The King Of Pancakes

When I remember my grandfather Carl Victor Forsberg, who came here from Hallefors, Varmland, Sweden, I see him standing by the kitchen stove in his gray flannel pajamas and robe. He turns to ask, “Three? Ja, better have three pancakes.” And we would smile and nod, already tasting the wafer-thin, golden-browned, pan-size cakes that would be served in three ways: simply rolled with butter, stuffed and rolled with raspberry or strawberry jam or dusted with powdered sugar.

I wonder if my grandfather missed the land, the long, clean, green land of Sweden, the rolling fields, the waves of Lake Vanern. He never said so, but then he, like all Swedes, are known for their reticence with discussing feelings. His heart may have been full of secrets for all we know. But I’m sure this recipe made him remember his home in Hallefors.

Carl was deft with a spatula – he could cook not only breakfast, but tasty fried perch and muskelunge too, usually fish he had caught himself – and must have enjoyed cooking for his grandchildren. There were three of us: me, my cousin Barbara Marie (7 months, 14 days, two hours and 30 minutes older than I was); and my sister Vicky, seven years our junior.

My grandparents’ kitchen would be flooded with light as if grandfather had designed it to catch the sun all morning. He had built that house from the ground up from his own drawings and his own hands in 1946 after saving for nearly 20 years. He had come from Hallefors on the Swedish ocean liner Gripsholm out of Gothenburg in 1926 to the mill town of Jamestown, 40 miles south of Buffalo on the snow ridge just southeast of Lake Erie and with its own 20-mile-long lake, beautiful Chautauqua Lake, after which the county is named.

Carl arrived alone, having left his wife Gunhild and his two daughters Ingrid, 6, and Barbro, 3, in Karlskoga, while he scouted for work in the new country that promised much to a young Swedish man who could work hard and who had dreams to own a house by the lake and pull himself up in the world.

He found Jamestown a prospering city of 35,000 on a steep hill leading down to the outlet of Chautauqua Lake, the Chadakoin River, along which factories stood like Art Metal and Jamestown Metal, with their pounding sounds that shook the air night and day. There were wood works and garment factories filled with Swedish workers who had arrived before him. It was a town on a hill filled with promise; it was a place near a lake beautiful as Lake Vanern back in Sweden.

After almost a year, Carl had a foothold on his American dream. He purchased the tickets, steerage class, for his family, and they too sailed to America on the Gripsholm, a ship that must have carried a million Swedes to seek new dreams. My mother recalls the journey with the wit and wisdom of a bold and extroverted 4-year-old: “We traveled steerage, of course, third class, so we were in the bowels of the ship with a tiny round window not big enough to climb out of should the ship sink. My mother was terrified and spent the entire voyage except for the last day in her bunk with a wet hand towel on her forehead. But I roamed the ship, with my sister Ingrid, and without her. I was never sick.”

She remembers too sailing into New York harbor where her mother came up on deck and stood clutching the rail dressed in her best coat with a fox tail collar, her lovely dark hair hugged by a stylish cloche held on by a hatpin. Her mother smiled as they neared the Statue of Liberty, and for my mother, that memory is sweetest: Her mother was well again and America made her smile. Their stop on Liberty Island brief and perfunctory, mother and daughters soon climbed aboard the Erie Railroad for the trip across New York state. Nine hours later, they pulled into the Jamestown train station where Carl Forsberg stood in the September breeze, in his Sunday best dress coat and hat, hands folded in front of him like prayer. His red hair stood out against the rest of the waiting crowd, my mother told me, and as the train slowed, he took off his hand gracefully and his pale blue eyes met her own through the train car window. Such a moment one never forgets.

Imagine the joy of reunion after a year of separation: my grandmother Gunhild, emotionally fragile, beautiful, demure, holding her daughters’ hands, one on each side. My grandfather moving to embrace them all, modestly of course, because they were after all, Swedish, and grand displays of emotion – even great joy – were never encouraged. Still, they stood together as one, silently, for a full minute, breathing in each other’s scent and marveling in the moment.

Thus lucky for me, I spent much of my childhood in the house grandfather built on the hill overlooking Chautauqua Lake in the heart of Fluvanna. Often when I was young or when my sister and I would stay overnight, we would be happy to jump out of bed and get down to the kitchen. The kitchen smelled of eggs, cinnamon, milk and sugar. And there was Carl, our grandfather, with his red hair standing up straight and without his glasses, standing with spatula raised like a maestro. Grandfather Forsberg was the king of pancakes. He smiled kindly at us. His feet shuffled in brown leather slippers.

And one by one, he delivered our breakfast treats: pancake after Swedish pancake: flat, thin crepes browned just right, until we were too full to move and sat, grinning, at each other around grandma’s gleaming maple table.