In Praise of Grandmothers Around the World

To the women who pass down more than just amazing cookie recipes

Grandmothers and holidays. In our childhood memories, the two are inextricably linked. Regardless of region, religion, nationality, for those of us growing up in the 50's and 60's, our experiences are more similar than different.  

We all recall walking into our grandparents' house on a winter afternoon—the smell of the food in the oven, the festive decorations, the dining room table setting, and the tempting spread of breads, desserts and candies. Perhaps Lawrence Welk’s Champagne Orchestra was on in the TV room. All these activities spear-headed by our grandmothers.

And for many of us, these holiday scents, flavors, sounds and visual delights had an Old Country element. In my family, the Christmas season began with Grandma doubling down on the cooking, baking and sewing.

My mother's mother and father left Sweden when they were in their early twenties, and Grandma brought little more than her language and traditions to America. Looking back, I admire their motivation at such a young age and wonder if I could have made such a journey.

Eventually a large, tightly knit Swedish-American community developed in the Chicago area in the early 20th Century. Many were non-drinkers, joining the International Order of Good Templars (I.O.G.T.), part of the worldwide temperance movement. My grandparents, together with their friends and relatives, were actively involved with the Chicago I.O.G.T. lodge, whose members worked together to achieve the “American Dream” while also maintaining their Swedish heritage.

Of course, just because these hard-working, reserved Swedes didn’t drink, that doesn’t mean they didn’t celebrate holidays to the fullest with food and festivities. Their traditional holiday buffet dinner was a special type of Smörgåsbord, called the Julbord or  “Christmas table.”  It includes salmon, herring, whitefish, eel, ham, small meatballs, pork ribs, sausages, potato casserole, deviled eggs, breads, cheeses, beet salad, cabbage, rice pudding, sweets, cookies, and candies. (IKEA serves a Julbord—I’m planning to go this month, although you can be sure I will drink a glass of Glögg, Swedish hot spiced-wine!)

Like many Grandmas, mine went all out at Christmastime, especially when it came to breads, rolls and cookies. I remember the big Mixmaster whirring away, the flour-covered kitchen countertops where she rolled out and pounded sweet stretchy dough, and her exclamations, in that lilting Swedish accent, when we stuck our fingers in the batter.

I still have one of her cookbooks, which I especially treasure, with her handwritten Swedish notes. Published by the I.O.G.T. in 1954, it includes old family recipes contributed by the members with last names like Larsson, Swenson, Peterson, and Nelson.

My favorite traditional Swedish Christmas sweet is Pepparkakor, or Ginger Snaps. These are no ordinary Snaps, they consist of lard, butter, Karo syrup, sugar, molasses and ginger—no wonder they were so addicting!  Even the chilled dough was impossible to resist, it was peppery, sweet, tangy, chewy and fragrant.

There are ten Pepparkakor recipes in the cookbook. Here’s one she used often (thankfully, this version doesn’t use lard): 

I wish you God Jul and Gott Nytt År !