St Croix River Road Ramblings

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Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Christmas Dinner

Written in 2009

Christmas Dinner by Russ Hanson
Doc Squirt and friend, 1900 Cushing Christmas. Doc often played
Santa, coming into the Church and distributing gifts to the children.
The tree seems to have popcorn and cranberry chains and other
homemade ornaments  Real candles were often used--with a man
standing by with a bucket of water for emergencies. 

   Winter nights here at the cabin are full of winter echoes, the frigid air adding clarity and volume to distant sounds.  The lake booms displeasure as its new skin cracks, oozing clear blood from the warm interior that clots instantly, shedding a final puff of frosty steam.  A band of coyotes howl nightly across the lake, as if at our door warning us to stay within where the stoked fire keeps us cozy.  Owls woefully hoo wooing whispers to wives while our neighbor’s neighing nag complains of frozen hay.  Crusty roof snow magnifies the gray squirrel's delicate trot to the feeder at dawn; an elephant tromping us awake in our sleeping loft below.  We awake to frosty breaths and the pressing need to restart the now cold wood stove.  The huge quilts have fooled us into letting it go out. Winter has moved in with us, an uninvited guest, who, for a time will entertain us with her novelty and beauty, but surely outstay her welcome.

  We are at the lake cabin until Christmas.  Then we drain the water, set a thousand mousetraps and close the doors until early March when brother Everett calls and says "maple sap's running."  This year we expect to spend January and maybe February with the tent-camper down south where snow is a delightful rarity; where people freeze to death at 50 degrees; and Midwesterners and Canadians flock to escape God's punishment for Original Sin.  The Garden is still open if you head south, and all you need are your fig leaves for modesty. 

O lutefisk, O lutefisk, how pungent your aroma / O lutefisk, O lutefisk, you put me in a coma.  American folksong by Red Stangeland

“They wanted $7.00 for just a little piece of lutefisk at the store” Mom complained at the Hanson Christmas.  “I always used to buy some for us at Christmas with lefse and pickled herring.  Aunt Dena, Dad and I liked it—I guess that is our Scandinavian heritage.”  Aunt Dena, Dad’s aunt, stayed with our family until she was over 100 years old.  Her father and mother came from Norway and she could speak Norwegian and really liked Norwegian foods.   Norwegians call it Lute-fisk (two syllables) whereas Swedes call it lute-ah-fisk according to Dena.

   “Does your family eat lutefisk?” I asked cousin Nellie at the Christmas open house at the Luck Museum last year.  Nellie recently turned 103 and is doing well.   “My own family were not Scandinavians—they were English, came to America in the 1600s, so we never had it at home.  One year, my husband, Adolph Hanson, a Swede, asked me to have lutefisk for Christmas dinner.  I bought some at the store and asked my Norwegian neighbors how to make it.  I got it ready for our dinner and prepared it just as they told me”

    Nellie continued, “Adolph told his four sons ‘We have a treat today—just like when I was a young boy at home and my Mom prepared lutefisk for all eleven of us children.  My dad came from Sweden, and my Mom’s parents too. Christmas dinner was not complete without lutefisk.’”  

    “Well, each of the four boys and I took a small piece to try.  Adolph took a larger piece.  He ate a little of it, and then turned to the rest of us.  ‘It isn’t very good is it’ he said.  We tasted it too and agreed it wasn’t any good.”

    “After dinner, I had John take the leftover lutefisk out to the cats to eat.  They always liked fish.  They wouldn’t touch it and even the dog didn’t try to take it away from them! I think it ended up in the manure spreader being spread out on the back field,” said Nellie. 

   My cousin Esther Gunn, who passed away a few years ago, grew up on her grandpa’s farm near Arland in Barron County before moving to Cumberland.  The Christmas before she passed away, she wrote me saying how much she missed having some “beggies” at her Christmas dinner.  Cumberland, she said, was the rutabaga capital of Wisconsin when she was living there and going to high school.

  Her grandfather, a brother to my great grandfather, came from Sweden as a young man from a farm along the Swedish coast where it was too cold to raise sweet corn, but root crops—potatoes, beets, turnips, mangels, parsnips and rutabagas thrived.  Potatoes were staples with every meal, but the sweeter beggies were a treat.  

   That reminds me of a story Dad told us boys: “A young neighbor man, Ernest, liked to dream big.  He grew a couple of mangel plants, sort of a huge beet, in his garden in 1931, a relatively wet year in the depression.  They produced well and had large roots.  Mangels were cut up and fed to the cows and pigs during the winter along with pumpkins and some of the poorer potatoes. Feeding root crops was a Scandinavian tradition—they didn’t have ear corn or beans in the cool climate of central coastal Sweden.”

    “If I plant an acre of mangels, with each plant one foot apart, that would be more than 40,000 plants according to Teacher.  It shouldn’t take more than two plants to make a bushel, so I would get 20,000 bushels.  I should be able to sell them to Dad for ten cents a bushel—that would earn me $2000.  I can buy a good farm, a car and have enough left over for a bicycle for my sister, Edna,” said Ernest earnestly. 

   Dad told us, “It sounded good, but of course, but the reality was his dad was too poor to buy mangels; the normal yield was about 100 bushels per acre; there was a huge amount of hand labor in raising them; and of course, Ernest was way too lazy to do it anyway.”

  “After that, in our family,“ Dad said,  “when someone had an unrealistic plan to make money, someone was sure to add ‘and there should be enough money left over to buy Edna a bicycle’ bringing them back to reality.”  I recently heard that from a brother about our book selling project!

   When I first remember, we had Christmas dinner with my Grandparents, P. H and Hannah Hanson with most of their 8 children and families.  It was somewhat rare that all eight of them were talking to each other so someone would be missing. After Hannah died in 1951, that stopped and we had Christmas dinner with our other grandparents Eugene and Nettie Hanson. 

    Nettie was an excellent cook and always had a few extra folks at the table.  The family had moved away from their nice 40 acre farm in the early part of the depression and bought the old Blair homestead out on the Sand Barrens in West Sterling. I think they were in debt for their new house replacing the one that burned down, and decided to start over where the land was cheap.

    Nettie was a crack shot with their 22 pump Winchester that only used shorts.  Many times she took the gun and shot some squirrels, a rabbit or grouse when they were short of meat in the summer.  When an unexpected visitor came, she sent Mom out to catch a chicken that would be dinner a few hours later. 

   An old man came one fall and asked to stay for the winter.  “I don’t want any money—just a place to stay and some tobacco money.  I will work on the farm and cut brush for you.  So “Granddad Brown” came to stay with them. 

    One winter Mom helped Grandma cook for a nearby pulp cutting crew.  They worked hard and ate a lot, and were happy with the food.  A few miles away, an old man living by himself in his rough cabin was found dead in mid winter.  He was lying in bed, covered with his blankets, coats and other clothes.  Beside the bed was a jar part full of honey and a trail of dribbled honey from the jar to his mouth.  He was frozen stiff.          

     Up the road from Uncle Alvin’s house was a neighbor’s home.  They had a lot of kids, a drunken father, and no money.  Their old cow made the half mile trip to Alvin’s haystack and corn shred piles each day to find something to eat before returning home.  “I’d chase her away,” said Alvin as he threw her a couple of ears of corn, “but it would probably result in the babies dying”    

   Mom tells us her story.  “When I was 9 years old, my Dad died.  It was in 1930, and the depression was already bad.  My Mom had five kids, the youngest was only a few months old.  We moved from our house to an old granary on the farm Dad had rented.  In December, we ran out of food.  Our last meal was the potato soup from the frozen peelings off  the garbage pile from our neighbors that my brother Archie collected.  My Mom couldn’t handle it—she was 25 years old with five kids and no food--she just left us alone.  I was the oldest so I tried to keep us 5 going by begging food from the neighbors and milk for the baby until Mom came back again.  Finally after a week, someone realized we were on our own and the Sheriff came out and picked us up to bring us in to stay at the jail until we could be adopted. We were split up, but we all got good homes.  At my adopted parents, Nettie and Gene’s we may have been poor, but we always had plenty of good food!” 

  You may be wondering where this is all headed.  Well, the 1930’s was the last time when our economy looked as bad as it does today.  The stories of hardship then should remind us to share what we have now with those less fortunate.  There is really no excuse for us to ignore a neighbor who needs help.  The food shelves in the area are a good way to donate money and food, but it is good to check on your neighbors too. 

   I am particularly blessed, having, like the Bible says, had my seven fat years and am ready, according to my doctor, for at least seven lean years ahead.  Poor Margo has barely stored enough for a lean month.