(by Mollie O'Hara)
I was a rebellious child, and my mom was the general of the house. I tested everyone’s patience quite regularly, but my mother got the brunt of my whims and fits. So many of my fond memories revolve around my mom’s food or running around the kitchen with her. Usually I was creating chaos, and my mom promptly followed with her weapons of choice: paper towels and bleach.
My mom is from Sweden and moved to the U.S. when she was 22. Her pride in her heritage is something that is deeply ingrained in me, and with that comes my love of Swedish food, most particularly Swedish meatballs. Swedish meatballs and Italian meatballs are not to be confused. These are smaller and more delicate, without the breadcrumbs and heavy Italian spices. These are juicy and savory, meant to be a wonderful warm meal after being out in the cold Scandinavian air. While I have had my fair share of Italian and Swedish meatballs, all have paled in comparison to my mom’s.
When I was about ten years old, my dad’s mother lived with us. Grandma was very German and Irish, and loved to mention it. It was Christmas time, and per usual, there were many holiday parties and potlucks to attend. My mom is quite the socialite, and everyone sought her attendance. Naturally our potluck dish of choice would be Swedish meatballs, but I was not prepared for the massive enterprise my mom had planned.
She decided we were going to make 500 meatballs. My grandma and I awaited our marching orders, as the entire kitchen was covered in cookie sheets lined with parchment paper, awaiting the meatball battalion of troops. Bowls upon bowls of ground beef were everywhere. They began to look like trenches, and I prepared myself for kitchen warfare. My little hands may not have been fast, but they made the perfect sized meatballs, and in no time, I had multiple sheets of uniform meatballs, not one out of marching order. Mom zipped around the kitchen, never dropping even one ball. But Grandma was an absolute mess. She had ground beef caked on her arms up to her elbows, like a soldier out of a mud pit. Her diamond rings were unrecognizable and looked more like meat popsicles. Her fingers turned into long sized talons, and every attempt she made to remove the built-up beef simply resulted in more buildup on the other hand.
My mom raced to the (attempted) rescue with a big glass of water for Grandma to dunk her hands, but Grandma promptly knocked the water over. The table was officially a pond featuring a ground beef moat. Little pools of water started drowning the meatballs, while The General rushed to mop up. I was roaring with laughter. I had never seen two adults, let alone those that were always the picture of composure to me, scrambling around with their hands in the air, meat soaring everywhere. At this point, I too was covered in beef from head to toe. My straw-like mop of hair had officially been infiltrated with raw meat, and every attempt to get it out just made the entire situation worse. I tried to tie my hair up as soon as I realized I too was turning into a meatball, but between the laughter and my meaty hands, it was a lost war. While it was a messy battle, our company of meatballs survived with no casualties.
What was meant to be a calm meatball assembly line had quickly exploded into an unbridled war zone. At the time, I didn’t realize how important this memory was going to be, I just thought the entire situation was comical and chaotic—precisely how I enjoyed living. Looking back now, I feel so lucky to have been with two of the most dignified women imaginable in such a ridiculous and chaotic manner. Any time I feel myself becoming too stressed with planning, I stop and think about how much fun I had as a kid when our well-planned operation exploded. I would give anything to be making 500 meatballs with my mom and Grandma again. Embrace the chaos, because something beautiful may result.
This past Christmas my mom was once again invited to a slew of holiday parties, of course far fewer than the pre-pandemic years. My grandma has since passed away, and I have grown up and have my own house, but I bet you will never imagine what my mom brought as the potluck dish….