My mother’s side of the family has many of traditions that seem to crop up around the holidays. There are the usual ones that almost every family has in common — baking cookies, picking up the freshly cut tree and sticking an orange at the toe of each stocking.
We also have a few slightly more unique ones, such as presents that aren’t as they appear. At our house, if you get a package that feels strangely light, the chances are high that you’ll be sent on a treasure hunt of some kind before you can claim your gift. We take pride in coming up with new ways to out-clever each other, but my grandmother is the reining champ.
She has made me decipher full letters written in Swedish, with only a dictionary to help guide me through the clues. She has folded up money into tiny pieces and stuffed it into dried pasta noodles. I once had to pop a dozen balloons to get a gift certificate out. She’s a devious mastermind when it comes to giving gifts.
She is also the main provider of our more…well, unconventional traditions, which are of the edible variety and stem from my grandparents being full-blooded Swedes. There’s the (recently posted about) homemade pickled herring, the hand-stuffed potato sausage and the headcheese that I avoided like the plague until I was in my twenties and discovered how it good it actually is.
In high school, when you tell your friends that your grandma makes headcheese for the holidays, trust me, you’ll get some looks. But nowadays, as an adult, all the “nasty bits” like heads, offal, tails and trotters are so trendy that no one bats an eye. My husband is a chef at a downtown Portland restaurant that often has coppa di testa (the Italian version of headcheese) on its menu and a professional meat supplier, I can assure you he’s not alone. My company can sell up to five or six heads a week, depending on the time of year. And sometimes, when it seems every chef in town is in synch with each other, we can sell around 10 or more.
What I find ironically hilarious is that my grandmother actually seems more disturbed by this trend than anyone else. This from a woman who willingly eats lutefisk. How is that possible?
But it’s true, I promise you.
In fact, she has a great story about the time she and my great-aunt decided to make headcheese for the first time. As children, they had often eaten it but they had never attempted actually making it until they were adults.
They went down to the butcher shop to select a pig head, brought it home and stuck it in a pot of water. The pot went on the wood stove and satisfied that they were on the right path, the sisters went shopping. When they returned home, they carefully lifted the lid off the pot only to be greeted by a pair of beady eyes staring back at them.
My grandmother, quickly putting the lid back on, looked at her sister and asked “Well…what do we do next?” She was sure that my great-aunt’s mother-in-law (also a Swede) had taught her the recipe.
“How am I supposed to know?” her sister countered. “I thought you knew what to do.”
Both of them, uncertain at how to proceed and decidedly unsettled by the contents of the pot, convinced each other to just throw the head away. Which they promptly did.
And that marks the first and last time my grandmother has ever tried to make headcheese with an actual pig head. Since then, she has used a small pork shoulder, which tastes just as delicious as any of the actual “head” cheese I’ve eaten.
It is made in the same traditional Swedish manner — seasoned with allspice, nutmeg and ginger — though she also adds a packet of gelatin to make sure it sets. Then on Christmas Eve, it’s sliced thinly and presented simply, accompanied only by a small glass pitcher of red wine vinegar and a few plates of pickles.
This, along with being made to translate a whole passage of Swedish in order to locate a bottle of bubble bath, makes being home for the holidays complete. These are the things I’ll always remember.