My daughter, Allison, and her fiancé, Henrik-Olav Osvik, are on their way back to their home in Oslo. Henrik and Allison will celebrate Christmas soon at his parents’ beautiful A-frame on a fjord. I can just imagine the conversation:
May-Sissel: So what did you have for Christmas Eve dinner with the Lingos, Son?
Henrik: Turtle soup.
Oda: Did you say, “turtle soup”?
May-Sissel: What’s with Americans!? They love guns and they eat turtles.
What will probably get lost in the translation is that we eat mock turtle soup. Henrik was confused when I told him. “What is ‘mock’?” he asked.
“Fake. Imitation. Pretend. There are no turtles in this soup.”
His raised eyebrows registered suspicion. “So what is in it?” he asked.
“Veal, gingersnaps, hard-boiled eggs, and lemon slices. Some spices. Oh, and booze.”
“When I was little, I thought the veal was baby cat, not baby calf,” Allison interjected.
Henrik doesn’t look any happier with the prospect of eating mock turtle soup than the real thing. He has a lot in common with the younger generation in our family. They don’t like turtle soup.
I hold my cousin, Adam, largely responsible for my kids’ rejection of this toothsome sweet-sour stew. He told the younger kids that, in fact, there was nothing mock about the turtle soup, that the turtles were actually caught in the pond behind Grandma and Grandpa’s house. The brew was cooked up, he claimed, in a rusty bucket Grandpa stored in the barn. “There are cow brains in it,” he whispered. (The part about the brains . . . uh, well, that was true.)
When I was a little girl, my Grandma Seilkop made the turtle soup, just like her mother-in-law (my great-grandma) used to make. The entire family sat at the long dining room table, Grandma at one end and Grandpa at the other. The table was festive, but close inspection revealed mismatched dishes and flatware.
Before the soup was served, we all joined hands and sang “Away in a Manger,” the old version that starts low. CLICK HERE TO LISTEN My mom and I knew the second and third verses, and we sang it as a duet, the others joining in for a phrase here and there.
“The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes; the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes . . . Bless all the dear children in thy loving care, and fit us for heaven to live with you there.”
Once the song was finished, Grandma, a tiny little force of nature in her ruffled apron, scurried to the kitchen and spooned turtle soup into humble white crockery bowls using her peculiar ladle with that flat edge. When everyone was served, she lifted her spoon and, as if directed by a conductor’s baton, everyone set about the business of eating the soup.
And I mean everyone, young and old, because Santa wouldn’t come if you didn’t eat your turtle soup. When my brother and I were the only children, before my cousins were born, I think everyone at the table loved the soup. There were crackers available, but my brother and I never thought to crumble them into our soup to hide the taste or dull the spice. My dad, aunt, and uncle stole little rafts of lemon slices from each other’s bowls.
When I was a kid, when Great-Grandma Meinking was still alive, there were eleven at the table, but in recent years Uncle Kenny and Aunt Marilyn (who now live in Grandma and Grandpa’s house), usually host around thirty people for Christmas Eve.
Now my Aunt Sue makes the turtle soup in her mother’s pot. And, just like her mother, she always critiques the dish; the soup might be “too lemony,” “too bland,” “not quite right,” or have “something missing.” Admittedly, the taste varies a little from year to year, as there has never been a real recipe but instead really good cooks, but it is always positively delicious.
At the end of the meal, my brother and I offer up Tupperware containers, like Oliver Twist, and beg for more soup to take home.
Sue makes brown bread in the same vegetable cans Grandma used. They are heavier and larger than the cans available today. She also makes her mother’s coffee cake (in her mom’s cake pan) that melts in your mouth. She brings thumbprint cookies and Buckeyes that are always better than mine.
My job is to bring the cheese, crackers, and hard salami, as well as disgusting dried beef, the leftovers of which are reincarnated in Shit-on-a-Shingle by Aunt Marilyn the week following Christmas.
These days there is always chili available, which the kids, except for TJ, eat. Apparently Santa has lost his interest in what we eat, because these persnickety children seem to find plenty of packages under the tree.
Aunt Sue spends days making the turtle soup. It starts with a huge hunk of veal which cooks slowly all night long down to a handful of meat which Sue has to pick from the bones. She keeps trying to get someone else to take over its preparation. By brother says, flatly, “No.” I demure, saying, “I could never make it as well as you do.”
My cousin Julie, who is thirteen years younger than I, asks Sue year after year, “Why do you make it? Don’t go to all the work. When you’re gone, nobody is going to make it anymore.”
I tell Julie, “It’s not about the soup.” It’s about Grandma Seilkop, in a soft cardigan pearl buttoned to her chin, sitting at the end of the table, apologizing for the imagined flaws of the soup. It’s about Aunt Sue stirring love into the pot as she thinks about her parents. It’s about Grandma and Grandpa calling each other “Buddy” as they dish up the soup. It’s about that strange ladle with the flat edge, which has been handled by many Seilkops, all good German stock. It’s about a family with this strange tradition of eating turtle soup on Christmas Eve, lifting their loving spoonsful to honor the generations that came before.