it’s underway, he said. “We’re not worried about washing dishes or that the food is being stocked.”
One caterer is designated to keep food stocked, and one is in charge of doing the dishes, he said.
Despite hiring help, Nelson still tracked every detail on Saturday. For instance, at 1:18 p.m., he stopped midsentence to ask, “Where are the buns?”
The buns in question were the Santa Lucia buns, which were almost on the cutting block for this year’s event. But Nelson decided to experiment with miniature Santa Lucia buns — served hot out of the oven — on a tray that he himself would serve.
“This is our last attempt at those,” he said. “I just don’t want to let them go. They are best fresh, so we did a test to see if we can make them, let them rise and then put them in a ball and put them in the refrigerator. We did that. It worked.”
Jean Nelson, he said, agreed they taste good, “but she said, ‘It’s one more thing maybe that we don’t need, but it seems really important to you,’ so she’s going to let me have this one,” he said.
Nelson doesn’t spare any expense when it comes to making his homemade glogg.
“We use all premium liquor for that,” he said. “One batch is half a gallon, and it costs us over $100 to make a half-gallon. It’s an expense, but it’s like anything else: You get what you pay for. It’s worth it because if you have really good glogg, it’s so smooth, there’s no bite to it, and you can go back for a second one, and that’s what we want people to do.
“I want people to have just an exceptional experience,” he said. “I don’t ever want my name to be tied to something mediocre.”
Each dish is labeled with the name of the item in Norwegian or Swedish and the English translation.
Nick Gordon, of St. Paul, tried rödbetssallad, a Swedish beet-root salad, for the first time on Saturday.
“That really surprised me," he said. “It was really good. So was the Prästost (priest cheese).”
Gordon, who got to know Nelson through church, said he is amazed by his friend’s energy and enthusiasm for the event each year.
“It’s wonderful to see how vibrant and joyful he is throughout the day, and to end the night with such energy, I can’t believe that, either. I want to know what his trick is,” he said.
Pastor Eva Jensen, who gave the Julbord blessing, said Nelson is the most organized and generous person she knows.
“It’s a gift to be able to offer thanks to God in the midst of it,” she said before the meal on Saturday. “We give you thanks for Stan and Jean Nelson, who have faithfully gathered us together every Advent for a Julbord feast of Scandinavian delights and beverages, food, beauty and joy, love and community that endures through loss and change.”
Sara Dovre Wudali, of St. Paul, went to Concordia College in Moorhead with Nelson, and counts Julbord as a holiday highlight each year. She said she especially looks forward to the rømmegrøt, a creamy Norwegian pudding.
“Once Stan has claimed you as his, he never lets you go,” Wudali said. “He never lets go of anyone — his community, his friends, colleagues. He honors everybody who has touched his life.”