10,000 Acres Of Family History In Glendive, Montana

On the Svenvold farm

After 19 years together, my husband took me to his father’s childhood home on a farm outside of Glendive, Montana and I met more Svenvolds than I knew existed—cousins and second cousins and cousins once and twice removed.  I’m rich with in-laws I didn’t know I had.  Their grandfather, Rasmus, came from Norway at the end of the 19th century.  He bought a cattle brand at auction to discover there were some 2000 cattle.  In 1909, to take advantage of the Homestead Act he sold the cattle brand and became a rich man.  He didn’t need to farm, so he didn’t.  A gentleman farmer was he. With his cash, he built a state of the art farm house with electricity and running water, married a Norwegian girl from an adjacent farm. Her name was Sandra Waag and she came from Norway to take care of her brother, Ingvald.

The remains of Ingvald’s homestead

Sandra and Rasmus had four boys.  My husband’s father, Harold, was one of those boys.  Some years later, quite ill, a traveling preacher swindled Rasmus for everything but the farm.  Rasmus and his sons never went to church again.  His youngest son, Raleigh, started farming the land to make ends meet, planting high protein wheat as his other brothers went off to pursue their own lives and dreams.  Raleigh and his wife had six children, five boys and a girl.  All of those children were in Glendive this July to celebrate their mother’s 90th birthday.

Some of the Svenvold men

As it happened, my grandmother came to Glendive when she was 6 years old, in 1910.  She came with her little sister and my great grandmother, Glenna.

Glenna was fleeing her husband who had, as my grandmother liked to tell me, “a wandering eye for women.”  In Montana, she became an itinerant school teacher, traveling wherever need led.  There was a lot of need.  Rural one room school houses dotted the landscape and school teachers lasted only briefly. Glenna got schools up and running and then moved on to the next hardship post.

Upper Seven Mile School

What remains inside the Upper Seven Mile School

She left her young daughters in town to fend for themselves.  The landscape hasn’t much changed since Rasmus and Glenna were alive — ravines and gullies, mesas like towers all draped in green.  The Svenvold farm is on a table that sits high above the carved land, over fifteen square miles of wheat and cattle, spreading out like an ocean—one gorgeous farm house, 100 years old, in the middle of it all in which my husband’s father was raised.  I never knew him.  He died before I met his son.  Surrounded by Svenvold men, the highest concentration of them I have ever or ever will encounter, welcoming and warm and loving, I felt I met Mark’s Dad.  I feel I know him now.  Out there in the midst of all this it occurred to both my husband and me how once long ago in 1910 we were both there in our grandparents.  Our daughter said to us, “I have an idea.  Write a novel in which Rasmus and Glenna meet. It could have happened that way. They meet, you know,” and she winked.

Yucatecan Cuisine: Making Panuchos In New York City

I have always found my portal into another culture to be through its food.  In March I went to the jungle outside of Merida and stayed in a colonial hacienda that had been transformed into a private home, soaring ceilings and rioting vegetation just outside the screened doors, the constant song of doves.  At this extraordinary place, where every desire was anticipated before we had a chance to think of it ourselves, all meals were prepared for us — a showcase of Yucatecan cuisine: caldillo poblano con ensalada de camerone; sopa de tortilla y poc-chuc; frijol de puerco; arroz a la Mexicana y frjitas; and on and on.  Our favorite, caldo Tlapeno y panuchos, was described to us as Yucatecan “fast-food” because the panuchos are eaten fast since they are so good.  They are also considered a form of street food.  But actually, they take quite a long time to make.  We loved them so much that when we returned home we had a little dinner party to remember the trip and spent the afternoon making the panuchos.  Panuchos are homemade tortillas stuffed with refried beans, topped with lime-rinsed shredded cabbage, achiote-rubbed grilled and shredded chicken, pickled red onion, a slice of avocado.  They are simply delicious, all the flavors coming together in a burst of texture and spice and lime.

Ingredients and directions: achiote paste thinned with lime juice; pickled red onions (pickle them yourself by thinly slicing the red onion and soaking them in one part lime juice, one part orange — enough juice to submerge them, and, the longer they sit in the juice the better, at least a few hours; chicken breasts first poached and then rubbed with the achiote, then grilled, then shredded.  I did this with my fingers.  It was laborious, but I didn’t mind it as it brought me to contemplate the beauty of preparing delicious food, that it should take some time.  It also allowed me to appreciate the effort that went into preparing the Yucatecan food for us when we were at the hacienda.  There is something meditative about pulling chicken breasts apart — sort of like ironing.  Prepare the shredded the cabbage.  (I used a food processor, having had enough meditation.)  Once shredded, squeeze lime juice abundantly on the cabbage.  Cut avocado in thin wedges.  Have all the ingredients ready so that you can assemble the panuchos quickly.  Make the tortillas.  We did this by hand.  The flour packaging (masa harina) will have the recipe.  We didn’t have time to buy a tortilla press so we rolled them by hand.  They were not perfectly round, but it didn’t matter.  We rolled the dough between two layers of Saran Wrap and then fried them until they puffed.  Take them out of the oil with a slotted spoon and rest them on paper towel.  As soon as you can, slice into the tortilla to make a pocket, fill it with black refried beans (ours were from a can, make sure they are black).  Start assembling the panuchos: cabbage; chicken, onions, avocados.  Make a gorgeous platter of them and then serve immediately.  I promise you that this is worth all the effort.  Making them and eating made us feel we were back in the hot, fragrant jungle even though we heard sirens racing up Broadway.

We were so enthusiastic about recreating the experience of eating at Hacienda Petac that we set the table as they did for all meals.  Flower petals and napkins shaped to look like Mayan pyramids.  (At the hacienda at each meal the napkins would be shaped differently: a shirt one day, a flower, a little woman.  I believe there was a different shape for each meal: 3 meals per day times 7 — a lot of shapes.)  We drank margaritas and a cool Chablis and limonadas.  For dessert we made a Key Lime Pie and Flan.  After the meal, the kids whacked a pinata until it burst.  They’d made the pinata at Hacienda Petac during the lazy afternoons.  Here are some fun and essential links:

Achiote Paste

Masa Harina

Hacienda Petac

How To Make Panuchos

Tortilla Press

The Perfect Flan

Some pictures:

The achiote-rubbed chicken on a make-shift cast iron grill that sits on stove top burners.

Making the tortillas

Frying the tortillas

All the shredded chicken.  This was from about 3 full breasts.  Beyond the chicken, the assembling begins.

The panuchos

The glorious table.

The Flan

Followed by …

Recipe for Key Lime Pie:

3 egg yolks

1 can sweetened condensed milk

1/2 cup of key lime juice.  Sercet: DO NOT use bottled key lime juice.  If you can’t find key limes, use regular limes.


1) Make a pie crust with 5 tables of melted butter and 1 package of nine graham crackers crushed.  Press it into and up the sides of a 9.5 Pyrex pie pan.

2)Preheat oven to 375

3) Combine egg yolks, milk, lime juice.  Mix well.  Pour into unbaked crust.

4) Bake for 15 minutes.  Allow to cool.  Refrigerate.  Top with thin lime slices and unsweetened whipped cream … if you desire.

Waking Early To Birdsong

Waking early to birdsong, doves and mot mots, a pair of love birds playing in a branch.  Coffee delivered to my bed.  A sultry air stirred by a kind breeze.  The jungle outside of Merida, Mexico.  Hacienda Petac, former sisal plantation established in the 1700s, celebrated for its rope production, converted now to a private home.  Palm and agave and creeping philodendron and mariposa and quanabana and neem and pich and pomegranate .  The canopy dripping with fruits and pods shaped like beans and boomerangs and ears, filled with a silk as light and fluffy as dandelion seed.  A splash of pink, of red against the riotous green, ixora and cattail and heliconia and birds of paradise, royal poinciana, the magnificent ceiba tree.  Water everywhere, running through and under it all.  Breakfast by the pool: Jugo, Fruita, Omelet de Queso con Salsa de chile poblano.

Hacienda Petac


At a ranch on the banks of the Snake River in southern Idaho a rattlesnake coiled, began to rattle.  My son was a few inches away, frozen, fascinated, terrified.  We’d been warned about the rattlesnakes, told to wear boots and chaps.  But we’d just arrived and Jasper was in shorts and sneakers.  My husband came from behind Jasper and with a shovel struck the snake down.  We’d been told how to kill them if we’d had to, that they don’t die until sundown so to immediately bury the head.

Indeed they continue to live for quite a while.  The mouth continues to bite and the body to coil and the heart to beat.  Bites at this point are still poisonous.  We buried the head and then cleaned the body, examining the innards, keeping the skin and the rattle.  In the morning one of the children decided he wanted the head so he dug it up and cleaned it off with water and preserved it in alcohol.

As it happened, I felt sort of bad.  I later read on the internet that rattlesnakes are very slow moving and they give you so much warning to get away from them that really it is unnecessary to kill them.  They don’t attack.  Like so many other animals they’re  afraid.  As a child in Montana, my grandmother shot rattlesnakes while riding through the sage brush, blasted them to hell and gone because they irritated her horse.  She didn’t feel bad, recounted the stories with a certain pride in the precision of her aim at ten years old.  But of course that was 100 years ago and everything was different.

I told my Dad about the rattlesnakes.  (Actually, by the end of our stay we’d had three encounters.)  He told me that his whole life he’d wanted to see a rattlesnake, but never had.  His friend, Sam Candler, upon learning this, took him to the most infested rattlesnake areas he knew of.  My father didn’t see a one.  He was thoroughly impressed that I’d seen so many.  “Did you eat it?” he asked.  “They’re delicious.”   In Rising From The Plains and in Silk Parachute he has a couple rattlesnake stories of his own involving exotic meals and even a murderer.  I now know where I’ll take my father next summer and I know too what I’ll feed him for dinner.

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Aeolian Capers
They are as big as South Sea Pearls, plump and juicy, the pickled bud — before it blossoms into the gorgeous white and purple spiny flower.  On Salina in June I saw them everywhere, the caper bush flourishing in the dry, black volcanic soil of the Aeolian Islands.  I was struck by their beauty and size, learning that they have many special powers, able to create appetite, lower blood pressure and cholesterol, fight toothaches, ignite libido, and even to magically transform into another fruit.  After the bud flowers from the flower come the cucunci. Filled with the tiniest seeds, which give it texture, they are delicious too — some people even think they’re tastier than capers.  (In the first picture above, the cucunci hangs next to the caper on the end of one of the flower’s purple tentacles.)
Halibut with capers
(Or any white fish — branzino (Italian seabass), orata (gilthead seabream)
Roast very simply at 400 for about 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fish, with a little olive oil, big capers, cherry tomatoes cut in half, a sprinkle of salt.  Serve immediately with a wedge of lemon to spritz over the fish.
I would pair with a summer orzo and a light salad.

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The Captain And Me: Italian Joy

Cullen and I set the alarm but slept right through it.  A knock on the door woke us up, the taxi driver.  He’d come to take us to the boat, ferrying us back to Naples.  We were asleep.  Woke fast.  Threw everything in our suitcases.  (There is only one boat a day.)  He zipped us to the port, we ran to the dock.  The bridge to the boat was being lifted.  The captain smiled and put the bridge back down.  We ran on board and the boat took off at high speed, across the sea.  Out in the middle of nowhere, he invited us up to the cockpit.  Schools of dolphins jumped in front of the window — dozens upon dozens.  “It’s your lucky day,” the captain said.  The skipper drove the boat.  Another skipper came up with a plate of “dolci,” Sicilian cannolli and other things, as an offering.  “Let’s have a picture, the girls and me,” said the Captain.  The girls.  Yes, I felt sixteen again — in Italy for the first time, in love with enthusiasm and joy.

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