Many years ago, after my mother-in-law passed away from failed bypass surgery, hooked up to God knows how many tubes and wires in the ICU, I spent a lot of time thinking about her. And, of course, I still think of her often, regretting her absence in my life.
The other day, while digging through a bunch of papers in my office, I came across the manuscript of a cookbook I wrote in her memory about a year after her death.
She lived her whole life in that small town in western Wisconsin, the daughter of farmers of Norwegian descent, wife to a farmer who immigrated from Denmark, and mother to six children, none of whom wanted to farm when all was said and done.
I first met her in another hospital room, where my future father-in-law lay on a steel-frame bed recuperating from a devastating stroke, surrounded by the green walls so beloved by hospitals at the time, his huge hands positioned carefully on top of a white chenille coverlet, hands that milked cows and harvested corn, year after long year. She hugged me, saying “Welcome” with that Wisconsin accent I’ve never been able to replicate, its undertones of Norwegian or something else, beyond me.
The whole experience of marrying into a family quite unlike my own charmed me, as did the culinary traditions epitomized by my mother-in-law’s two elderly aunts, Lillie and Helga, both bakers of renown, both speaking English with discernible Norwegian accents. For they’d come into the world with the sounds of Norwegian all around them in that small Wisconsin town, English learned only later, in school. They regaled me with stories of how their teachers would smack their hands with rulers if they uttered even a syllable of Norwegian in the classroom.
And they gifted me with handwritten recipe cards for krumkake and sugar cookies and many other traditional Norwegian delicacies.
Before memory escapes me, before memories fade into a mist-like fog, I want to tell their story, and the story of other Scandinavians in Wisconsin.* It is the stuff of memoir.
Aunt Lillie’s Sugar Cookies
Makes about 2 dozen
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup shortening, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
Extra sugar for sprinkling on top
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Sift dry ingredients together and set aside. Cream butter and sugar; add egg, milk, and vanilla and almond extract. Add flour to creamed mixture and mix well, until a soft dough forms. Chill in bowl about 1 hour, covered with plastic wrap. Make small balls of dough about the size of walnuts. Place on lightly greased cookie sheets about 2 inches apart. Using a flat-bottomed glass or other similar tool, grease the bottom lightly and then rub the glass bottom into a small plate of granulated sugar. Press down on each of the balls of dough until the ball is about an 1/8th of an inch thick. Take a fork and mark the center of each cookie with the tines, pressing down almost all the way to the cookie sheet itself. Sprinkle each cookie with sugar. Bake for 8-10 minutes. Do not brown. Sprinkle with extra sugar after removing from oven. Cool on racks until crisp. Freeze if desired.
*My own family, on my paternal grandfather’s side, can claim German ancestry through his mother, my great-grandmother. She married into an English family with deep American roots. That German family settled near Avoca, Wisconsin sometime in the middle of the nineteenth century.