By Sarah Wassberg Johnson
It was 1998. I was in the basement of the Elim Lutheran Church in Fargo, putting on a white robe and a wreath of tinsel. The Swedish Red River Valley Cultural Heritage Society (which we all just called the Swedish Society) was celebrating another Sankta Lucia Dag. At 13, I was still one of Lucia’s attendants. We were usually a lot of girls, although I was the oldest that day. And there were always a few star boys, all in white blouses or dresses. The girls received silver sashes, tinsel crowns and electric candles. The boys were given pointy cardboard hats held on by a rubber band and dotted with foil stars and a long stick with a silver star on the end. A student has always been Lucia, but this year the girl who promised didn’t show up. As the eldest daughter present, I was immediately elected to replace, much to my chagrin. And my mother’s grief, since I had barely dressed for the occasion, in typical moody teenage style. But I pulled myself together and tried to walk down the aisle of the church wearing my wreath of electric candles and red sash with my head held high.
Sankta Lucia (also known as Saint Lucia), was an early Christian saint who is credited with relieving a famine in Dalarna, Sweden in the 18th century. It is celebrated in Sweden every December 13 (or thereabouts) with parades and ceremonies in the early morning or late evening and with lussekatter or Lucia buns – a saffron flavored yeast bun swirled in an S shape with raisins in curls. But even though that’s what the whole world associates with Santka Lucias Dag, that’s not what I remember. Instead, I remember what happened AFTER Lucia’s ceremony – gathering in the church basement for coffee (yuck) and about a million different Scandinavian and American Christmas cookies and other treats. Dozens of white-haired ladies wearing festive sweaters brought paper plates and Tupperware containers loaded with pepparkakor, krumkake (still protected by crumpled wax paper to prevent them from breaking), sandbakkelse, kringle, rosettes, spritz, almond cake and other Scandinavian products. treats alongside more American desserts like molasses folds, peanut butter flowers, sugar cookies, Russian tea cakes, shortbread, deity and fudge. A few savory ones like lefse, cinnamon roll bread spread with Cheese Whiz and a sliced green olive (my favorite excluding the olive), pickled herring, Wasa rye crackers with butter and super thin homemade flatbread (which my Norwegian grandmother Eunice made every year at home) were also present. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, wanting to taste everything was a pretty good indicator of a lifelong obsession with food.
Scandinavian baking has infused almost every holiday I can remember. I particularly remember the paper-thin flatbread from Grandma Eunice, the frosted tea ring sprinkled with candied cherries, and the flimsy spicy pepparkakor, always star-shaped or heart-shaped. Family tradition says that if you place a heart-shaped pepparkakor in your palm and press a finger in the middle, if it breaks into three equal pieces, you can make a wish. Grandma’s were so thin that it didn’t take much pressure to break them. But while I have fond memories of cooking at home, it’s those Scandinavian community events that stick with me, and Christmas was put on hold with them – Sankta Lucia Dag before Christmas and Tjuegondedag Knut after Christmas, in January. Both featured potlucks heavy on Scandinavian Christmas treats.
About twelve years ago I returned east to the Hudson Valley in New York. And while I love my life here, one of the things I miss most about ‘home’ is the opportunity to reconnect with my Scandinavian heritage. Sure, there’s a Sons of Norway here, but it’s small and far from where I live. And he certainly doesn’t have his own building! Could I maintain food traditions myself? Of course I could, but going it alone is difficult.
I study food professionally now, and so while researching historic Christmas cookie recipes for a lecture, I came across a gem – “Recipes From Many Lands, Furnished by the North Dakota Homemaker’s Club” compiled by Dorothy Ayers Loudon and published by the Agricultural Extension Division of the North Dakota Agricultural College (now NDSU) in Fargo, North Dakota. Published as Extension Circular 77 in July 1927, this little cookbook is a treasure trove of recipes from immigrants, including Scandinavians. And although there is no specific Christmas section, Scandinavian baked goods feature prominently. There are twenty-six different recipes for fattigman, ten different recipes for sandbakkels and several recipes each for krumkake, lefse, kringle, rosettes, rice pudding, rommegrot and others. Not to mention a whole bunch of other recipes, including cakes, breads, meats, and more. Each recipe lists the woman who submitted it and the Housewife Club she belongs to, along with her location. The recipes brought back memories of those Scandinavian community events and their groaning boards, and I was terribly homesick.
I think of the women (and sometimes some men) who cooked for these events. Did they learn to cook from their parents or grandparents? Did they cook from their own heritage, or learn for a spouse? Did they perfect a specialty they were proud of? Did they enjoy sharing their baked goods with the community, or did they just bring something because they felt compelled? Was the treat they brought one of their favorites or did he make it for someone else? When they saw a teenager filling a plate, did they feel happy or did they roll their eyes at gluttonous kids?
I’m not a little white-haired old woman yet. I’m not a widow (thank goodness) and I’m not retired (unfortunately). So while I don’t have as much free time as some of these bakers, it’s not like I can’t keep the traditions. I have the krumkake iron and the rolling cone, the sandbakkel boxes, I even have a heart-shaped waffle maker. And I make my split pea soup like they always did for Tjuegondedag Knut. Maybe this year I’ll dig them up and do them justice, sharing my family traditions with friends, rather than people back home. I don’t always agree with blind adherence to tradition, but traditions can connect us – to the past, to family, to each other.
For this, I share with you two recipes. One is old, but new to me. A sandbakkel recipe from “Recipes from Many Countries”. The other is my grandmother Eunice’s flatbread recipe, which was published in the Elim Lutheran Church Centennial Cookbook. And although Grandma passed away a few years ago, her recipe lives on. But only someone who’s had experience baking it can tell you that the flatbreads should be so thin they practically break when you pick them up, and they should be patterned with the weave of the floured baking cloth on which she has always unrolled them.
1 cup sugar 1 cup butter 1 egg 2 cups flour
Put a thin layer in the form of a cake and bake.
- -Mrs. JT Stromdale, Home Benefit Society, Lakota, ND and Mrs. OD Adams, Manning Homemakers’ Club, Steele, ND
For some modern directions – cream the butter, sugar and egg together, then mix in the flour. Add ¼ or ½ teaspoon of almond extract or a teaspoon of vanilla, or ground cardamom, or a combination of the three. Press into sandbakkel pans and bake at 350 or 375 until golden brown, about 15 minutes. Let cool in pans, then flip to remove cookies. If you don’t have sandbakkel pans, try muffin pans, but you’ll have to wait for them to cool before you can bake another one!
1 ¼ tsp. buttermilk¾ tsp. sweet cream½ tsp. sugar (little) 1 tbsp. salt1 tbsp. soda (little)½ tsp. melted butter3 ½ tsp. flour
Mix – alternate dry ingredients with liquids. Roll in whole wheat flour. Bake at 400. Roll into small balls and flatten with a rolling pin. Roll thin and watch carefully. Cook until lightly golden.
These are two recipes that I will try at Christmas. If you don’t have a family tradition to draw on, I encourage you to create your own. Try browsing Recipes of Many Lands and see what catches your eye. You might even find a family name there! And if you happen to claim a Scandinavian heritage, or are simply interested in the traditions of the Nordic countries, I encourage you to join organizations like the Swedish Society, the Sons of Norway, the Red River Danes, the Finns of the Red River, the Icelandic Klub. , Daughters of Norway and/or Saami Circle. Traditions will not live on and cannot be shared if there is no one to share them with.
[Editor’s note: Sarah Wassberg Johnson is The Food Historian, an academic and public historian focusing on the intersection of food, history, and culture in America. She is an author, speaker, educator, podcaster, and blogger on all things related to food history.]