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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Danish Ghosts of Christmas Past

If you had looked through a window of our Tacoma home on Christmas day, it might have appeared that only three of us sat down for the holiday dinner this year, but appearances can deceive. Along with the company of my husband and his sister, I could feel the presence of some unseen, most welcome, delightfuland delightedguests: the ghosts of our Danish ancestors.

In fact, we had invited them with thoughts and family legends. Or perhaps the powerful allure of pickled herring, lingonberries, and other Danish delights drew them forth. In any case, I hope they show up again next year.

This Christmas my husband and I decided to introduce a new dinner menu into the sweet nostalgia of our typical American baby boomer traditions and memories. We did so to honor our shared Danish heritage and his Danish mother. She died this past September, well into her nineties and far too frail to navigate all the stairs in our home to enjoy a traditional dinner that might have been served in the Old Country. But I am quite sure she easily found her place in the empty chair to witness our feast in spirit.

The appetizers included pickled herring, excellent blue cheese, and the best salami I’ve ever had, all from Denmark of course, purchased by my sister-in-law at Scandinavian Specialties in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. We served these delicacies with amazing, flaky but non-crumbling 27-layer rye crackers from the island of Bornholm. It is part of Denmark but closer to Sweden. Members of my husband's family lived there for years, operating a watch shop, and the relatives we correspond with still keep a summer home on the island, about two hours from Copenhagen by boat.

For the main course, we served pork loin with its center pierced lengthwise and then stuffed with prunes and pieces of apple, alternating. The stuffed meat was browned in a heavy pan in hot butter and oil, then oven braised in white wine and cream, the latter being reduced and thickened for the gravy, with a bit of black current jam added in place of red current jelly we didn’t have.

We  served it with a relish of lingonberries and a side of boiled baby red potatoes tossed with real Danish butter (oh my!) and fresh parsley. Some of that same creamy butter melted over a bowl of ruby red beets to mingle with fresh grated ginger root. A traditional cucumber salad added a crisp and refreshing contrast to the richness of the meal. Before being seasoned with dill and served with tiny shrimp, the sliced cucumbers had been chilled in a vinegar and sugar brine for 24 hrs.

Dessert, (not shown) simply had to be the traditional rice pudding. I cooked the rice in milk and a little sugar, instead of water, and then stirred in vanilla, slivered almonds, and quite a lot of sherry, before folding in plenty of whipped heavy cream. Served in my grandparent’s ruby glass dishes (a gift from their 1912 wedding) it looked especially festive with raspberry sauce topping each portion.

Among the cookies on the platter, only the spritz were of a typical Scandinavian type, but Danes know how to keep an open mind. We had no aquavit on hand, but the refrigerator did hold some Danish Elephant brand beer we forgot to drink, probably because we felt overwhelmed by all that food before us, food we seemed genetically programmed to enjoy.

And one of the nicest aspects of the whole thing was that each person’s meal came in at slightly under 50,000 calories! Imagine that.

My Danish  great-grandfather worked hard as a blacksmith, walked long distances well into old age and I'm sure he had a good relationship with bacon, butter, and cream. He lived to be 97.  I don't want to push my luck, but I do share the pleasure he found in life, and in real Danish butter.

As the old year ends and the new year begins in this world filled with war, pollution, toxic chemicals, and other things to fear, remember to not let fear rule your life. Do the best you can toward bringing about a better tomorrow, against all odds. That's what our ancestors did when they bravely crossed the sea and faced many difficulties and dangers to have a new life in America, just like others still do today. No matter where your own ancestors came from, honor them and try to live with the same degree of courage, imagination, gratitude, and joy.

Next year, invite the ghosts of Christmas past into your hearts and homes. And thank them. They left you much more than some family recipes. They left you the example of their strong character. They left you a proud heritage and a country that values equality, mutual respect, and the idea that many different cultures have contributed to the America we all share. At least I hope it still does.


lorna sass said...

Wow, what a festive holiday table! Looks delicious too...

Amanda said...

Wonderful story and photographs (I'm here because of your sister-in-law, who I used to work with).

Janet Ruud said...

Way to go, Candace! Great photos and story!

Michael Steinman said...

Herring,lingonberries,pork, butter, cucumbers, courage,clear-sightedness, and gratitude ... have you and Dave ever considered opening a restaurant? It sounds like the ideal menu, aesthetically as well as spiritually. Now I'm hungry. Thanks a lot, Candace!

Marcia (sister-in-law) Willsie said...

Can I come to your house next Christmas?

Anonymous said...

Tusen Takk for a wonderful Christmas story. You are so good at keeping up on all the family must have been cooking for days - tnks for showing all the food pics...Happy New Year

Elsa of Lake Forest Park said...

Hey Candace...enjoyed your blog on Danish holiday.
Sounds like we share a love of scandinavian goodies.
We had Swedish meatballs, lefse, lingonberry berries, pickled herring, salmon smoked in brown sugar and garlic, etc. I am of Dutch heritage and Ray's father was from Norway. So we love our family recipes too.
I even ventured into cordial making and brewed (still aging) a few jars of Gammeldansk. I will save you a bottle. It has whatever herbs and spices that I could find. I guess the original recipe has over 50! We'll have to compare.
Happy New Year!
Check out my blog?

Liv Estrup said...

Hi, I am Molly's next door neighbor and my father emigrated from Denmark in 1910. We had fruit stuffed goose when we could find one and always red cabbage.. and of course herring and blue cheese. My father died in 1966 (at age 80) and I like to carry on the tradition. It's lovely to visit your blog and share your holiday spirit. Liv