The first Christmas I spent with Jim’s parents in Mason City, I was shocked by the pared-down holiday meal of these quiet Nordic people. I was used to giant platters and casserole crocks strewn over every surface near or in the kitchen of my relatives’ homes, and a cavalcade of aunts and uncles stampeding for massive heaps of food, hastily eaten, poorly digested. Mary Ann and Corman Hoff didn’t roll that way.
There was baked cod, flaked into a crystal dish. There was hand-made lefse, sort of like a crepe made of potatoes and cream. There were riced potatoes. There was a modest bowl of green bean casserole, heavy on the mushroom soup. To finish, there was kringla, which is a doughier version of a simple sugar cookie. Sometimes it is buttered. The mostly-white food was even arranged in a spare manner: On a white tablecloth, in a darkened dining room, with candles.
After Christmas Eve dinner, Jim’s mother gave me a tidily wrapped package containing a pair of black leather Isotoner gloves, which I still wear. Everyone got one modest gift. Later, we went to Midnight Mass.
No, this wasn’t the balls-to-the-wall Christmas of my youth. But I was pretty sure by that time that Jim and I were together for the long haul, and so I set about trying to figure out the quiet ways of his startlingly mellow family.
I think the Christmas meal illuminates the Hoff family best. It is relaxed. It is steady. The offerings stayed the same over the years. It is welcoming, even to loudish outsiders who roll in bearing bottles of wine and overdressed for the occasion and wondering where the heck all the food is. Mary Hoff sat with me that night, and we drank just a little of my wine, and she asked me questions and told me about herself. She was very glad I was in her son’s life, and that was a first for me among boyfriends’ moms. For that, I loved her immediately and wholeheartedly.
That first was the only Christmas Eve dinner I shared with Corman, who died in 1998, the year after I met Jim. He was a quiet man with large hands, tall and smiley, an accountant for the IRS with a dry and intelligent sense of humor. I shared a few more with Mary. Her last Christmas Eve dinner in 2000 was the same menu as always, though she was sick with cancer. Upon her request, Jim and I bundled her up in blankets and drove her around to look at people’s holiday lights after we ate. That was as fancy as we ever got on Christmas Eve.
The Hoff Christmas Eve meal was the first time I started really thinking about how food is a connection to where we’re from, and to who we are. Corman’s family was from Imsland, Norway, originally. We know this because the graves of his immigrant ancestors are in Roland, and it is written on them. Mary was the cook in the house, but Corman always made the cod (the lye-preserved stinkmess of ludefisk was never an option, thankfully). It was his connection to his parents, and Mary honored that. The simplicity of the meal was all Hoff, though. A few good things, done nicely, in a consistently good-hearted spirit.
The year Jim’s parents were both gone, I bought him a traditional kit to make his own Norwegian lefse. He spent a whole night on the painstaking, hours-long process. Since then, it always seems Jim ends up alone in the kitchen, flipping dough onto a special griddle in silence. Though we eat the meal together, it always seems to work out that it’s just Jim and his memories in that kitchen.
This year, I swore to myself that Jim wouldn’t be manning the lefse grill solo. I had a talk with the kids, and we mutually promised Christmas Eve meal preparation would be a group venture. On that day, we gathered in the kitchen and made the lefse together. As usual when you mix grown-ups and kids, there were moments of impatience and gigantic messes, but once we got in a groove, we made a good team. The lefse was more fresh than ever this year–made and eaten on the same day. Hopefully someday, our kids will remember Christmas Eve as a time for simple gratitude and genuine connection, shared in the memory of the good people who have gone before us.
Posted by jen
Dad knows how to do cool things
Turning is the tricky part. That’s why I don’t do it.