Solving a Culinary Mystery After Eleven Years

Eleven years ago, around this same time of year, while living abroad in Sweden, I made a decision that would haunt me for over a decade. I was in my first semester studying Swedish language and culture in Växjö, when my professor suggested I visit Öland, the country’s second-largest island. Öland was about to host its annual harvest festival, Skördefest, and my professor thought I would enjoy the cultural experience. To me, making the decision to go was easy. I loved my hometown autumn festivals back in the Washington, D.C. suburbs where we would eat fried apples and roam around corn mazes for hours. Skördefest would be a great chance to see how Swedes celebrate the changing seasons.

A friend, Suvi, and I hopped a train to Kalmar and then went by bus across the Ölandsbrun, Öland bridge, to the town square in Borgholm. Greeted by a towering figure comprised of various gourds, squashes, and pumpkins, Suvi and I joined the thousands of other visitors to the narrow island in the Baltic. We walked to Borgholms Slott, Borgholm Castle, the ruins of a twelfth-century fortress. It was like stepping back in time, or stepping into the pages of one of Elsa Beskow’s beloved children’s books. Throughout the inside of the fortress ruins, craftsmen and craftswomen gathered creating a wool market. Spread over their tables was an impressive assortment of wool clothing, textiles, and sheep and tomte decorations. Little old ladies sat at aged spinning wheels, their feet gently bobbing in silent rhythm, their waxy fingers twirling raw wool into fine yarn. Many people were dressed in traditional costume. There may have been folk music playing in the air, or it might have been all in my head. Whichever it was, there was a magic in the air of those ruins, a magic that translated to a call for celebration. Summer was over, the autumn harvest was in full swing, and the Swedish people were rejoicing in the last cool days of 2015 before winter fell upon the land.

Me and Suvi, 2005

Me and Suvi, 2005

 

After Borgholms Slot, Suvi and I went back to the town square where we joined others in Skördefest merriment and stopped for a quick lunch, hungrily devouring a kebab pizza. It was only after my belly was full of kebab pizza that I saw other festival-goers eating something I had never seen. Everyone in the streets held cardboard bowls of something. What was it? I had to ask.

Kroppkakor med lingon,” a man informed me, taking a large bite. The meal looked and smelled heavenly. But what was it? Potato dumplings filled with diced ham and served with lingonberries, he said and encouraged me to try some for myself. But I was already too full.

I promised myself that before I left Sweden, I would find kroppkakor again. But I simply had no idea the delicacy would be so difficult to find. Instead, I left the country the following June without ever getting to sample this native cuisine. That’s how a simple decision—to eat kebab pizza—became one of the greatest mysteries of my youth, and a regret I held deeply in my heart for eleven years.

When I asked my Swedish relatives about the dumplings, they said the dish is famous in Öland, but that it is very difficult to make. My cousins told me I had to find the right type of potato, or the dumplings would fall apart when I boiled them. They told me it wasn’t worth it. Make meatballs, instead. But I didn’t want meatballs. I wanted kroppkakor. For eleven years, I’ve wanted kroppkakor. Wondered about kroppkakor. Yearned for kroppkakor. Until now.

Last week, I leafed through my copy of Our Beloved Sweden, an old Swedish Lutheran cookbook published in Hastings, Minnesota, in 1996, whose introduction reads, “We dedicate this book to the honor of our ancestors who came from Sweden with their hopes and dreams, and brought with them the Swedish ways that they cherished and hoped would be perpetuated.” I have no idea how this cookbook came into my possession, but I’ve had it for as long as I can remember, and amazingly, it contains four recipes for kroppkakor. I chose to make the first recipe, and eagerly went to the grocery store to buy everything I would need. My husband, I should add, who has heard me talk about the illusive kroppkakor since he and I married in 2012, was both excited to get to taste the end product and to get me to finally shut up about the potato dumplings. But he was also skeptical of my ability to accomplish the task. He’d heard my Skördefest story and my relatives’ warnings about the difficulties of preparing the dish, and with some playfulness, he portended, “You’re going down like the Vasa.”

My husband’s warning only urged me on. I would not sink like the 17th century war ship! I would prevail and prove my worth as a Swedish cook, as I had done time and again with my family’s recipes for kåldomar, köttbullar, and others.

As instructed, I peeled, boiled, and mashed the potatoes and let them cool. Because I didn’t know what my cousins meant when they told me I needed to use the “right” potatoes, I used a combination of russet, yellow, and red potatoes. I then began to make the dumpling dough by adding three eggs and flour. The recipe didn’t indicate how much flour to use, it simply stated, “Make the dough by adding the eggs and flour to the potatoes until it will roll out without getting sticky.” I started with two cups of flour. And then four. And then six. And then I lost count. I used nearly two entire packages of all-purpose flour before the mixture became something resembling a dough.

For the filling, instead of using a pound and a half of salt pork, as the recipe called for, I used a pound of bacon and half a pound of salt pork. To me, salt pork is too fatty (and chewy) for my liking, and bacon—in my opinion—just makes everything better. The recipe suggested a quarter of a teaspoon to a full teaspoon of allspice. I love allspice, so I used an entire heaping teaspoon’s worth. The recipe also doesn’t tell me how much many dumplings it yields. I ended up rolling out eighteen dumplings.

“Are you planning to feed an entire church?” my husband smugly mused, as he helped line baking sheets with parchment paper so I would have somewhere to place the dumplings after boiling. He still had such little faith in me! But his teasing only urged me onward, ever the more resolute to prove him wrong.

Next came the true test: the boiling. Would the potatoes fall apart, as my cousins predicted? Would the dumplings float to the top once they were finished cooking, as the recipe implied they would? How would they taste? I was so close to finding out.

Gently, I spooned the large dumplings—indeed, they were nearly the size of baseballs!—four at a time into the boiling, salted water. And then I waited. And waited. My husband gazed into the pot, and I grew nervous. Had I failed? I pushed a dumpling with a wooden spoon. Immediately, it rose from the bottom and bobbed in the rumbling water. Soon, the others followed suit. They all floated! I’d succeeded! But how about the taste?

It was my turn to be smug, as I dished up two dumplings per plate and smothered them with butter and lingonberry preserves. My husband and I sat down at the table, and I took a deep breath. Eleven years of wondering, and now I’d finally know if kroppkakor was as good as it looked. I cut into one dumpling and allowed some steam and a bit of the filling to spill out. They looked good. They smelled good…I took a bite. They tasted good! Vasa Ship, I was not. I’d successfully prepared Öland’s unofficial dish. My curiosity was, at last, satisfied.

Sitting in our dining room after a long day in the kitchen, I reflected on this moment. My potato dumplings were probably not as good as they would have been under the Swedish sun on that crisp September day on the streets of Borgholm in 2005. How could they be? But for a thirty-one year-old-woman who will forever be fond of that transformative year of self-discovery when she was twenty years old, living away from home for the first time in her life, I think my kroppkakor turned out lagom. They turned out “just right.”

 

Kroppkakor

Recipe for kroppkakor, a contribution by St. Paul’s Luterhan Church in Galeton, PA, courtesy of the cookbook Our Beloved Sweden

 

Dough:

10 or 12 large potatoes, boiled and mashed

3 eggs

Flour

 

Add a little milk and butter to the potatoes while mashing. Cool thoroughly. Make the dough by adding the eggs and flour to the potatoes until it will roll out without getting sticky. Roll out a square about 9-inches by 6-inches and cut this into 6 squares. Fill each square with the filling. Pinch together to make dumplings.

 

Filling:

1 ½ pounds salt pork, cubed

2 or 3 onions, chopped finely

2 pounds lean ground beef

¼ to 1 tsp. ground allspice, to taste

Black pepper, optional

 

Fry the salt pork until golden brown and drain it on paper towels. Fry the onions in 1 tablespoon of pork fat until they are golden and tender. Drain. Fry the ground beef in a small amount of fat until thoroughly cooked. Drain, if the mixture is greasy. Combine the pork, onion and beef. Cool.

 

Broth:

Water

Salt Pork

6 peppercorns or whole allspice

 

In a large kettle put water, a small chunk of salt pork and 6 peppercorns or whole allspice. Bring to a boil.

 

Add the potato dumplings, 6 or 8 at a time, to the boiling broth. Let them rise to the top and remove. Continue this until all the dumplings are cooked.

 

Start with the coolest ones and place them in the boiling broth until all of them have been cooked twice. Serve with butter or margarine.

 

“Good with cranberry sauce. Warm the leftovers in a skillet with a little butter or margarine.”

*This article originally appeared in the Swedish-American newspaper, Nordstjernan, vol. 141, no. 15. 

An Innocent Abroad

An Innocent Abroad

Sweden made it easy for me to fall in love with her. In fact, I had anticipated falling in love with her. How many stories had I listened to my family tell about the country with green fields and red houses, the country from which our family originated? In 2005, determined to discover this landscape—and its people—for myself, I enrolled for a year at Växjö Universitet (now Linnaeus University).

Växjö, whose name derives from väg (road) and sjö (lake), immediately captured my heart. It is the quintessential city where the road meets the lake. Within minutes of landing at Växjö’s tiny airport, I wanted nothing more than to just blend in with the local community and to get in touch with my Swedish roots. Naively, I believed there was a standard code of conduct, practiced by all Swedish people, and if I could just get my hands on a copy of said code, I would succeed at convincing everyone that I was a “real” Swede. In a sense, I wanted to deAmericanize myself—if only for the two semesters I’d be there—to allow Sweden the chance to teach me something. Something about its culture, its heritage, its people. I wanted Sweden to teach me something about myself. Resolute in my quest, I attempted to pass myself off as a bonafide Swede.

My first attempt lasted an hour.

As soon as I arrived at the University, I decided to walk from the campus to Växjö’s town square. The bike path into town is a beautiful stretch of pavement running along the perimeter of Växjösjön to the city’s central shopping district. As I walked the route, I greeted every stranger I met with a friendly “Hej!” expectant that my inflection would convince the locals I was one of them. But instead of enthusiastic greetings in return, each passerby looked at me queerly. Most uttered a quick “Hej” as they scurried away, never making eye contact. But some didn’t look at me—or even acknowledge me at all. “My pronunciation must be off,” I told myself, and continued on my way. It wasn’t until weeks later that my Swedish boyfriend laughed at my behavior and told me, “We have a joke here in Sweden that the only people who say ‘hello’ to strangers are drunk, crazy, or American.” How had I so easily become a punch line? Well, I would not make the same mistake twice.

Not long after, at a dinner party with new friends, I continued my quest to prove my Swedish authenticity. “Just do as they do,” I whispered to myself before the meal. As my hosts began the first round of “Helan Går” at the dinner table, I clutched my snaps glass and imitated the best I could. Perhaps I didn’t know the words, but I could certainly mimic their smiles and their good cheer. And, when it came time to drink the aquavit, I did as I’d always seen my American friends do: I swallowed the entire shot. After finishing the song and my drink, I looked around the table to see I was only guest to swallow the whole glass. The others had only taken a small sip while mine now sat empty. I sunk a little in my chair, my cheeks burning with more than the sting of the alcohol.

Finally, resolute in my pursuit to be as authentic a Swedish girl as possible, I bought tickets to an evening gala hosted by Swedes for Swedes at the campus castle. “I’ll do whatever I have to do!” I promised as I and my American girl friend, Erin, dressed up in our finest eveningwear and sat down to a formal meal. Only, this time I remembered my prior missteps. Now, I waited to greet the people at my table until they greeted me first. When the toastmasters sang “Helan Går,” I merely took a small sip from my glass. Everything was going so well. My Swedish companions were impressed with my Scandinavian decorum. But it wasn’t until the evening’s close that came the ultimate test of my allegiance, and I was faced with the question of how far I was willing to go to prove my loyalty to this new country. Was I really willing to shed my American identity for a Swedish one?

As the hosts ushered small groups of dinner guests out of the great hall and into a antechamber, Erin and I exchanged nervous glances. Where was everyone going? Would we be invited to go, too?

“Don’t worry,” one of the toastmasters told us. “We’re waiting to take you two last so we can do it in English.” Erin and I nodded and smiled though we had no idea what for. Do what in English?

At long last, it was our turn to exit the room. Our hosts took us each by the hand and led us into a private, dimly-lit library. The room smelled of old cigars and faded memories. But it wasn’t the dripping candles in the candelabra or the antiquated books on the bookshelves that caught my eye. It was something else. There, in the center of the wall before us, hung a mounted moose head. I came face to face my Swedish alter ego in the shape of an antlered mammal.

I won’t pretend to recall what exactly was said in this intimate encounter. I even called Erin before writing this article, now ten years later, to see if she could remember, but neither of us could. Not exactly. The one part we each remember, however, is the same. At some point during those five minutes of secret initiation, Erin and I were each asked whether we pledged allegiance to the moose. To me, it was the ultimate test. All that I’d worked so hard for was summed into one simple question. Did I—or did I not—pledge allegiance? And suddenly, it wasn’t the eyes of a taxidermy moose that I stared into, but the eyes of Lady Liberty. Which country would I choose? Where did I belong? Who was I, really? Deep down inside?

Here was the moment of self-actualization I’d been waiting for.

And as I stared into those shiny glass eyes, I realized how the toastmasters had waited to take me and Erin last. They hadn’t excluded us. But they hadn’t grouped us together with other Swedes, either. They knew we were different, and, despite this difference, we were still welcomed to participate in their important university ritual. I was one of them. Somehow, in that minute, I was both American and Swede simultaneously.

“So do you pledge?” The toastmasters waited for my answer.

Javisst. Of course.”

 

This article originally appeared in the Swedish newspaper of America, Nordstjernan, vol. 142 no. 22. 

How I Landed (and Kept!) a Pen Pal…and You Can Too!

There's no joy quite like running expectantly to the mailbox and finding a hand-adressed letter within. It stands apart from the rest of the stack--bills, catalogs, pennysavers, mostly--because it's obvious that someone put time and love into its mailing. And the best part is that it's for you.

I've had varying degrees of success starting and keeping pen pals over the years. In my childhood, I eagerly filled out the standardized forms in the back of my Teen Beat magazines for a cross-country pen pal, inclusive of my photo and a nominal fee. In high school, I tried reaching out with paper-and-pen to distant family members, people who didn't really know me and were too busy to care. And in college, I was too busy stalking old friends on the newly created Facebook to actually write them a letter to ask how their lives turned out. 

But now? Now I have a real pen pal. 

I recently moved far away from family and friends and all those other people one cares about. The move was symbolic of a desire for change in lifestyle…and that included connecting with people in more authentic ways. So before I left, I approached one of my girlfriends one night over drinks with my proposition: "Will you be my pen pal? And don't say 'yes' unless you're going to really do it. Because I want this to be special, and that's why I chose you." The rest is history.

So I present you now my 5 foolproof rules for landing a pen pal and keeping her (or him):

1. Choose your pen pal carefully. Pick someone you genuinely care about, someone you don't often see, and someone who is as excited as you are at the prospect of having a pen pal. You want to look forward to both writing and receiving letters, so choose someone in whom you are genuinely interested. And it's so important you choose someone with whom you can be honest. Choose a "safe" person.

2. Unfriend, unfollow, block this person on all social media. This is the hardest rule because online relationships are all-encompassing with their instant photos, updates, and statuses, but this is the most important rule. If you have an online relationship with your pen pal, writing letters back and forth will just seem silly. But if you wait to learn about your pen pal's life through her or his letters  (rather than her or his online persona), you'll find a deeper connection. It's crazy that to "connect" we must first "disconnect."

3. Buy beautiful stationary. The paper you write on doesn't have to be expensive, but it should be interesting! I get a thrill in finding cheap vintage postcards at flea markets or old antiquated photos at yard sales. You can usually buy items like this for less than a dollar, and it makes for fun sharing. Stay away from bulk boxes of generic cards. Your pen pal will thank you for the variety, and hopefully she'll return with a diverse collection herself.

4. Don't make small talk. You have a very limited amount of space in each card, so don't waste a word! Instead, write what's on your mind, what's weighing on your heart, what you need advice on. Leave the pleasantries for online, and save the raw emotion for your pen pal. Let's face it, when a relationship includes honesty and vulnerability, we are strengthened and bonded in authentic ways. So be brave and bare your soul. (And on the receiving end, be respectful with your pen pal's privacy, too. After all, she--or he--is writing this letter to you, not your spouse and not your circle of friends.)

5. Write back! Don't get complacent. I suggest writing a letter a week. And if time gets away from your pen pal (or life gets in the way, as it does), just pick it back up on your end. No pressure. No guilt. Just love in words.

My Oh-So-Swedish Philadelphia Experience

This original post was published by the Swedish-American publication, Nordstjernan, here.

One of the great things about living twenty minutes outside the Nation’s capital is the area’s diversity. I can think of nowhere else where people of myriad backgrounds and nationalities live and work in such close proximity. I relish the opportunity to experience new and exciting cultures and traditions. This is a place where diversity is celebrated and encouraged. So when I returned to DC after studying abroad in Sweden, I was surprised at how little a footprint Scandinavia had in this area. (This was before the opening of the House of Sweden, a beautiful building situated in the heart of Georgetown overlooking the Potomac River.) As someone who wanted to continue fostering her education about Swedish roots, I found my options in DC limited.

Two hours north, however, in downtown Philadelphia, I discovered the American Swedish Historical Museum, an organization devoted to sharing Sweden with the East Coast. Imagine my surprise, when I happened to first visit the museum, that I should find a Swedish estate house buried in the urban surroundings of one of America's oldest cities! There I was just a stone's throw away from the Eagles' Lincoln Financial Field, yet finding myself comforted by familiar Swedish architecture. The museum's facade fondly reminded me of my trips to Kalmar Castle, Gripsholm Castle and Stockholm's Royal Palace. And suddenly, it seemed as though I had been transported across the Atlantic, and I found my heart quickly aching to return to those Swedish places I so love.

Walking through the museum, I especially enjoyed the stuga room, a farm-house interior recreated to reflect the dwelling places of the earliest Swedish immigrants, the museum's collection of original paintings by Carl Larsson, and one specific portrait of King Gustaf Vasa by the artist Nils Kreuger. The oil painting portrays the back of the King's head, and the placard next to the gilded frame quotes Gustaf Vasa as saying, "Because a poor likeness was done in Uppsala, painters shall only now do the back view." The depiction and description still makes me chuckle today. Though I visited the museum on a cold, rainy day in May four years ago, I look forward to returning to the museum this summer to celebrate Midsummer on their beautiful grounds. Without a doubt, the American Swedish Historical Museum satisfied my desire to find a place where I can go when I long for a little bit of Sweden closer to home.

Read an excerpt from The Number 7 where the main character finds and explores the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia: here.