Salted Cod on Christmas

A Winthrop family keeps a century-old holiday food tradition alive in the midst of a global pandemic.

For my mother-in-law, Karen Richards Toothaker, Christmas Eve has always been a plate of mashed potatoes smothered in egg gravy and topped with salted codfish. Since she was a little girl in central Maine, her family has gathered around this traditional holiday meal to connect to their Swedish roots and pay homage to the ancestors who came to Maine from Sweden in the early 1900s. “This meal has always been part of my life,” she tells me.

Her grandmother, Lillian Caroline Richards, was born to Swedish immigrants in 1901. The story Karen remembers is that the family struggled to find footing in their new home in Portland—so much so that her great-grandmother left Lillian and her father to return to her native land. Like many immigrants stumbling in a new country, Lillian’s father turned to food traditions from the old land for comfort. One of those meals was the Swedish holiday dish of salted codfish, egg gravy, and mashed potatoes. Karen explains that “they ate salted codfish because that’s what you could get in the winter in Sweden.”

Learning the tradition from her grand-mother, whom she affectionately calls Nana Richards, Karen has seen the Christmas Eve custom evolve over the years as family members have passed and new ones—like me, who showed up to my first holiday meal nearly 20 years ago—have been added. When Karen was a child, Nana Richards hosted the holiday meal. When she died in 1982, the hosting responsibilities bounced around to aunts and uncles throughout Kennebec County, until finally Karen inherited hosting responsibilities in 2012 from her aunt, Betty White, daughter of Nana Richards. In a way, my mother-in-law had been preparing for that moment her entire life.

To help with the Nordic menu, including the salted codfish centerpiece, Karen turned to a family cookbook that had been curated by her Aunt Betty. In addition to recipes, the cookbook includes family stories of Christmases past. Karen laughs that some family members and newcomers don’t take to the meal, heavy in cured fish and root vegetables, that might seem eccentric to many American palates. I recall the first time I noshed on this Christmas Eve feast. The briny cod and creamy egg gravy wrapped around my tongue like a wool sweater on a cold December night, even if I didn’t fully appreciate then the connection the menu had to my soon-to-be wife’s lineage. Since taking over the meal, Karen and my father-in-law, Jeff, cram 20 to 30 family members and friends into their Winthrop home to share the foods brought to the shores of Maine by her Swedish ancestors.

But that changed in 2020. With the world gripped in a global pandemic and vaccines for most people still months away, Karen had to cancel the yearly gathering. Undeterred, she and her Aunt Betty packaged a dozen meals for local family and friends whom she couldn’t invite to her home. On Christmas Eve, she drove around central Maine with her 89-year-old aunt to deliver Tupperware containers filled with, among other Swedish foods, salted codfish, egg gravy, and cooked potatoes—the families would have to do their own mashing.

That evening, motivated by the memory of Nana Richards and her immigrant father who found solace in the humble Nordic meal over a hundred years ago, we gathered around laptops and iPads for a Zoom meeting to sing Christmas songs, tell stories, and hoist communal forkfuls of salty fish.

This essay was published in the November/December issue as a part of a collection in which we asked our contributors to describe how their families embrace the holiday season.

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