Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Icelandic Pancakes

Zoe likes pancakes.
We made Swedish pancakes (from a packaged mix) on her first Saturday with us, but this Saturday, we made Mrs. Sigurdson's Buttermilk Pancakes, from scratch. It's our family's recipe, handed down from none other than Mrs. John Sigurdson.
Uma and Ave (grandma and grandpa) Sigurdson were two of the sweetest people I've ever known. They are the couple who sold my parents their property on Bainbridge Island.
John (Ave) was a carpenter, and he not only sold the land to my parents, he helped them build their cabin. My parents were newlyweds who were living in a rented, one-bedroom apartment, had no money, and knew nothing about building; John taught them what they needed to know. He also brought them a pot of hot coffee and a plate of fresh buttermilk pancakes in the mornings, before they started working.
Uma and Ave had 6 children and many grandchildren. We were treated as if we were their grandchildren, too, with freedom to roam through their property, swing on their swings, drink from their freshwater rain barrel, catch frogs in the rhubarb patch, and generally visit the house at any time. We would knock on the door and wait for them to call, "Come on!," and we would sit down to talk and eat some of Uma's delicious kleinur (twisted, deep-fried donuts) or sweet brown bread.
Some of the grandchildren were the same age as the kids in my family; we would play with them when they were visiting their grandparents. But while we were on summer vacation, their grandchildren were expected to do chores. The grandkids didn't like this, and would try to avoid working. When John would get angry at his grandchildren, he would berate them lovingly. There were many times that I heard him say [pardon the swearing], "GodDAMN now, Honey!" or "GodDAMNIT, Sveetheart!" in his thick, beautiful accent.
Uma and Ave had a fabulous vegetable garden. Their laundry was hung out to dry on clotheslines in the yard. The house was heated by a woodburning furnace. Uma cooked on a woodburning stove/oven. This meant that wood had to be gathered, sawed into rounds and split. They had a dock and a boat ramp. John would see a log floating by in front of the house, get into his motorboat, drive out, put a line on the log and tow it back to the beach. Then he would attach the line to his winch, and drag the log up the boat ramp, so that he could saw it and split it for use in heating his house and cookstove.

If Ave saw a herring ball in front of his house, he would set out in his motorboat, and return dragging a beach seine (net) full of small, silver fish behind the boat. He would share his bounty with the neighbors, and this was a sight to see: children watching, men assisting with the net, women ready with empty coffee cans to fill with fish (for the freezer) - and every cat in the neighborhood going crazy at the flashes of fresh, silver herring flipping wildly all over the boat ramp. John would then take the bulk of his catch out to a rowboat that he had fashioned into a fish pen. He enclosed the boat with wire mesh, submerged it, and attached the boat to a buoy, so that the herring could swim freely inside of it, alive but unable to escape. In this way, he had fresh bait available when he wanted to go fishing.
The men in the neighborhood would gather often to play cribbage or have a drink together; the women would drink coffee and talk.
My memories of Bainbridge Island, and the Sigurdsons, are the happiest ones of my childhood. Which brings me back to pancakes. My father always made "Mrs. Sig's Buttermilk Pancakes" on Sunday mornings when we were young. I decided to treat Zoe to the same experience, and she helped me to make the batter. They were delicious, as always. 
The ironic thing is that the Sigurdsons were immigrants from Iceland. So, while the volcano in Iceland is preventing her departure, Zoe is happily eating one of their "signature" dishes.


Karen said...

Hah! Another of life's funny little ironies. The pancakes have my mouth watering. I want some.

ChiTown Girl said...

This has to be one of my favorite posts! Thanks for sharing such a wonderful history. And, the pancakes sound yummy!

Erin said...

I love the old photos. Glad Zoe is enjoying her "extended stay". Any chance you'd post the yummy pancake recipe?

deb said...

This is fascinating .
And those were hardworking people. I ashamed at what little I accomplished today in comparison.

Looks like flights are starting , hope Zoe gets home safely soon.

Elizabeth said...

What a terrific post! I have to admit to envy as you describe life on the island. It reminds me a bit of one of my favorite picture books when I was a child -- One Day in Maine -- simple pleasures and times. And that's so cool that they were from Iceland -- that is such a "foreign" foreign country to me --

Allegra Smith said...

Yum to the recipe and to the post. I would give just about everything to go back to a time when things of value had value and the rest was just for show. Lovely post Karen.

karen gerstenberger said...

Elizabeth, is "One Day in Maine" by Robert McCloskey? He wrote a book that reminded me so much of these experiences, but I've forgotten the title.

Erin, do you recognize West Port Madison? It's changed SO MUCH in the last 50 years!

I wish I could make a huge batch of these pancakes and serve them to all of you.