The Suitcase Lady


December 17, 2019, 8:40 pm


Norway is a land that loves Christmas and one of their most cherished traditions is syv slags kaker. That translates to seven sorts of cookies. Norwegians consider that to be the magic number of treats to bake for family and friends. They also believe that vast quantities of butter must go into those cookies to make them special. These are my kind of people.

This tradition goes back hundreds of years when Norway was not the rich country it is now; in fact, it was one of the poorest Scandinavian countries. Farmers would sell their butter to get badly needed income and use lard for daily use. Butter was a huge treat that was only used for baking at Christmas time.

Although the number of cookie varieties to bake is seven, no specific types of cookies are prescribed. Being dedicated bakers, the Norwegians have hundreds of recipes for buttery cookies. Each family has its own list of seven favorites that have been passed down through the generations. Some of the most popular cookies on the family lists are krumkaker, berlinerkranser, fattigman, sandkaker, smultringer, spritz, snipp and pepperkaker. Even the names are fun to say.

I love both baking and traditions. For our Christmas, I always bake twelve things, eleven different cookies and one fruitcake. If you are shuddering at the thought of fruitcake, my recipe has no candied fruit, only dates, apricots, walnuts and coconut.

Baking begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving and the results go directly into the freezer. We are great believers in the joy of anticipation. Christmas cookie eating for us commences on Christmas Eve. But rest assured, if you visit our home before Christmas, we will dip into our stash.

Cookies waiting in our freezer!

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December 10, 2019, 9:23 pm


Our son had a fascination with Druids when he was in high school and once listed his religion as “Druid” on an information form. Living in a neighborhood that housed a huge Serbian Orthodox cathedral and numerous other churches, I’m fairly certain he was the only self-declared Druid in his school. But he was far from the only person keeping the spirit of the Druids alive. Almost all of us are doing that, especially at this time of year. The practices of the Druids, Celtic priests, live on.

For example, they believed that the sun stood still for twelve days at the winter solstice. The Celts called this festival Alban Arthuan. Fires were lighted to praise the sun, conquer darkness and banish evil spirits. This, of course, worked like a charm; the sun did return, rising higher in the sky. But while the Druids were lighting their fires, they were not singing  “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Those days of partridges and pear trees came much later.

The Druids were, however, extremely interested in trees, although they were oak, not pear trees. They lit a Yule log on the eve of the solstice and burned almost all of it in the next twelve days to bring good luck. A piece was saved to start the fire for the next year.

Might there be a delicious connection here to the wonderful French Christmas dessert, Buche de Noel, a cake shaped like a log and decorated with holly?

And speaking of holly, the Druids laid it around their doors and windows at solstice time. In addition to staying green and beautiful when all the other leaves were withered, holly served two other purposes. First, it was believed to shelter tiny fairies that came in from the cold forest and second, it would capture evil spirits before they could enter the homes.

A Yule tree was also decorated at midwinter with bright decorations of the sun, moon and stars. Then gifts were hung on the tree as offerings to the gods and goddesses. The Celts apparently thought that gifts, aka bribes, might be helpful in coaxing the sun to come back. We now let science take care of the sun and give the presents to each other.

Mistletoe was sacred to the Celts who believed it contained the soul of the oak tree. They ascribed to it the powers of healing disease, making poison harmless, bringing fertility and banishing witchcraft. When enemies happened to meet beneath the mistletoe in the forest, they would lay down their arms and declare a truce until the next day. This practice evolved into hanging mistletoe in doorways as a symbol of peace and goodwill. But the Celts weren’t kissing under the mistletoe…that was an invention of the Victorian era.

Our present days are wrapped with multitudinous strings from the past……may we enjoy them all.






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December 3, 2019, 8:41 pm


The other day I was reading and came across the word “toponym”. Being clueless as to its meaning, I looked it up to discover that it literally means a place name … from the Greek “topos” for place and “onoma” for name.

Since I have always been curious about how places get their names, I did a bit of research on Toponymy. Apparently, people can spend their entire careers studying how places acquire and sometimes lose their names.

My favorite article explained the five sources that we humans use to create names for our cities and countries as well as natural features of the land.

The first source is migration history. We bring the old world name to the new world home. In my state of Wisconsin we have Berlin, Paris, New London, Stockholm, New Glarus, Belgium, Luxemburg, Frankfort, Hamburg, Moscow, Denmark, Norway and Scandinavia.

Immigrants also borrowed place names from the original tenants on the land. Wisconsin is awash with Native American names which are fun to say but cause great spelling and pronunciation woes for new residents. Try saying these: Kinnickinnic, Nasewaupee, Oconomowoc, Koshkonong, Ashwaubenon and Mukwonago, (the place of the bear).

The first European explorers in Wisconsin were French voyageurs and fur traders. They left behind a liberal sprinkling of names as well, among them, Fond du Lac, Prairie du Chein, Eau Galle, and Flambeau. It must be noted that our pronunciation of most of these lovely names would cause any French person to cringe.

In addition, the French voyageurs gave us a river and town named “Embarrass”. The canoes of the voyageurs would encounter many log jams in the river so they named it Rivière d’ Embarras, river of obstacles.

Values and aspirations are the second source of place names. These can be subdivided as religious, classical or honorary. Wisconsin has a multitude of saint cities, among them St. Nazianz and St. Germaine as well as three towns named  Harmony, four named Liberty, seven named Union but only one New Hope. And as elsewhere in America, we honor Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe plus legions of other historical figures, almost all of the male gender.

The third category describes specific positive or negative events that have occurred in a place. On the negative side, Wisconsin has Lake Butte des Mort which is French for “hill of the dead” and also Port des Morts or “door of death”, the deadly waters at the top of Door County.

Physical characteristics are described in the fourth category. This huge category gives us a description of what the original inhabitants were looking at….Two Rivers, Beaver Dam, Big Falls, Black Earth, Crystal Lake, Redgranite.

The fifth and final category is cynical or sarcastic. These names describe the physical characteristics of a place but do so inaccurately or deceptively. Think retirement communities, subdivisions and industrial parks. These places are found everywhere…Fox Run with no foxes, Three Rivers Crossing with no rivers in view or Orchard Heights with no trees.

While researching this blog, I came up with a sixth category which I shall call “sheer nonsense”. In 1845, a Wisconsin township had to be cut in half because of a population boom. One half quickly renamed itself  Concord, but the other half couldn’t arrive at a new name. So they put all the letters of the alphabet on slips of paper in a hat and pulled out letters. The first six letters pulled were IXONIA which is why we have Ixonia, Wisconsin. It’s unique in America.

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November 26, 2019, 11:22 pm


It’s time again for turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and Brussel sprouts, the Peter Pans of the cabbage family that refuse to grow up.

I have roasted many turkeys and freely admit that I have not mastered the art. So many things can go wrong when you are dealing with large, dead birds. For example, my first attempt when I found that slimy plastic bag of turkey parts just before popping the bird in the oven. A close call.

But I am not alone. Several turkey hotlines exist where flummoxed cooks can call for help. The folks at Snopes, the wonderful fact-checking service, asked the hot line experts about the most incredible questions they’ve received. Here are some of their favorite queries.

  • Can you tell if the turkey is done by filling the cavity with popcorn and waiting for it to pop out?
  • How can I find my turkey in a snowbank? The woman had put her bird in a snowbank to keep it frozen overnight but a new snowfall occurred. The advisor could only suggest that future birds be marked with a tall stick and flag.
  • When I carve my bird with a chainsaw, will any leaking motor oil affect the bird’s taste? This was a guy question.
  • Why do I always have to cut off the bird’s legs before roasting? The wise advisor ascertained from the caller that her mother always did that and deduced that the mother’s oven was very small.
  • How do I get the little metal pieces off  my bird? Answer: The next time you clean your bird, don’t use a Brillo pad.
  • Can I put my bird in a Reynolds Oven Bag and put it on my car’s back window ledge to bake in the sun? Numerous other cooks had to be told not to roast birds on the radiators of their apartments.
  • Can I speed up the cooking of my bird by using my stove cleaning cycle?
  • Is my five pound turkey done? It’s been in the oven for 24 hours?
  • I’ve got my turkey thawed and have one question. What number should I set the dial to on my electric blanket? The advisor admits to having been momentarily speechless to that man’s question.

I have saved my favorite for last. It was the second question the Turkey Talk Lines first male advisor received and he sites it as the most amusing one of his career. A woman called to help him locate a 36 pound turkey. His verbatim reply follows:

“Ma’am, at 36 pounds that is not a turkey… There are two reasons why we don’t carry that size and we can’t locate it for you. One, that is an ostrich. Two, your average oven won’t give enough head space for the turkey to cook evenly.”

Happy Thanksgiving!

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November 19, 2019, 8:50 pm


The masterful writer, Elmore Leonard, said that a writer should, “Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

I aspire to be a good writer but admit to totally disregarding this advice. I love exclamation points! Life is a wondrous, exciting adventure and these little symbols are needed to emphasize that fact.

My love of that punctuation mark makes me incredibly envious of everyone writing in Spanish. These lucky people are allowed exclamation points both before and after a sentence, the first one standing on its head. How brilliant is this!

Yet grammarians of English universally lament that the exclamation point is grossly overused. Since I’m a fan of that punctuation mark… really; who can get excited about a semicolon… I searched to see if it had any defenders.

Thomas Wolfe was not shy about his use of that mark and said to his critics, “People complain about my exclamation points, but I honestly think that is how people think. I don’t think people think in essays, it’s one exclamation point after another.”

Well said, but Elmore Leonard, despite his admonition, might have given the exclamation point its best compliment. In his career, Leonard wrote over 40 novels totaling 3.4 million words. His self proclaimed goal would have been 102 exclamation marks for his entire career. The number he actually used was 1,651, or 16 times his limit.

So there!

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