My earliest lasting recollection of my mother places here in the kitchen of our two-story house on the Great Plains. Her fair-complexioned cheeks are flushed from the heat of the wood-burning range she has stoked in preparation for cooking on top of it and baking in its oven, and she bends with spirit to her work.
The kitchen's aromas perfumed the house of my childhood. I was particularly enticed by the fragrance of baking bread, which my mother made regularly. She also turned out cinnamon rolls often, and it took no particularly keen nose to enjoy their olfactory benison. My mother delighted in cookie-making that filled the house with the scent of cloves, nutmeg, ginger and other aromatics.
As the summers waned toward autumn, the predominant kitchen fragrance arose from pickle-making -- a symphony of redolence produced by simmering vinegar, celery, onions, peppers and dill.
In the fall, prairie chickens, grouse and wild ducks cooked simply in a frying pan, or roasted with sage dressing produced mouth-watering savor. That season reached a climax with the flight of Canada geese; those wayfarers that we shot were superb to smell as they roasted and quintessentially delicate eating.
The southbound flight of waterfowl signaled that winter was near. Winter frequently was brutal. Blizzards dumped several feet of snow that high winds blew into drifts that reached the eaves of our house. Forty degrees below zero was common.
In such weather, the kitchen was a place of refuge. The range was constantly in use for cooking, which meant it was the warmest room in the house. Coal stoves served to take the chill off the rest of the house, but we tended not to linger in the other rooms in winter until my father installed a central hot air furnace in the 1920s.
But winter also meant Christmas and the traditional holiday fare that sprang from my family's heritage.
Larimore, N.D., the town of about 1,000 where I was born and spent my boyhood, is in the eastern part of the state, 28 miles from the Minnesota boundary, about 75 miles from Canada and 150 from South Dakota. It was nearly 250 miles across the great aching spaces, much of it unbroken prairie that started right out of our back door, to the Old West frontier where Theodore Roosevelt ranched and held his own against the roughnecks. (The buffalo roam in the T. R. Park today, but the deer and antelope gave out long ago.)
The ethnic majority in Larimore and the surrounding countryside was Scandinavian, immigrants and first-generation American-born. In addition to the Scandinavian majority, Larimore had a smattering of American-born citizens of other European heritage, people like my father, whose parents emigrated from Germany. (Among the inhabitants, as I recall, were exactly one Jew and one black. Larimoreans tended to pay close attention to one's ancestry, and one frequently heard a North Dakota-born resident, indeed one whose parents were North Dakota-born, described as a "Norwegian" or a "Swede."
Many of my classmates in the public school, born in Larimore just like me, spoke with marked Scandinavian accents, for the tongue of the old country was the language of the home -- their parents knew no other. For those children a jug was a yug, think was tink, cheese cheece, and so on.
Everyone in Larimore knew almost everyone else in town and many farmers in the countryside surrounding. The atmosphere was one of conviviality, with little formality and much goodwill; people would call unannounced and were always welcomed. This was particularly true during the Christmas season: my mother always had holiday cookies and cakes made in advance to offer to guests, and a full coffeepot was ever ready at the back of the stove.
My mother's friend Mrs. Thorsen gave us sweet butter periodically -- the presentation of the regular holiday crock was always a social occasion. The crock was stone and the butter had a fancy swirl on top, a decoration Mrs. Thorsen made as she had ladled the butter from the churn. She was a wispy, gray-haired lady who wore the traditional handmade Norwegian lace headdress. She spoke no English, but she and my mother would natter away in Norwegian over countless cups of coffee and sweets.
While we depended heavily on chicken, eggs and vegetables we raised ourselves, staples, meat and occasionally fish, came from merchants in town. Larimore's only butcher shop was owned and run by Mr. Gass, father of Writer William Gass. He knew his business, and was slightly touchy. My mother bought a pail of lard from him (he had rendered it himself) and when she reached the bottom she found a mouse. In high dudgeon she complained to Mr. Gass. His reply, in his thick German accent, was "Vell, I didn't charge you for the mouse."
In my youth, Larimore still had some flavor of the frontier and was a town that offered opportunity to the energetic and the lucky. When my father arrived there from his native Iowa some time around the turn of the century, he had his picture taken in front of the Swain House, the town's modest hotel. The next year he owned the hotel. As the years passed, he acquired other business interests in the town.
Dr. Welch, the town's physician, contributed to the frontier flavor. He'd pack his physician's bag, hitch his horse to his buggy -- sled in winter -- and call on patients at all hours of the day and night without a care as to whether they lived in town or on a distant farm.
Dr. Eisenlahr, the veterinarian, was equally available. He had a bedroom of sorts in the barn across the street from our house that was his hospital for sick farm animals. He seldom took off more than his shoes before rolling into his bunk, for he often got urgent calls in the middle of the night, summoning him to the stallside of stricken animals.
But in contrast to the towns of the Old West, Larimore had no saloon. This was Prohibition time, and the local citizenry was sufficiently respectful of Carrie Nation's triumph that no speakeasy was permitted.
Thirsty Larimoreans resorted to the town's one bootlegger. On short notice he could fill an order for a halfpint to a gallon of grain alcohol (called "alkie" or just "a"). Thus armed, the drinker could quickly transform a soft drink into a hard one, or compound his own cocktail with fruit juice. Another liquid route was to spike near-beer, which was dealcoholized beer that was widely sold. Its presence in a store was often confessed by a sign which read "Near Beer Here, No Beer Here." Spiking was a simple operation: uncap a bottle of near-beer, fill the neck space with alkie, grasp the bottle by the neck with thumb over the top and invert. In a minute the bottle was returned to right side up -- infused with a kick. Everyone had his favorite near-beer for spiking. Schmidt Select was popular, at least so the older fellows told me.
You didn't get a drink in a bar unless you drove 28 miles to an East Grand Forks, Minn., speakeasy or 75 miles to Canada. In those days our neighbor to the north was awash with surcease for Americans looking for the cup that cheers.
To avoid such trouble and expense many ignorers of the W.C.T.U. fermented their own wine based on things such as wild chokecherries, rhubarb, dandelions and plums, and spiked the resultant skullcracker with alkie. My father made beet wine (Chateau Mal de Tete). Home brewing was popular and resulted in something peripherally like beer. My father made it until one midnight batch in our cellar blew the bottle stoppers with the sound of a string of firecrackers. It awakened everyone in the house and sprayed the cellar ceiling and shelves of home canned fruits and vegetables.
Considering the number of Scandinavians (by birth or by cultural inheritance) in Larimore and its surrounding countryside, it was no wonder that the Lutheran Church had a large congregation. The Lutheran ladies' aid raised money for the church by putting into practice the lessons in Scandinavian cookery they had learned from their mothers. (True to the pattern, my mother learned to cook from her Norwegian-born mother.) Their annual supper, for which they charged $1 per person (unlimited helpings), always attracted heavy patronage, for the price was right, the dining companions friendly and the food authentically Scandinavian.
I have only the sketchiest recipes from my mother's kitchen, but I remember the things she cooked and were served at the church supper: lutefisk, made from dired cod and called by some the national dish of Norway; lefse, a kind of thin griddlecake; and fattigmann, a cruller-like sweet, shatteringly crisp and delectable. The recipes for them that I use these days I have adapted from old Norwegian cookbooks.
The centerpiece of the church supper was always lutefisk, Norwegian for "lyefish." The basic element is cod that abounds in the waters around Norway. The fish are dried by hanging them from six to 12 weeks in the crisp Arctic air until they have lost about 85 percent of their moisture. At this point they are board-stiff and will keep indefinitely; you can stack the planks of dried fish like cordwood. At this stage it is logical that the fish could be readied for cooking by soaking it in water. But some thousand years ago Norwegians soaked the dried fish first in water, then in a solution of birch ashes and finally in fresh water. The alkaline bath softened the cod. Today Norwegian fishmongers use sodium hydroxide (caustic soda) instead of birch ashes, but they get the same result.
Frozen lutefisk imported from Norway is available in Washington only during the Christmas season and, so far as I know, only at Wagshal's Delicatessen, 4855 Massachusetts Ave. NW (363-5698). It is $12 for a 2 1/2-pound bag. Here are two ways to cook it: TRADITIONAL LUTEFISK
If you prefer a firm-textured fish instead of a soft one (which it will be if you do nothing), cut the fish in serving pieces. Sprinkle the pieces with salt and let stand for several hours. Rinse in cold water. Set to one side.
Choose a large kettle of some metal other than aluminum (which will darken if used). Fill it with enough water to cover the fish pieces when added. Bring to a boil, add one level teaspoon of salt for each quart of water, and when the kettle boils again, add fish pieces. Bring to a boil, remove kettle from fire. Skim and let stand five to ten minutes. Serve immediately.
The fish can also be prepared without added water. Put serving pieces of fish in a kettle. Season with one-half teaspoon of salt for each pound of lutefisk. Place over low heat. This should draw water out of the fish. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Let stand five to ten minutes. Serve immediately. Baked LUTEFISK
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees. Place lutefisk on a sheet of double aluminum foil, skin side down, and season with salt. Fold foil to make an air-tight package. Place on a rack in a large pan and bake 20 minutes. Cut a hole in the foil to drain accumulated water. Serve immediately.
Drawn butter and boiled potatoes are traditional accompaniments, with salt and freshly ground pepper. A simple cream sauce, mustard, bacon drippings and melted goat cheese also go well. Boiled green dried peas often are served.
But without doubt, a must with lutefisk is lefse, the Norwegian flatbread. As I recall if from home and the church suppers, it was about dinner plate size and shape, a circle of bread that one buttered, rolled up like a fat cigar and ate. Some lutefisk lovers roll up pieces of lutefisk in lefse and eat it like a hot dog.
Lefse takes many forms, including several sweet ones that call for different kinds of flour and a separate rich batter. On the Great Plains a simple and economical version was based on potatoes. Here is the recipe. LEFSE 16 pieces 3 large baking potatoes 2 tablespoons butter 1/2 cup heavy cream 1/2 teaspoon sugar 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup flour
Boil potatoes in their skins, peel and put through a ricer. Mix potatoes and other ingredients, including half the flour, and chill eight hours or overnight. Remove from refrigerator, add remaining flour. Divide dough into 16 balls. Roll them out on a floured board as thin as possible and dinner-plate size. Cook on a hot griddle, turning frequently until brown spots about dime-size dapple both sides.
My mother cooked lefse on top of the kitchen range. Their aroma filled the house. I loved them right off the stove, spread with butter, sprinkled with sugar and rolled up.
In addition to the lutefisk and lefse, Norwegians serve other traditional things at Christmas. One of these is julekake, which means Christmas bread, a rich concoction Americans would probably call coffee cake. Here is a simple version. Julekake 3 large eggs 1 1/4 cups sugar 5 tablespoons melted butter 1 1/2 cups milk 1 cup raisins 1/2 cup finely diced citron 2 tablespoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon powdered cardamon
In a large mixing bowl beat eggs thoroughly with sugar. Add milk, butter, raisins and citron, and mix well. Sift flour with baking powder, salt and cardamom.
Incorporate flour with rest of ingredients and beat the resulting dough until it has the consistency of bread dough.
Butter two loaf pans. Divide dough and place half in each pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 60 minutes or until golden on top. This cake is served with coffee at breakfast or Christmas Eve.
My favorite Norwegian sweet has always been fattigmann, perhaps because my mother made it so often and so well. This is a kind of cruller dating from 1845. The name means "poor man's treat." Norwegian farmers are said to be responsible for naming the delicacy, which was made from their own ample supply of cream and eggs and a minimum of store-bought components. Here is the least expensive way to make it: FATTIGMANN 4 egg yolks 4 tablespoons sugar 4 tablespoons whipping cream 1 1/2 cups flour 6 crushed cardamom seeds
Beat egg yolks and sugar to medium thick consistency. Add whipped cream. Sift flour into the mixture to make a soft dough. Add flour if needed but keep the dough soft. Cover and chill overnight.
Roll out a small amount at a time, rolling as thin as possible, using flour sparingly. Cut rolled-out dough in diamond shape, using a fluted pastry wheel to make edges attractive. Some recipes say the shapes should be 2 inches by 2 inches, but my mother's were larger than that, say 5 by 5. Whatever the size, cut a 1-inch slit below one point and slip the opposite point through it. Fry in medium hot oil or lard until golden brown and crisp with large bubbles on both sides.
My mother's version was sprinkled with powdered sugar. Delicious, as were those we polished off at a festive Lutheran Church supper, along with a last cup of the fine coffee that had been flowing throughout the feast.