Helga’s Swedish Meatballs and Gravy

With gratitude to Marcus Samuelsson and what his life represents

Sunday has become family cooking day. With the cold weather, and having no interest in anything on television and not really of the the mind to stand outside in the park while Ines plays, we have begun to spend a big part of our Sunday afternoons in the kitchen, including trying to coax Ines into helping out. Today, Beverly coordinated the making of Swedish meatballs and gravy with carrot-apple mashed potatoes and pickled cucumbers. This is a winter treat that comes around maybe twice per year, unlike in Sweden where such things are street food.

We again turned to Marcus Samuelsson, and why not, he is Swedish (more on that later). His recipe was his grandmother’s, Helga’s, and thus is called Helga’s Meatballs & Gravy with Carrot-Apple Mashed Potatoes. Think about the history there. Did Helga every consider that her Ethiopian grandson would take her recipe to the United States and name it after her and put it in a recipe book so we and probably thousands of others around the world could give it a go? For some, it might be there first Swedish meatballs and gravy. Thanks, Helga. For others, like us, it might be a family event that years from now our daughter may remember—maybe not the meatballs but the time spent in the kitchen. Thanks again, Helga. Or maybe forty years from now Ines is making Helga’s recipe for her own family. To me, that’s amazing because of the path that recipe took to get to us, a path that began probably in Helga’s youth if not before she was born and that meandered to Ethiopia and became dependent on an orphan child.

Okay, back to the recipe. While the meatballs and gravy were fairly traditional by Swedish meatball and gravy standards (and thus excellent), the carrot-apple mash potatoes were different than anything we had had or made before. It was the mashed potatoes that caught my attention, so I left the meatballs, gravy, and cucumbers to Beverly (she had been making them for years already so there was nothing I could do to make them any better) and went straight for the ingredients for the mashed potatoes.

Samuelsson calls for carrots, a Granny Smith apple, a red onion, a shallot, garlic, and buttermilk in his mashed potatoes. As someone who grew up eating mash potatoes that basically served as a base for gravy, and thus were as basic as could be—that is, potatoes, mashed with a bit of milk and butter—I have always looked for new ways to liven up the spud. First, I began leaving the skin on, and still do and always will. Second, I started adding sour cream, Greek yogurt, or even Philadelphia cream cheese (although not in this case). And third, cheese with a kick, I started adding all types of cheese but mainly Parmesan. I mean, let’s face it, by themselves potatoes just do not have much taste and taste can be had without using a ton of salt. So the idea of adding carrots, apples, red onions, and shallots appealed to me. And it worked well. Never will I mash another potato unless I can merge it with something else that is more substantial in taste. I’m thinking beets or radishes next.

Anyway, here’s a real short summary of Marcus Samuelsson’s life (drawn from memory of his autobiography that I read three years ago). He was born poor in Ethiopia. At an early age, maybe three or four, everyone in his village developed tuberculosis. His mother carried Marcus and his older sister to the nearest hospital many, many miles away, and died when she arrived. Marcus and his sister recovered, but were orphans. A Swedish couple came to the hospital hoping to adopt one child, but Marcus and his sister refused to be separated, and the couple adopted both of them, taking them back to Sweden. After learning about cooking by sitting in his grandmother’s kitchen as she cooked,Marcus developed an interest in becoming a chef in his teens. He began studying and apprenticing, ultimately making his way to Austria and France, serving as chef on a cruise ship, and finally landing in New York City and Harlem where he now lives.

Marcus was not a refugee, but I imagine many if not most refugees face similar struggles as Marcus and his sister did in Ethiopia. Granted, Marcus didn’t suffer through a war or the oppression that most refugees are fleeing from today, but he and his sister saw their village devastated by disease and lost their mother to illness. I imagine their life situation when they ended up as orphans in a hospital many miles from home must resemble in significant ways that of refugees today.

A more obvious connection between Marcus and refugees, however, may be the idea of what is possible when those more advantaged and with courage decide that something must be done to help those who face such hardship and oppression. This is what Marcus’s Swedish parents did, and but for that one act of bravery and compassion, we probably would not have the Marcus Samuelsson we know today, who has done so much to use his gifts as a chef to help build a community in Harlem. For example, he supports sustainable gardening, provides educational opportunities for kids, and champions minority chefs and the food of diverse cultures. Similarly, he contributes mightily to initiatives in Ethiopia, including putting his stepsisters through school by paying not only their tuition but also paying his father (who abandoned him) the income he said he would lose if the young women went to school. I can’t imagine all of this would have been possible if no one had taken a chance on Marcus, a small child in ill health recovering from tuberculosis.

It took not only his adopted parents willing to travel thousands of miles to adopt two kids when they only planned for one but also a society and a government that supported citizens’ efforts to do that and that welcomed orphans who were completely different from them into their midst as equal citizens. I can’t help but wonder how many Marcus Samuelssons are waiting to come to the United States right now. How many young children, young men and women, and their parents are doing everything they can to make a better life for themselves and now must wonder if all is lost because of a government that has turned its back on them and outright rejected them. What is lost is not only everything that they deserve—that all humans deserve—but also how they might touch our lives and make us better because of who they are. With what we have done, we all lose just as with what Marcus’s parents did, beginning with his real mother and including Sundays in Helga’s kitchen, has made us all richer and better.