Sunday, March 2, 2008

My Swedish Mother - Or How I Started Cooking

Full disclosure - I'm only 25 percent Swedish, my maternal grandmother having been born in Sweden. My half-Swedish mother was raised in Ironwood, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. If you look at a map, you'll notice that Michigan's "mitten" has very little to do with the UP. It's a different world up there - "God's Country" - full of pine trees, snow, Lake Superior walleye (my favorite fish) and some of the world's kindest people. My mother grew up ensconced in a Swedish-Lutheran enclave - an extended family - most of whom arrived in Boston circa 1901. My grandmother was widowed when my mother was only three years old. By the time my mother was 12, she was doing the lion's share of the cooking for the remaining family of four, as my grandmother was out trying to make a living as a nurse-midwife. These were difficult times and Ironwood was hit hard by the 1918 flu pandemic

My mother's Aunt Bertha served as her inspiration in the kitchen. Bertha was, by all accounts, an elegant cook, despite the paucity of attainable foodstuffs. If ever there was an example of turning a sow's ear into a silk purse (or a magnificent stew), it was Bertha. Ironwood, like other communities of its era and ilk, pioneered the "slow food" movement, using what was seasonably available (venison, fish, wild strawberries) and whatever grew in local gardens during the summer. Preserving and canning were essential (if not tedious) exercises if you wanted tomatoes, beans, or beets in January. Mom learned by watching, tasting and doing. While other little girls were playing with dolls, mom was wielding a wooden spoon and cleaning fish.

My mother grew up and went off to college in Marquette, Michigan. During the summer of 1931, my Chicago-born, Irish-French, Roman Catholic father took a trip to the UP and met my mother at a dance. They married shortly thereafter and took up residence in Chicago. Although it was the Depression, my father had a job with International Harvester (and continued to work for the firm until his death in 1961). The first week of their marriage, dad gave mom a whopping $10 for "housekeeping necessities". Much to my father's chagrin, she spent the entire wad on herbs and spices. Mom had made her mark and the rest, as they say, is history.