When people ask me about my cultural heritage, I usually say that I’m Scottish. When I was 16, I applied for a summer foreign exchange in Scotland, telling everyone that I planned to spend seven weeks researching the Given family roots. It wasn’t until I was on the plane, a desert girl hurdling towards the greenest place she’d ever seen, that I actually read the genealogy paper my aunt had written 20 years earlier. I spent the rest of the summer being shuttled between various research centers, too embarrassed to tell my host family what I had learned on the plane — that my last name was actually Irish.
If I had really wanted to research my family tree, I would have applied for a foreign exchange in Denmark. My mom’s grandparents were Danish. The Nelsons immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century and settled in Kansas, where my great-grandfather, Elmer, married my great-grandmother, Sylvia. Though she wasn’t Danish, Sylvia took to preparing her new family’s recipes. I’m sure she did her best, but by the time they got to me, family traditions seem to have gotten a bit confused.
Sylvia’s recipe cards are almost always missing some vital piece of information. Her neatly typed recipe for potato chip cookies fails to mention how long the cookies should bake. My mom once tried to take notes while Sylvia made the yeast-risen cornbread my dad had come to love. Somehow, the resulting recipe cards explain in detail how the baker should take care to “slap” the rising dough, but fail to mention how much flour is required.
By the time my mother was cooking for her own family, traditional Danish sweet and sour cabbage had become the go-to side dish to accompany roast turkey and stuffing. No one really thought about where that recipe came from, we just all knew that we liked it so much better than cranberry sauce. But by far our favorite Danish dish was Frekadela — or, as my dad liked to call it, Freakish Stella.
Frekadela are Danish meatballs, and we made them during the holidays and pretty much any time we wanted to celebrate. I’ve since learned that the real name of the dish is frikadelle… or frikadeller if you’re using the plural, which you almost always are. But, it wasn’t just the name of the dish my family got wrong. Frikadeller are supposed to be made with pork and veal, but we always made ours with ground beef. Traditionally they’re shaped into flat ovals, but my family always fried them on three sides to make oblong triangles. And, frikadeller are meant to be served with a brown gravy made from pan drippings. But great-grandpa Nelson loved ketchup, and he convinced his grandkids that frekadela could not be consumed without being first smothered in plenty of the red stuff. “Grandpa was such a tease, I believed him,” my mom says now. “When people came over to the house, I used to tell them, ‘You have to put ketchup on it. That’s part of the tradition.’”
But when I eat frekadela, it doesn’t take me back to the old country and my great-great-grandparents. Frekadela doesn’t remind me of great-grandpa Nelson, who died when I was two months old. It doesn’t even remind me of Sylvia, who cooked for us when we were young and taught me how to whip egg whites into beautiful high peaks.
Frekadela takes me back to growing up in the high desert, where sometimes the only entertainment on a Saturday night was watching my mom slowly spooning silky mounds of meat onto a hot skillet. It takes me back to the smell of the desert after it’s rained for the first time in half a year. If I close my eyes, I can see the desert night sky, I can feel the bumping of our old Chevy Suburban as it crossed over the ruts in our dirt road.
Frikadeller is recognized as the national dish of Denmark, but frekadela is the traditional dish of the Given family. A few years back, my mom started adding ground pork to the mix, which everyone agrees is an improvement. But frekadela will never be shaped into boring discs or slathered in traditional brown gravy. Frekadela is served with ketchup. That’s the way it’s always been. And that’s the way it always will be.