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An Ode to My Mother

Chokecherry Picking

We stained our fingers deep red, and our buckets mounded high with the chokecherries we’d been gathering all morning. My mother, my children, and I had driven down to a large thicket on a side road along the mountain river. It was a forgotten spot, a little traveled place where few went. Here the chokecherry bushes billowed over the ditch on the edge of the gravel. We felt like we held a precious secret in knowing where this stash of bitter berries grew. The berries grew abundantly, and we picked with abandon.

Now as we looked at our haul, we knew the work was far from over. We needed to turn these currently inedible berries into the sweet and delicious canned goods we treasured all winter long. My mother, a native of Montana, had grown up around these wild gems and knew the secrets to pulling out their flavor. We followed her lead as she patiently instructed us on how to clean and cook them and then extract the meat from the inner seed, resulting in a thick liquid. This deep, garnet-colored juice became the foundation for our jams and syrups. 

The tradition continues: this year's strawberry jam

Wild Grapes

Not long after this, my mom and I went through a similar process again, this time in Minnesota. It was early September, the time of year when the wild grapes ripen. We picked on the fence lines that bordered the freeways in spots where birds had planted the grape seeds years before. Once again buckets filled the kitchen table, and as we looked upon the bounty we had just gathered, we knew we had hours of work ahead of us. Undaunted, my mom pulled out the big pots from the cupboards, filled the sink with cool water, and we began the tasks of sorting and cleaning the grapes and then creating the delectable wild grape jam we treasured so much.

Untamed grapes found in our neighborhood

I am grateful that my mom taught me how to go out into the woods and pick wild berries, be it wild blueberries, wild plums, wild grapes, or chokecherries. The concentrated nature of wild fruit results in an unusually flavorful jam. I grew up eating these delicacies, so they became a part of my cherished memory.

Mom in 2017

Growing Up

My mother was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants who had homesteaded land in eastern Montana. Life on the prairie had not been easy for my grandparents as they worked tirelessly to tame the land and carve out a ranch. Cold, heat, grasshoppers, an overall lack of resources, the Great Depression, and more all worked against their success. I’m not sure that my mom or her siblings ever noticed, however. The spirit in the home was one of resolve, humble tenacity, and a calm graciousness. They crafted niceties from scraps, making intricately embroidered linens, dinners for neighbors, and warm loaves of bread baked in a coal-fired oven. 

Mom's wild rice soup

You see, it was a part of my mom’s inner soul to create sweet delicacies from sour grapes. It was who her parents had been and their parents before them. Eeking out beauty from scarcity. Hospitality bubbled up from a natural interest in others and their wellbeing. This graciousness was ingrained in her fiber as she welcomed family, friends, and strangers alike into the home. They often stayed for just a cup of coffee and a piece of something sweet, but sometimes they stayed for years.

Lemon bars

A Seat at the Table

From an early age, my mom modeled many things for me. She was an effortless hostess. That generation didn’t fuss for guests. You see, a tin of homemade goodies always sat in the freezer waiting to be enjoyed. Sometimes it was a lemon bar or a piece of apple crisp. Other times she treated us to was a plate full of hamburger mushroom casserole or a bowl of Minnesota wild rice soup. Sometimes all we needed was her listening ear. Other times it was a warm bed and a shower. She spent her days thinking about others. When people came to visit, my mom feted them and welcomed them wholeheartedly.

Mom's beef and mushroom casserole

The two constants were the tables. One was in the kitchen, the other in the dining room. The first greeted you on frosty mornings with a hot mug of coffee, a bowl of oatmeal topped with bananas, or crispy toast smeared with the jam du jour. The other table became the site of prolonged story telling by hosts and guests alike as dinners and the accompanying conversations ran late into the evenings. The food always remained simple, hearty, and home cooked. Soups, stews, casseroles; food to feed a crowd of hungry stomachs. We came, hungry for conversation and nourishment, and we left sated on all fronts. 

Making krumkake at Mom and Dad's house

The Gifts My Mother Gave Me

Even as the years passed and age began to get the better of her, hosting her dear family remained my mother’s favorite pastime. I like to think I inherited that from her. Whether we arrived early or came in after dark, the windows of the house would be glowing with a warm yellow light, the porchlight welcoming weary travelers.  My mother greeted the family with open arms, cozy beds, and fresh towels laid out for us.

Fresh peach pie

What remains today are the memories, the inner pull to emulate the gracious ambiance for others that she so faithfully created for me. An ambiance that pulled people toward her, that made them feel in that moment that they were the only ones that mattered. She wasn’t one to jump to a decision, but she carefully weighed the options. Mom gave me her measured thoughtfulness. She gave me the gift of time, her time. Such a precious and rare gift this is. It’s simple yet seemingly increasingly unavailable. She gave with no expectation of reciprocation.

A listening ear, a cup of coffee, a piece of pie, a jar of chokecherry jam, a couch on which to sit and chat awhile, a quiet wisdom; these are what I’m bringing with me into the future. These are the gifts my mother gave me.  

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Vice Principles

Apple Butter Memories

The apple butter is bubbling thickly on the stovetop. Bubbles the size of quarters is what I’m shooting for. The rich, sweet aroma steaming out from the pot is the definition of autumn for me. Whiffs of apple and cinnamon remind me of Saturdays spent chasing kids around orchards, their fingers sticky from holding caramel apples, their cheeks sugary from devouring piping hot apple doughnuts. Oh, how they loved to run through corn mazes and agonize over the best pumpkin to bring home to our front porch. This is the essence of canning apple butter, the essence of fall.

The Time for Canning

I realize as I painstakingly stir this pot that lately I have been doing a great deal of harvesting and “putting up,” as they used to call canning. This practice is one of the ways I’ve found joy in these less than ideal times. It has been a bounteous gardening year. In spite of the stores experiencing a run on canning supplies, I have managed to preserve several hundred jars of jams, jellies, salsas, pasta sauces, soups, pickles, etc.

However, it’s more than just the chore of preserving garden-plenty. This is my happy place. The rhythm of harvesting, cleaning, chopping, cooking, pouring into hot, sterilized jars, and hot-water bathing the filled jars seems as natural as breathing. The act of sharing with others, whether a random act of kindness or an intentional gift, confirms that both gardening and cooking are meant to be communal. Garden vegetables and canned goods both unequivocally yearn to be given away. (Always befriend a gardener; you’ll never need to garden yourself!)

Canning and Other Glorious Ways to Cope

My mind wanders to the other things that have kept me occupied and content, which leads me to think about vices. This word, vice, has a negative definition and connotation in every dictionary I could find. The most positive spin of the meaning is the word idiosyncrasy. For purposes of this discussion, I’m going with this meaning because vices are not always evil. They can be a way to cope with life’s circumstances.

My idiosyncrasies have been key in adjusting to and then enjoying this summer of relative isolation. I have been taking the time to smell the basil, the marigolds, and the tomato leaves (I can’t “smell the roses” because my sole rose bush decided not to flower this year). Savoring that early morning cup of French press coffee, watching the robins splash water everywhere as they spiritedly bathe in the birdbath, meandering through pristine college campuses as our sweet dog and I go out for our evening stroll, or the snaps and pops of paella grilling over hardwood coals. These have become my vices, my idiosyncrasies. These are how I remain content and bring this contentment to others.

Too Much of a Good Thing? I Think Not.

As we have slowed down and created new space in our lives, we can let either the bad habits or the good habits rise to the surface. I have chosen jam making, bread baking, garden weeding, book reading, sock knitting, and backyard nibbling with my pack as my vices. I’m not yet sure if they are good or bad. I think I might have overdone the jam making. My stash of socks and baby booties has gotten much too large. Can gardens be too weed-free? Possibly. One thing I know is that I can never have too much time nibbling with loved ones in the backyard. Can one bake too much bread? Hmmm. After all, I do need somewhere for all that jam to go.

Have our habits reset? Have some hobbies become fine-tuned? Has some of the unnecessary fluff in our schedules disappeared? Do we possess increased intentionality? If even some personal improvements have occurred, this is score one for the winning team, you.

Joy and contentment are choices we make not dictated by the circumstances that surround us. Consider adopting some vices. In these odd times, choose a couple of health-producing vices, choose joy, choose to spend time on those things and with people that are important to you. It’s a well known fact that negative circumstances often result in positive outcomes that you could never have imagined would be possible. This is one of life’s more interesting juxtapositions.

Are you having trouble deciding which vices are right for you? Well, you can have some of mine. I probably have too many anyway.

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The Bread of Home

Memory

The heady aroma of fresh bread wafting from the kitchen greets me. We are visiting my grandparents on their wheat farm in eastern Montana. Earlier in the day, my grandmother had scooped a bucket of wheat kernels from their granary. She brought the wheat into her kitchen and ground it in her grinder, the old-fashioned kind with a funnel-shaped top to hold the grain, a drawer at the bottom to catch the flour, and a hand crank that, when turned, transformed the kernels into flour. 

The smells of the freshly ground flour and the loaves turning golden in the oven, the taste of a warm slice smeared with fresh butter and homemade jam. These are ethereal memories. Many layers of meaning arise from this process, and the actual eating of the bread is only a small part. 

Bread as a Symbol

When a loved one lavishes us an act of care and kindness, the smells, sights, and actions of that memory etch into the depths of our being. What started at a young age with my grandmother then continued as baking mentors cultivated and nurtured my passion. As such, the baking of bread has always held a deeper meaning for me.

Bread represents a warm and welcoming home. It tells of the safe and quiet inspiration that grandmothers dole out so generously and displays the skills gained through time-tested experience. The baking of bread and its delectable bouquet evoke love, security, and hospitality.

A Quiet Hour

Each step in the process is calming: softening the yeast, weighing the flour, and culturing the starter in a warm spot on the counter. I am careful when I measure my ingredients, minding the ratios of flour to liquid to yeast. 

With a rhythmic motion, I knead the dough. Understanding the elasticity in the dough tells me when it has been kneaded just the right amount of time. Then with anticipation, I watch the magic of the loaves rising, for there is a sense to knowing when it has risen enough. Finally, precision meets artistry as the dough bakes to a tan crust.  

Baking bread elicits a feeling of home and a sense of family history. Recently I have been making beloved standards as well as venturing into other cultures to discover new techniques and flavorings. With bread I travel from family favorites to European classics, from sweet to savory. We can go from a simple white loaf to breads filled with hearty grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. No matter how ancient or distant the origin of the recipe, they all bring me back home.

Living Bread

The more I bake, the more wild yeast escapes into my kitchen. My dough picks up this yeast and uses it. Over time the amount of yeast I need to add decreases. My kitchen becomes alive. It participates in the act of baking.

Bread can also seed new bread, almost self sustaining. Many seasoned bakers tear off a section of dough and set it aside to incorporate into the next batch. This aged dough not only aids in the rising but adds depth and complexity to the flavor of the bread. In the days before the invention of commercial yeasts, sourdough starters, which pull in wild yeasts from the air or the sharing of bits of soured dough between family and friends, was essential to making bread.

It warms my heart to see the grocery store shelves empty of flour and yeast. We collectively are baking. At the same time that we nourish our loved ones, we are showing them we care. We are demonstrating their importance to us in the act of baking them bread.

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Challah with sesame seeds

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Tokens of Christmas Warmth

Spoon Cookies

The night is waning; dawn has not yet arrived. Pats of unsalted butter melt in the saucepan. With a silicone scraper, I stir back and forth across the bottom, watching the butter carefully. First the surface bubbles, and then a thick foam forms. Finally, I smell it, the nutty aroma of beurre noisette or brown butter. I quickly transfer the pan to a sink of cold water to stop the cooking. I am in the kitchen making my favorite and most time-consuming Christmas cookie, spoon cookies. 

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Beurre noisette or brown butter

Spoon cookies are so named for the spoon that forms their shape. It must be an old silver spoon. These ancient beauties have deep bowls, so they work perfectly for filling with cookie dough. This morning, the favored teaspoon came from my Aunt Ada. Its smooth surface aids in helping the pressed cookie easily slide onto the cookie sheet. As I fill, press, and slide the cookie dough, my mind drifts back to memories of the generation that went before mine. They were children of immigrants, their lives steeped in traditions from the old country. These are traditions I have come to cherish, traditions I try to teach to those in my life.

After placing the tray into the oven to bake, I warm raspberry jam on the stove. Once strained, a smear of this jam will serve as a delicious glue between two baked cookies, forming what in the end looks a bit like a little egg. Each Christmas season, I look forward to the complex taste of the nutty beurre noisette against the sweet jam.

Caramels

Next on the agenda are caramels. Creamy and sweet, these are another labor intensive favorite. Between you, me, and the fence post, they have proved a challenge for me to perfect. Each time I make them, I seem to discover another idiosyncrasy of these delicious candies. This year’s batch, while a delicious and rich confection of sugar, butter, and cream, is a touch on the chewy side, which I of course blame on my ancient candy thermometer. 

Yulekage: Christmas Bread

Next up, Yulekage. A favorite Scandinavian spice, cardamom, enlivens this tender sweet Christmas bread. To amp up the flavor, I always freshly grind my cardamom for this recipe. This distinctive spice together with the mix of golden and red raisins and topped with a crest of luscious frosting makes for a festive bread indeed. Thanks to the magnitude of the recipe, eighteen loaves have already left my kitchen to date, and this bread is my go-to baked Christmas gift. 

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Lefse

I would be remiss if I failed to mention the ubiquitous Norwegian delicacy, lefse. This potato-based flatbread defines December menus in the north country. It has to be paper thin, soft with light brown spots scattered across its surface, and with tiny dots of Russet potatoes. Lefse-making is a two-day affair that should be embarked on just before your kitchen needs a deep cleaning. Trust me, I know whereof I speak…  

Cookies Et Alia

Other gems that might make their appearance in my comestible gifting include my Aunt Joyce’s thin sugary ginger snaps, my brother-in-law Bill’s butter balls, nutmeg-laden Kranse Kake, and crisp, frosted sugar cookies. The list could go on, but the variety and supply of goodies depends on how much the schedule expands in early December.

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A Modicum of Our Christmas Joy

Why do we go through these tasks in the holiday season? What is the reason we shop and wrap, cook and bake, and assemble trays and tins to pass out to family, friends, and neighbors? Why do we put in the additional effort to make things extra special? The Christmas season is already a busy time of year, yet we add to it by making such effortful goodies to give to others.

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There are many people in my life who hold a special place. Some are family, some are friends. It just seems that in this unlikeliest of seasons, the coldest, darkest days of winter, when we grace others with an act of kindness, a small array of culinary delights, we offer them a modicum of our joy. We are saying the world is better because of their presence in it. We are saying you are important to me. In giving something of ourselves to others, whether it’s our time, our talents, created gifts, or purchased items, we are telling them they are significant and special. 

I will always get up before dawn or stay up into the wee hours to create tokens of my affection for those I hold dear.  

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Why Preserve?

A Way of Life

Preserving has been a longstanding tradition in our kitchen. Come August and September, we are canning the summer’s bounty. A day in the raspberry patch and a trip to the apple orchard yield jams of ruby elixir and fragrant apple butter. Pasta sauces, salsas, catsup, pestos, bisques, pickles, savory jams, giardiniera; these and more fill the pantry by the time the first hard frost kisses my garden in October.

This savory rhythm has become an essential element of the treasure we call home. At the finish of every semester, our kids would neatly tie ribbons and thank you notes to their favorite flavors of jams and present them to their teachers as gifts. A preserve of one sort or another has become the hostess gift of choice. Be it a topper for toast, the spicy sweet counterpart to a stack of smoky meat, or the sauce in a hearty lasagna, I turn to my stash on a regular basis.

So why do this? Why go to all this work when the grocery stores are brimming with aisles of canned offerings? It is so much easier to just load up your grocery cart.

It is because the golden sweetness of peach jam made at the height of juicy ripeness is irresistible. The complex aroma of a pasta sauce stewing on the stove will bring memories of those warm, summer days into your mid-winter meals. A gift crafted from the labor of one’s hands is the definition of kindheartedness. The modeling of these increasingly rare culinary arts perpetuates these rich traditions, weaving them into the fabric of our families.

Long Held Tradition

The history of preserving foods goes back thousands of years. It was a way to stretch out the meat, fruits, and vegetables into the seasons where they were not available. In the northern climes, our ancestors could freeze foods. In my Norwegian culture, transforming potatoes into a flatbread called lefse enabled them to enjoy potatoes all winter long. Meats were slow smoked over fires using local woods for the fire, local salt, and herbs to flavor. All over the world, people preserved using the elements and ingredients of their particular environment. Fermentation was used to turn grapes to wine. Honey, fruits or grains, and spices became mead. The early American settlers filled large earthen crocks with layers of pork, salt, and fat. Then these were kept cool in cellars, providing protein for these hungry families throughout the winter months.

Canning using glass jars was invented by Frenchman Nicolas Appert in 1809 after he was commissioned to find a way to preserve food for France’s army and navy. After much experimentation, he noticed that when foods were tightly sealed in glass, then heated to a certain temperature, they did not spoil. It would take 50 years before Louis Pasteur came along to discover and explain that heat killed to microorganisms and that sealing kept other microorganisms from entering and contaminating the contents. In the meantime, however, others were making their own discoveries. Peter Durand in England discovered and then patented the use of tin-coated iron cans instead of glass. This method was used by the British Royal Navy to feed their troops on long forays across the oceans.

Canning Today

What started long ago as a necessity has now morphed into almost an artform. From strawberry balsamic black pepper jam to pickled fennel with orange or lemon garlic pickled cauliflower, the delicious taste matches the beauty. This year, try smearing roasted onion sage jam over your Thanksgiving turkey before baking it. The variations of preserves are as many as your imagination is creative.

I have been both recipient and giver of the results of creative preservation. The smear of Bill’s Worcestershire sauce on a freshly grilled hamburger, Cindy’s cucumber hot pepper jam on my goat cheese crostini, Tami’s blackberry preserves on warm toasted slices of crusty baguettes; these are tokens of generosity. They remind me of friendships both present and past. Through their preserved creations, they have brought me into their lives. I cannot help but feel blessed by their kindness.

I remember the sounds and smells of their kitchens, their blackberry patches, dinners under the lights of their pergolas. Family, friends, jams, pickles, capacious conversations extending late into the evening. These are the ingredients to the jam called “A Heritage Preserved.” They are our heritage preserved.

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Rhubarb: The Vegetable That Thinks It’s a Fruit

The Heritage of Rhubarb

When I think of the classic plant that has anchored the corner of every Midwestern garden for the past century, I think of rhubarb. Some of my favorite dessert recipes are based on rhubarb. Rhubarb custard pie is oh, so delicious! I remember with fondness my Mom’s strawberry rhubarb freezer jam which we spread on warm toast. Warm Spilling Rhubarb over vanilla ice cream. My friend Jill Jorgensen’s gooey sweet Rhubarb Rolls. All these come from an unassuming plant that is so easy to grow you almost forget it’s even in your garden.

Rhubarb is a perennial vegetable that can flourish in most parts of the country. Rhubarb is delicious and easy to add to your garden. There are many recommended varieties to choose from. In my experience, the pinker the stems, the better they taste. Once planted, it can be left undisturbed to come back year after year.

Growing Rhubarb

Growing rhubarb is very simple. The plants make a nice addition to the perennial section of a vegetable garden or even a perennial landscape. In milder climates where they can overwinter without freezing, rhubarb also grows well in pots if you give it enough root space.

Spring is the perfect time to plant. Working some well-rotted compost or manure into the rhubarb bed will increase production. However, don’t pick any stems in in its first year. The plant needs all its foliage to help it establish a strong root system. In the second year, a small percentage of the stems can be harvested. In the third year and after, removing up to a third of the plant every year will keep it healthy and producing strong stems year after year. Dividing the plant every five years keeps the roots from getting too crowded. Which of your friends would turn down the offering of one or two baby rhubarb plants?

Uses of Rhubarb

Even though rhubarb had been used medicinally in China for thousands of years, its use as a food really started in England in the 17th century once sugar became available to counter its tartness. In the U.S., its use didn’t take off until the 1930s.

Nutritionally, rhubarb is high in fiber and loaded with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytochemicals. It can be a healthy addition to your diet if you curb the often added sugar. The stems (or petioles) are the only part of the plant we can cook and eat. The leaves contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to ingest and irritating to the skin if there’s prolonged contact.

Rhubarb is a great addition to desserts such as pie or crisp, cake, muffins, jams and jellies, and more. It is also great as a tart chutney over meat such as pork. My favorite completely unsweetened way to regularly include rhubarb is in fruit smoothies. The sweetness of the other fruits counters the tartness of the rhubarb, which lends a refreshing brightness to the final product.

Common Questions

  • Can you eat the leaves? No, they contain oxalic acid, which is toxic to humans. So throw away the leaves, and use the stems.
  • We just had a late spring frost that has damaged my rhubarb. Can I still eat the stems? No, when the plant has been affected by frost, the oxalic acid migrates from the leaves down into the stems, leaving them also toxic. If this has happened, throw away the whole plant. Look in your farmer’s market or grocery store for this year’s supply. If you live in a region prone to early or mid spring freezes, plant your rhubarb in a protected part of your yard. Last spring many in my area lost their rhubarb to freeze damage. Mine was spared because it is planted in a corner, protected on one side by a shed and on the other by a fence. The other option is to keep track of the weather forecast and cover it if a frost is on the horizon.

If you haven’t already, make this the year to add rhubarb to your yard. Like a long-time friend, it’ll always be there for you, but you never have to tend to it.