Traditions: the food
I tromped through the back yard in my winter boots, scrutinizing every corner of our property. Where was it? I better find it soon—if it still existed—and locating it outside was better than inside at a later date. Lala loped along next to me, sniffing the ground.
I squinted into the raised garden and peeled back some soggy leaves to search one of the dog’s favorite hiding spots. “Where is it, Lassie?”
My dog eyed me, the old TV show reference lost on her.
Inside the house, the beginnings of turkey soup—a kick-off to the holiday season—simmered on the stove. The aroma had turned our house into a home.
Earlier that morning while preparing the ingredients for the soup, I had tossed the turkey neck to Lala and she trotted to the nearest rug to enjoy it. She was one to savor her snacks and not gulp them down like the average canine. She also had a tendency to hide them for later—either in the house or outside—as though I would steal them back if she didn’t squirrel them away. Treats had gone missing before, so this time I wasn’t taking any chances.
For a few minutes, I kept a sharp eye on the dog as she nibbled away at the chunk of flesh. But in came two texts, an urgent email, and a phone call, and my attention darted away as fast as Christmas money at the mall. Soon, the dog huffed at the door. Distracted, I let her out. But had she taken her snack with her?
As I checked all of Lala’s outdoor hiding spots with no success, I imagined the meat inside the house somewhere, a putrid smell rising throughout the month of December and finally leading us to a maggoty mass under one of our beds on Christmas morning.
“I’m sure she ate it right away,” Husband said later when I relayed the story of The Missing Turkey Neck.
I stirred the soup on the stove. “Boy, I hope you’re right.” Then I looked at Lala, dozing on the rug by the kitchen sink.
The animal switched her eyelids open, gazed at me, and winked.
“This tastes like passive aggressive hate in an edible substance,” Husband said, his tone even. He nodded like a food critic.
I stared at the gelatinous slab of lye fish on the platter between us. I hadn’t grown up with lutefisk at Christmas, but Husband and I had been willing to evaluate it for possible admittance into our family’s holiday traditions. We had bought our trial-run sample from Morey’s Market in Motley, Minnesota, and prepared toppings—melted butter and two cream sauces—for the dish.
“You say it like it’s a bad thing,” I said, helping myself to a serving. I picked out numerous bones and raised a forkful—although the jiggly cod may have done better on a spoon. After a bite, I took a swallow of water. “At least it goes down like Jell-O.”
“It reminds me of hitting a glob of fat in their feijoada in Brazil,” said Husband, reaching for the cheese tray. “I’ll pass on seconds.”
Another kind of fish—pickled herring—also graced our table. Years earlier, our wedding guests had gobbled up five gallons of it at our reception before I had even had a chance to sit down.
“I think I’ll stick with this.” I speared two kinds of herring—in honey mustard and lingonberry sauces—onto my plate. No competition with guests this time. “Let’s say lutefisk won’t be our tradition, okay?”
“Good call,” said Husband.
“This is a strange sensation,” Mom said. “Seventy-five degrees outside, and we’re making lefse.”
Lefse had always been a Christmastime delight during my childhood in northern Minnesota, and its appearance each year was as sure as the snow, its perennial backdrop. But while there was nothing cold about Mom’s visit to us in Arizona in 1999 for Thanksgiving, a piece of the wintry North had still come with her. A lefse grill and all its tools—the corrugated rolling pin, pastry board, and stick with rosemåling on its handle—had been her traveling companions on her flight from Minneapolis to Phoenix.
As we rolled out the dough and turned it onto the hot grill, Mom and I listened to Christmas music. Three-week-old Flicka snoozed nearby in her baby seat. And desert breezes floated through our screen door, reminding us we had a saguaro in our front yard instead of a snowman.
After Mom left, the lefse grill was mine to keep, and I used it beyond the winter holidays. The Scandinavian confection linked me to my roots, which were still nestled in the earth almost two-thousand miles away. And sometimes—even during Arizona’s monsoon season—I needed a taste of home.
Regular use of the grill improved my skills at the potato-y art, but Husband became an expert.
“You don’t have a drop of Norwegian blood and yet look at you,” I said, watching him roll pieces of lefse as round as full moons.
Dough shaped like ragged underwear or Africa emerged from my rolling pin back then, but the tradition wasn’t about perfection. Instead, it was about magic. More than any cookie in the world, the taste of warm lefse spirited us home—home for Christmas.
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*Names in this blog have been changed to protect my family, neighbors, and friends in the neighborhood, and in a nod of appreciation to the beloved Swedish author Maj Lindman, I’ve renamed my three blondies Flicka, Ricka, and Dicka.