Stories of Food, Food as Story
I Love You So Much, I'm Going To Give You Dessert
"When I was reading through my grandmother’s letters, I came across a small envelope with ½ a teaspoon of ground cardamom written in blue cursive on the outside. I had forgotten that she had mailed the recipe along with this important ingredient. I wonder if she didn’t think I could find it at the store in Olympia? The brown powdery spice was still inside, wrapped in a square of tin foil."
My grandmother, Beverly, known affectionately by her family as Bevy, would make Vetebröd for all our family parties. Memorial Day. The 4th of July. Fleamas (our family’s whimsical take on Christmas). We called it Swedish Coffee Bread.
I remember it was tasty, but in a sort of an understated way. It wasn’t especially sweet or flaky or buttery. There wasn’t an artisan quality about it, other than being a braided bread. It was sort of dense. A sturdy bread–like my mother and her four siblings, like me. It was sticky on top, with a light glaze of sugar. A hint of cardamom.
It appeared again and again and again. Always present at every family party.
I think it was its singularity that stands out to me the most. It was the only food from our Swedish heritage that persisted. I have almost no memory of what else was served at these family parties at my grandparents. I suspect it was just standard 1980s fare for white folks. But the Swedish Coffee Bread was always there. And it was always welcome–beloved even–and always enjoyed.
My mother was introduced to Swedish cooking–meatballs and rotmos primarily–at her grandparents house in White Plains, NY. They spent Christmas Eve together. My great grandfather, Gustav, came to the United States through Ellis Island in 1922. His wife, my great grandmother, Signa, came shortly after with their two daughters. My grandfather, Thor, was born in the United States in 1924. My mother tells me that all throughout school people called him Scotty because “his name couldn’t possibly be Thor. No one was called Thor in this country.”
Gustav was an artist–a woodworker. My mother remembers him as warm and kind, especially to children. She tells me that he used those “old time planes that you push and little curly stuff comes out. We always craved the curly stuff and he would on purpose over shave things down just so we could have more of them.”
My mother tells me that Signa was a bit distant, cold even. She doesn’t remember ever being hugged by Signa. But she knew she was loved because Signa would smile at them. “Everyone has a love language,” my mother tells me. “I think Signa’s was meatballs. If she were a hugger, she would give you three hugs, but she gave you like seventeen meatballs.” That was how Signa showed her love.
Bevy learned to make Vetebröd from Signa. I’m not sure that food was Bevy’s love language. She wasn’t an especially good cook, and she wasn’t Swedish herself, but she was the tradition-bearer for the Persson family’s foodways. At least for this one remaining tradition. Ironic too given that she was diabetic and couldn’t eat the bread herself.
My grandmother and I corresponded by letter throughout my teens and early twenties. In one letter she shares that “because of my father’s abandonment of us in 1931, I have almost no memories before I was about 10 years old.” My grandmother never elaborated much on what this meant. She wrote it in response to my questions about memories of the Great Depression.
My grandmother endured much trauma as a very young child. I think I knew this instinctively, but it was never something that my family spoke about when I was growing up. I’m only now filling in the details at age 45.
When I was reading through my grandmother’s letters, I came across a small envelope with ½ a teaspoon of ground cardamom written in blue cursive on the outside. I had forgotten that she had mailed the recipe along with this important ingredient. I wonder if she didn’t think I could find it at the store in Olympia? The brown powdery spice was still inside, wrapped in a square of tin foil.
I never made the bread when she first sent me the recipe. I never made it with my mom, and the only loaf I ever remember eating that my mom made was at Christmas at my husband’s family Christmas in Wenatchee, Washington. It looked strange on their table, and my mother-in-law pulled it apart in big chunks like a pull-apart bread. I remember feeling strangely offended.
“I just didn't get a lot of happiness out of making it,” my mom tells me. “I just thought, Oh, it's good. It tastes good. But was it worth the work?”
“When my grandfather made things and my father made things, now that's a substantial item! You wind up with a little stool you could sit on that would last for way longer than a loaf of bread would last. Baking is nice, but then later on, it's gone.”
I love to bake–cookies, muffins, cake. Some of my favorite memories of spending time with my mom was in the kitchen making chocolate chip cookies or brownies. And I get joy out of making delicious things for my kids to eat. But bread really isn’t my thing. It always seemed to be on a different level. Too difficult for a simple baker like me.
I gave myself a full day to make Vetebröd for the first time–a Thursday, when I was home with my youngest and could carefully work through the steps while we built legos throughout the day.
I decided not to use an electric mixer, but beat by hand with a wooden spoon just like my mother would. She always liked to remind me that I was “good Swedish stock.” When I was pregnant with my first child, my aunt Janet assured me that I’d do just fine. That we Swede’s simply go squat in a field. I was sure that that wouldn’t be my experience, but I appreciated her confidence!
After I knead the bread and let the dough rise, once, then again, I roll it out into six strips to make two loaves of braided braid. I slowly work the strips over and under. It reminds me of braiding my hair–so thick it’s difficult to get a tight threading of the strands. I’m almost giddy when I finish. I’m so proud of myself. I share my enthusiasm with my daughter–as if I’m the child and she’s the parent.
I let it rise once more, then bake it for about 20 minutes in a 375 degree oven. It looks golden brown when it’s done, much darker than I remember the light brown loaf my grandmother would make.
But it looks really amazing. I almost can’t believe it. I immediately send a picture to my husband.
Owen, my youngest, is eager to have a piece. I cut us each a slice, still warm. I can smell the cardamom. The top is sticky. I spread butter generously on each slice.
We sit together at the old wooden table my great grandfather made. The same one my mother sat for dinner on St. Lucia Day withSigna and Gustav, Bev and Thor, and her four siblings. The table shimmers a bit now with all the glitter that’s been ground into the grains of wood from crafting with my kids. I think Gustav would like that.
Owen eats three slices and exclaims, “Good job, mom!” I’m surprised at how comforted by their words.
“How did you know your mother loved you? How did she show you,” I ask my mom.
“She read books to us. She admired what we colored,” my mother reflects. “It was nothing but encouragement. And not saying, aren't you wonderful. But, boy, you conquered that. You stayed inside the lines. Little details. Incremental kinds of things to celebrate. Incremental advancements of skill or even of heart. It was always a very soft pat on the head, without even being a physical pat on the head.”
Re-reading my grandmother's letters to me twenty years later, I recognize that love in her words too.
It’s been over 20 years since I’ve eaten Swedish Coffee Bread. I think about my grandmother and all she survived as a very young child. I think about what it means to be mothered by a mother who suffered deeply, and survived, and now mothering two small children myself. I think of the embodied (or disembodied) ways we pass on our stories. Sometimes not through physical touch but through the act of making a simple, braided bread over the course of six hours.
I sort of can’t believe how the bread tastes exactly the same. Understated, not too sweet. Sturdy, comforting, like a very soft pat on the head.
-Elaine Vradenburgh, Winter Cohort Facilitator, 2023