“Meatballs & Lefse”: A Tiny Preview of Upcoming Book

Ethel Johnson Bertelsen


I’ve been working hard, writing hard on a new book, Meatballs & Lefse: Memories and Recipes from a Scandinavian-American Farming Life. It’s food- and family-oriented, with lots of Midwestern comfort-rich recipes, inherited from, and inspired by, my mother-in-law, Ethel Johnson Bertelsen, who lived all her life in Holmen, Wisconsin.

The Preface delves a bit deeper into my motivation for bringing Ethel’s kitchen and family history to life:


People come here penniless but not cultureless. They bring us gifts. We can synthesize the best of our traditions with the best of theirs.

We can teach and learn from each other to produce a better America … .

~ Mary Pipher, The Middle of Everywhere

All of us in America―and that includes Native Americans, too―descend from people who came from someplace else. In my case, I count among my ancestors mostly English people, who arrived in New England or Virginia in the earliest days of what later became the United States. Many Americans descend from people brought here under duress, as slaves. But regardless of how our ancestors got here, we as a country have indeed been enriched by this flood of humanity, as Mary Pipher says.

Meatballs & Lefse tells the story of Knute and Ethel Bertelsen, he a Danish immigrant who arrived at Ellis Island in 1927, she the great-granddaughter of the first white child born in La Crosse county in 1853, to Norwegian immigrant parents. Their story, I believe, can be viewed as an archetype for the grit and persistence that made America a place where people yearned to come, to try their hand at making life better for their children and grandchildren. Their journey was never easy, but the mere presence of such people enriched this young country, one that’s still only 244 years old at the time of this writing.

This is also partially a story of me as a young bride making her way into a new family, through her mother-in-law’s kitchen, with many Old-World flavors and long-held kitchen practices. In some ways, I was also an immigrant.