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Jessie Veeder, Published January 12 2013

Coming Home: A recipe is more than what’s on card

She held the paper in her hands like it was some fragile thing that could catch air in our kitchen and float away. The lines on the card revealed her mother’s recipe ready to be passed along to her son, my husband, on an overcast January day at the ranch.

We had our aprons and our bowls, our pans and eggs, flour and sugar, cream and shortening. We had spoons for mixing the old fashioned way, and she had her memory of the way it felt to be in her mother’s kitchen.

I stood next to my husband as he took instructions from his mother to whisk the eggs with a fork and cut in the shortening. I took note of the nine cups of heavy cream and thought, well, no wonder.

No wonder it tastes so good.

Yes, we were making kuchen the way my mother-in-law was taught and the way my husband remembered it.

And this Scandinavian-blooded woman was getting a lesson on a German custom that means more than just sugar and cream for many families in the communities that dot the North Dakota landscape.

If you grew up on these prairies I doubt I need to describe to you what a pan of kuchen looks like. I imagine you’ve come across it at a church potluck, a friend’s holiday party or stirred it up in your own kitchen. Yes, this creamy cake-like pastry made with simple ingredients is not only a symbol of heritage and celebration, it also means having something in the freezer you can serve up quick for unexpected company, and that might be the dessert’s most important function.

At least that’s what my mother-in-law explained as she rolled the crust up in nine little balls the way she watched her mother do it and wondered out loud how she might remember things like this after all of these years.

I sat on the end of the counter and listened as my husband remembered his grandmother, the stern line of her jaw and her high expectations of him as a little boy. His grandmother’s kuchen, like the fabric on her dress, told a story about her standards, status and her hold on tradition.

And her kuchen recipe, the recipe we were making that day, was to be made with cream, flavored only with cinnamon and sugar and poured thin. Because thin kuchen, according to my mother-in-law, was known as “wedding kuchen,” and her mother shook her head at anything different.

The little secrets that show up between the lines of a recipe card don’t come as a surprise to me. In my life as a writer in rural North Dakota I’ve learned a lot about people from the food they serve and the comments they make about it. These traditional recipes are not beloved as much for being delicious as they are for the friendly rivalry they create between neighbors, family and friends – Martha makes her filling too thick; June’s crust is too flaky; Kathy uses peaches; and Beth buys hers at the SuperValu. Once I even interviewed a woman who was known in her community simply as “The Kuchen Lady.”

And last summer on a writing assignment that sent me to small towns across the state I found myself in the middle of a fairly heated argument about where to find the best kuchen in town. And the two men weren’t laughing as much as they were directing well though-out points at one another about what makes kuchen not only tasty, but also right!

Like their mothers’.

The smell of cinnamon rolled out of the hot oven, and I listened to my mother-in-law’s laughter mix with the sugar, cream and my husband’s voice while stories of her youth unfolded before us. I thought of those gentlemen and what the taste of kuchen really meant to them.

Of all the things our mothers can pass along to us – advice on love, how to stand up for ourselves and care for one another – perhaps teaching us something that might one day remind us of the way she stood in our kitchen holding that recipe softly in her hands is the most important gift of all.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D.