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My Family Traditions


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All my grandparents came from Swedish-speaking Österbotten and when they emigrated to the US, they brought their traditions with them. Their children - my parents - attended Swedish-speaking schools and church and ate food that was prepared the way it was prepared by Finlanders in Finland. My maternal grandparents died before I was born but I learned about them from their children. My paternal grandfather died before I was born, but I do remember my paternal grandmother. She could not speak English but spoke only Swedish - the only word I could understand was Juni. She always wore a long black skirt with a white blouse and high-buttoned shoes. When I was a month old my parents took me to visit my grandmother. They didn't own a car and took the train - a long all-day trip - so that she could see her first grandchild. As a child I remember that when we visited her we ate limpa, herring salad, small boiled potatoes which were dipped in butter and potato water[1], blood bread, lutfisk, fruit soup, etc. She didn't know any American recipes and cooked what she had eaten in Finland.

While I lived at home we carried on the old traditions. On Christmas Eve we had lutfisk with cream sauce over boiled potatoes, lingonberries, rye bread and rice pudding. All of us loved lutfisk except my youngest sister, so we had Swedish meatballs for her. My father would get a bucket of fresh blood from the butcher and make blood bread. He called it kam stekt[2] (I can't spell it the way it sounded) I can picture him mixing the flour into the blood and forming it into loaves which were baked like any other bread. Then it was sliced and stored in cloth sugar sacks to dry. It was the basis for our supper every Saturday night. We broke the bread into smaller pieces, fried diced salt pork and added the bread, pork and diced potatoes into a pot with a mixture of milk and water and cooked until the bread softened and the potatoes were done. It was tasty and the water did not turn blood red! In fact, blood bread is tasteless and has to be flavored with other food.

One of my mother's brothers worked in a fish market so we always had fresh fish, oysters, herring, etc. At Christmas time he brought us a dried lutfisk. It was a long fish and as hard as a rock. My father soaked it in water in the basement until it softened. I remember he went to the basement and changed the water every day. When it was cooked the house didn't smell very nice, but the fish tasted good. We made a basic white sauce to serve over it. I've heard that Norwegians poured melted butter over their lutfisk.

We attended the Swedish Lutheran church in town and every Christmas the church ladies prepared lutfisk and the public was invited. I invited my boss who was English. He took his wife and they told me later how much they enjoyed eating lutfisk for the first time.

My father always had a keg of herring in the basement for pickled herring and also for herring salad. I still make them for my own use. I remember being on a ship that sailed from Oslo to Copenhagen and they served a smörgåsbord. I made many trips to the table heaping my plate with crayfish, herring, shrimp, etc. while my American friends avoided the seafood and stuck with pork, beef and ham. I told them they can get that stuff at home and they should try eating Scandinavian once in a while.

When I lived in D.C. my friends and I entertained small parties in our apartments each weekend. On one occasion I invited my former bosses, plus friends from the various offices where I had worked, plus my church friends and then I set out a smörgåsbord. Most of them had never eaten Scandinavian food, but they were willing to try herring salad, brown beans, pickled herring, Swedish meatballs, Swedish rye bread, etc. I was tickled to notice that some took second helpings and admitted how much they liked it.

One of our friends in D.C. always volunteered to cook the lutfisk when the church had lutfisk dinners for the public. In those days there was no air conditioning and he and his crew labored in the steamy hot kitchen preparing the dinners. He was German but said they also ate lutfisk when he was growing up.

Another memory from childhood was filébunka[3]. I don't remember where we got our starter but there was always a big bowl of filé in the cupboard. My father ate it plain, but we kids liked sugar on ours. When my father's sister visited Finland one year, she brought back a small bottle of starter with her when she sailed on the Drottningholm. And we heard that some people soaked a handkerchief in the filé, dried it and brought it back to the US where they soaked it and started another batch of filé. Last year a woman called me from Washington State and said that she would send me a starter if she could get some, but she couldn't get it.

One year when I visited relatives in Finland, they called me to the dinner table and then stood there and smiled at me when I looked at the table. In the center stood a large bowl of blood bread, ready to eat. They thought they were going to surprise me but I told them I knew what it was. While my father was still living, a relative in Finland would send him packages of blood bread they had made, although they said they can also buy it ready made in Finland.

Other foods I remember are pea soup, Pepparkakor, fruit soup (fruktsoppa), hardtack (Knäckebröd) which we made at home and also bought at the store, cucumber salad, liver sausage, herring hash, pickled salmon (Gravlax), Kringlor cookies, and more.

No recipe was needed to make blood bread or lutfisk. Here are a few of the recipes we had. I am the last of our family and none of my nieces, nephew, grand nieces, etc. will even sample any of these foods. So the tradition will end with me. I'm the only one who knows the Swedish table grace and am asked to say it at Christmas dinner.

Bruna Boner (Swedish Brown Beans)

1 lb. brown beans
4-5 tbsp. dark Karo syrup
4-5 tbsp. brown sugar
4-5 tbsp. vinegar
salt to taste
1 tbsp. cornstarch
2-3 tbsp. flour

Soak beans in cold water overnight. Drain. Cook in salted water until tender. Add Karo, brown sugar and vinegar. Thicken with flour and cornstarch. Add more sugar and syrup, if desired.

Herring and Beet Salad

1 c. diced pickled herring
2 apples, cut fine
4-5 cooked potatoes, diced
5-6 beets, cut into strips
2 tbsp. minced onion
salt and pepper
1 c. sour cream
2 tbsp. mayonnaise
sugar and vinegar to season

Combine fish, apples and vegetables. Season with salt and papper. Add mayonnaise to sour cream and mix well. Add a little vinegar and sugar to season. Add to first mixture. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving. There are other variations of this salad.

Hardtack (Knäckebröd)

1 quart hot water
1 c. sugar
3/4 c. shortening
2 yeast cakes

Put sugar, salt and shortening in hot water. Cool to lukewarm. Add enough four to make a sponge and add yeast which has been dissolved in 1/2 c. warm water with 1 tsp. sugar for a few minutes. Add enough flour to make a dough and let rise until double in bulk. Divide into pieces about the size of a small hamburger bun, roll out very thin and bake in a hot oven.

Cucumber Salad

Rinse and pare 1 large cucumber. Score it by pulling the tines of a fork lengthwise. Cut cuke into very thin slices. Put in shallow bowl. Mix well:
1/3 c. cider vinegar, 5 tbsp water, 5 tbsp sugar, 1/2 tsp salt and few grains white pepper.
Pour over cucumber slices and toss to coat evenly. Cover and refrigerate several hours.
8-10 servings.

June Pelo

May 31, 2010


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