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Jerry Nelson: Christmas Goodies

Jerry Nelson
Special to Farm Forum
Jerry Nelson

One of the best things about Christmas is all the yummy Yuletide goodies. Coming in a close second is the loot that Santa brings, even though your cryptocurrency shenanigans should have earned you a permanent spot on his “naughty” list.

My family comes from a long line of eaters. Fortunately, we also come from a long line of superb cooks. It’s entirely possible that one thing has something to do with the other.

 All of my grandparents were born in the 1890s. When they learned to cook, they had to “make do” without such fundamental tools as an iPhone that they could use to look up recipes and watch funny cat videos. I bet they would have done anything for a reliable timer app.

This didn’t mean that they had no skills; on the contrary, their cooking talents bordered on the mystical. They were Jedi masters of kitchen know-how.

Dad once told me that Grandma Nelson could make an angel food cake without following a written recipe. She would bake the cake in a wood-fired cookstove, gauging the oven’s temperature by opening its door and sticking her hand inside.

Thanks to personal experience, I can testify that all of Grandma’s cakes and cookies were unfailingly scrumptious.

I was recently digging through some old papers when I stumbled upon my mom’s recipe for apple cake. This wasn’t specifically a Christmas treat but could easily be made so by adorning it with a scoop of ice cream. This was especially effective if it was done while the cake was still warm.

Mom relied on written recipes, which is fortunate because they continue to live on after her passing. It appears that she used a variety of sources for recipes.

For instance, she owned a booklet titled 1960 Recipes – Brookings County Extension Club. The numeral refers to the year it was printed, not the number of recipes it contained.

It’s safe to assume that most of the recipes had been handed down through the decades. This also means it’s safe to assume that many of the recipes are now a century old. The pamphlet is a time machine of sorts.   

The booklet has a section titled Christmas Cakes that includes numerous recipes for fruitcake. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the fruitcakes made back then are still in existence and are currently being used as doorstops.

For as long as I can remember, Mom relied on her copy of the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book. The thing weighs ten pounds and boasts that it contains over 2,000 recipes.

Any doubt about the book’s age is erased by some of the famous folks who are quoted in its pages. They include Mrs. Harry S. Truman, Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Grace Kelly. One dinner menu was suggested by none other than Christian Dior. This goes to show that tasty food and good taste go hand in hand.

The opening pages of the book offer helpful hints for the overburdened hausfrau. At the top of one page is a motivational poem that reads:

           If you’re tired from overwork,       

           Household chores you’re bound to shirk,

           Read these pointers tried and true

           And you’ll discover what to do.

Many of the pointers still make good sense, such as resting whenever you get the chance and enjoying some sunshine every day. But others are woefully outdated, including enlisting your kids to help around the house. Fat chance of that nowadays!

Some of the recipes also show their age, such as directions for making a pie crust with lard (in my opinion, still the flakiest and tastiest crust.) There are also instructions on how to make your own chocolate syrup. I was shocked to discover that the stuff doesn’t grow in plastic squeeze bottles.

I stumbled across a recipe for Jule Kage, a Norwegian bread that’s traditionally served at Christmastime. The recipe involves cardamom, raisins, and candied fruit. Consuming a sufficient quantity of Jule Kage would mean that you’re getting your minimum daily requirement of fruit, along with sugar and spice and everything nice.

I recall enjoying Jule Kage as a kid at my Hammer grandparents’ home on Christmas Eve. Grandpa and Grandma’s house was filled with the chatter of numerous cousins and aunts, parents and uncles. Grandma’s dinner table groaned beneath a metric ton of Christmas goodies.

The food was excellent, and everyone ate too much, but what I remember most was spending time with my large and loud extended family.        

Some say that simply being with family is the best part of Christmas. I would love to discuss it, but I have to perform a taste test on these frosted gingersnaps.

If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at jjpcnels@itctel.com. His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.