Mending the Past 16: Thanks for Good Times


Famine by Bohdan Pevny, 1963

Vårt dagliga bröd giv oss idag.

Give us today our daily bread.

–The Lords’ Prayer

This week we celebrate Thanksgiving and it is a reminder that, these days, we live in a time of plenty. We don’t worry about not having enough to eat. Instead, the anxiety the holiday raises is rooted in ‘too much’ as opposed to ‘too little’ food. There is so much on our family potluck menu that people are paging through magazines to come up with new recipes for the same old foods. This is the dream come true of the ancestors.

In Maja Lisa’s century, the 1800’s, things were different. In those pre-industrial times, people didn’t move around a lot and neither did food stuffs. The growing and processing of most of it happened at home. Sweden, with its northern climate and short growing season, had a limited selection of foods, both in variety and quantity. In short, a farming family had about 120 days a year in which to grow a surplus of food on a small plot of land, enough to get them through a long winter. God forbid that a calamity such as war, sickness, drought and starvation should wipe them out.

Ironically, the 19th century was a time of relative peace after the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815. Additionally, the small pox vaccine made a huge difference in childhood mortality and a new food from the Americas, the potato, became a cheap and reliable crop. What brought on calamity was the surge in the population largely due to these three factors. Sweden’s population effectively doubled in Maja Lisa’s lifetime. This put a squeeze on land and food production and caused a crisis of such massive proportions that over a million people left Sweden.

I recognize that my ancestors came here with food traditions tied to times of scarcity and starvation. There are not many five star restaurant dishes in the immigrant’s cookbook. The husmanskost, the simple, home-grown food of Sweden, is not the most delicious in the world. It can be too bland, too salty or sour with its traditions of preserving foods. It is also earthy and sustaining and holds memories that are instructive: Remember to be grateful for the food you have got. Remember the people, your own and others, who do not always have enough. Share what you have.

The closest personal link I can find to Old Country foods, the foods Maja Lisa may have eaten, is in my grandma’s kitchen. Farmor Hulda Gustafson baked some pretty good bread as I remember it. She was born in Sweden and came of age in the Swedish American kitchens of Wisconsin and Minnesota. One of my favorites was kaka (cake bread), a yeasty but low-rise white bread with milk and a tiny bit of sugar in it that she baked in a pie tin. We ate it in wedges with peanut butter. Another bread she made that I liked quite a bit was limpa.  A soft, complex rye bread sweetened with molasses and orange rind.

In 19th century Sweden, bread was not always on the table. Growing and harvesting the grain was the first step in affording bread. Another factor was getting it milled. Maja Lisa’s community, like many, probably relied on a local water mill to grind their grain. Waterways could dry up in summer and freeze over in winter. People only had the chance twice a year to grind their grain. Bread had to be baked quickly so that insects and rats didn’t get into the flour. Knäckebröd was the solution. The brittle rounds of cracker rye bread would last for months and months and could be threaded on a pole in the rafters of the farmhouse to keep them away from the pests. Knäckebröd is the matzo of the Swedish people. It symbolizes the ingenuity of a culture that fed itself even in the hardest of times.

Practically all the food was cooked in a single cooking-pot hanging over the fire. Large households, or large numbers of guests, were most easily catered for with the help of porridge, and porridge therefore often formed the main dish even at festivals like harvest home or Christmas. Swedes remain faithful to this porridge tradition to this day, particularly at breakfast time. You could also throw meat or fish into the kettle, with root-vegetables or legumes, and boil them all up together.”


Our son Jamie in front of the kitchen oven in his great grandmother’s farmhouse in Värmland, Sweden (2011). This is where, once upon a time, all the cooking was done in a Swedish home.

Maja Lisa most likely ate gruel or porridge more than bread. Gruel is a food that is close to what I think of now as hot breakfast cereal or baby food. Grain was watered down and cooked (rye, barley and oats grew better than wheat in Sweden’s northern climate), sometimes dried peas were added. Porridge was a more substantial version of gruel and was often served with butter, sugar or sour milk. Dishes and cutlery were a luxury. People ate from one large common bowl, each had their own spoon.

Meat was eaten occasionally. Peasants did keep chickens, pigs and cattle. Hunting and fishing in the lakes and streams was for the landowning upper class. The most common meat on a farm was pork. When Maja Lisa’s mother died, the probate inventory noted that the family owned one pig. But even one pig could go a long way, each part of it used and preserved for months. Gruel and porridge could be bolstered with a bit of fläsk (salted bacon). I remember my grandmother serving blodpudding, a kind of sausage or pâté made with swine bloodShe bought it at Ingebretsen’s Butcher Shop on Lake Street and would fry it up in her electric skillet.

Pickled herring, easily transported and stored, was a staple in Sweden since Medieval times. Sill is the name for herring that comes from the Skagerrak or the Kattegat seas near the coast of Västergötland. Maja Lisa probably ate sill with potatoes daily. During her lifetime in Sweden, 1816–1882, the potato grew from a novelty crop from the Americas to a beloved mainstay of Swedish cooking. We still have pickled herring on the table, usually at the holidays and potatoes are a big part of just about any meal.


A fjällko, a cow that is native to Sweden

Cows were lovingly tended by the women in Maja’s day. They were taken from home to outlying pastures in the summer. Their milk was a treasured commodity. Women were especially skilled in making cheese, butter and soured milk products such as yogurt and buttermilks like filmjölk. My dad, who grew up in Minneapolis in the ’30’s and ’40’s, remembers, “We also had a cultured milk in the summer called “Täta-mjölk”.  Relatives in Töcksfors would send a cloth soaked with a culture from a plant that grows in the area as a starter.”


Dricka på fat, drinking from the saucer, is an old Swedish custom. I remember my Grandpa Rudy drinking his coffee this way with a smack of satisfaction after each sip and a wink my way to see if I thought it was fun.

Pies, cakes, cookies, candy were probably rare. I was given a very old and very beautiful rustic box as a child. I was told that it was an “old sugar box” from Sweden. I remember thinking, is this all the sugar they had? The box could hold, at most, a cup of sugar. It speaks perhaps to the endless access we have to sugar compared to a 19th century peasant. They enjoyed summer berries picked in the forest or an orchard apple. A cake would have been a special treat.


The sugar box

In Maja Lisa’s time, she probably suffered real hunger, times when there was barely enough to eat, times when the food was inadequate for good health, times when it seemed all they did was worry about it. Perhaps she hungered for other types of nourishment as well. It must have worn her to her bones to be a pariah in the community. The idea that there was a place in the world with enough land to grow enough food and where she and her family would be free to grow, unshackled by her crimes and reputation, was a dream worth risking everything for.

One comment

  1. Charles Gustafson · · Reply

    When I was growing up, I ate hot cereal every morning in cold weather. Kajsa and also said Rune ate oatmeal every morning, year round.

    I don’t know if “cottage” is the best word for where farmers live. Farmhouse or farmstead might be better. Cottage to me is a small place, not a normal sized home. Many farmhouses in Skarbol were two storied.

    Last night, we ate a meal we often ate when I was growing up. Pancakes and pickled herring. Yum!


    Sent on my whatchamacallit.


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