‘Prairie Home Companion’ writer serves up cookbook

Holly Harden at the  Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, where her contributions to Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” are aired. Harden has published a cookbook based on her column at the show’s website. Photo by Tom Roster
Holly Harden at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, where her contributions to Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” are aired. Harden has published a cookbook based on her column at the show’s website. Photo by Tom Roster

“Good Food from Mrs. Sundberg’s Kitchen” offers both recipes and food for thought

Mary Bailey
Community Editor

This is way more than a cookbook.

Sure, it’s full of recipes. But the best thing about Holly Harden’s new book, “Good Food from Mrs. Sundberg’s Kitchen,” is the stories that precede the recipes.

Harden, who lives in Forest Lake, writes for Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion.” She also has a weekly column on the Prairie Home Companion website, “A View from Mrs. Sundberg’s Window.”

If you like her column, you’ll like this book. The essays remind you to enjoy each day, to hug your kids, to take a road trip and get away for a while — all in the midst of overdue bills, dents in the car, an occasional “really crappy day.”

The recipes are organized chronologically from September, “the real start of the year at Mrs. Sundberg’s house,” to August.

The first chapter, for a Labor Day weekend at the cabin, includes recipes for flapjacks supreme, hobo dinners on the grill, easy beer batter for fish, homemade blueberry muffins and rhubarb pie.

Other occasions that merit a chapter of recipes are holiday-based:

Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, Easter dinner, Mother’s Day luncheon, Father’s Day cookout, Fourth of July picnic.

Some are geared to the weather: snow day, rainy day, spring brunch, Dog Days afternoon.

Some correspond to life events: sympathy visit, graduation buffet in the garage, family reunion.

Each chapter has recipes for a full meal. Except for Lenten soup supper, there’s a dessert with each meal. (The chapter on bars for Bible study is all desserts, as is the one on December cookie exchange.)

The 160 recipes are not complicated or fussy. Many have only a few sentences of instructions. The ingredients are not exotic.

recipeThe cooking instructions make the reader feel in charge. For example, the recipe for barbecue burgers, reads “If you’re an onion person, chop one up and brown it along with the hamburger.” For German sweet and sour red cabbage, the user can choose from red wine, balsamic or apple cider vinegar and substitute honey for brown sugar. (For another example, see the grilled asparagus recipe, top right.)

Harden uses the same down-home voice in writing Mrs. Sundberg’s thoughts on ordinary life that begin each chapter.

Here you’ll read about dancing in the rain, depression, laundry, shopping, a good storm, good food, good company.

 The New Year’s eve chapter (with recipes for ugly crab dip, garlic roasted pork, garlic smashed potatoes, New York-style cheesecake and vodka slushies) begins with a story about how peaceful it is to be in the midst of the family get-together, and how Mrs. Sundberg spent a year trying to make peace a bigger part of her life.

Harden said she doesn’t do New Year’s resolutions, after failing so many times. Instead, she chooses one word every year, a quality she wants to have and does not, and works on it all year.

To learn patience “took the whole year,” she said. “I can wait now ‘til the cows come home.”

Harden said she would put herself in situations that require patience, such as letting people in front of her in the grocery store, and staying in the car when she felt the urge to yell at her kids.

“I still lose my temper,” she said. “I’m imperfect. But admitting you’re broken takes so much pressure off.”

Harden and Mrs. Sundberg are the same person – sort of.

“Mrs. Sundberg is part of my job,” Harden explained, “When people ask me if she exists, I say, ‘Yeah, I’ve met her.’ I believe in her, and there’s part of me in her. But I’m a little more raw. She puts a positive spin on things. She wants life to be good. She doesn’t give up: Tomorrow is tomorrow. I do feel that — I want to feel it more. People tell me, if you keep smiling, you’ll be happy. I don’t know if that’s true. But if you keep seeing the world a certain way, if you practice thinking a certain way, you can actualize it.”

Garrison Keillor wrote the foreword for Harden’s book, which was published in February. The artwork, which adds to the comfortable feel of the book, was done by Tim Trost. Like every good cookbook, it includes a thorough index.

The softcover book sells for $10.60 at Amazon.com and is available locally at Forest Lake Floral. It can also be ordered from the publisher at 800-678-7006 or AdventurePublications.net.

Many of the essays center around being at a lake. Harden said her parents have lake cabins, and she would love to live in an old house on a lake. But she doesn’t think of her book as a ticket to lake life.

“I hope for the publisher’s sake that the book does well,” she said, “but this is so not about money.” The book has sold a couple thousand copies and shows promise, she added.

Harden said she got the idea to write a cookbook in March of 2013.

She had edited Garrison Keillor’s book, “Life Among the Lutherans,” published in 2009 by Augsburg Books. Keillor gave her permission to do this book on her own, and she trademarked the Mrs. Sundberg name.

Three days after she met with representatives of Adventure Publishing, they offered her a contract.

The deadline was October 1, 2013. Harden spent most of the summer sorting recipes.

“I had an idea for the framework,” she said. Each essay begins the same, with a statement about a dish Harden cooked and how it turned out: “Made rhubarb custard cake on Saturday, and it was pretty good.”

She used some columns already written and wrote some new. The one about men in the garage, for example, was written just for this book.

She cooked every recipe in the book. Some are old favorites, but some she made only once before publishing.

“I was still cooking in the galley stage,” she said. She made the deadline.

Keillor connection
How does a writer get a job with A Prairie Home Companion? It can be tricky.

Harden said she had not actively listened to the show, but when she heard it in the car, she liked Keillor’s voice.

“My son talks about a tingly feeling you get when you hear certain people talk,” she said. “Keillor lulls people in” with his voice.

But she never applied to write for his show. Instead, after finishing a master of fine arts in writing at Hamline in 2002, she was looking for a job. She had taught high school for 10 years, she said, but could not get the local school district to hire her.

Plan B was to find a job as an editor. When Minnesota Public Radio advertised for a part-time desk editor, she applied, sending in a few essays she had written. One, “Senna Fruit Pate,” was about constipation.

A pastor’s wife, Harden was living in the church parsonage at the time. Ten days later, while she was cleaning the parsonage, she got a phone call.

“It was Garrison Keillor saying he liked my writing,” she said. “I had no idea this essay was going to Garrison Keillor. It was his ad — a blind ad – he didn’t want all the writers in Minnesota to apply,” she said.

Harden met with him at his office, where they talked for three hours.

“I was pretty honest with him. I told him his desk was messy,” she said. “He asked how I felt about working for a famous person. I looked him in the eye and told him, ‘You’re just a man.’ Now we’re friends,” she said.

For a while Harden wrote copy for “The Writer’s Almanac,” Keillor’s daily five-minute radio program on poetry and literature.

Now her job title is researcher, and she writes ideas for Keillor’s Lake Wobegone monologue.

“I’m always paying attention to what’s happening,” she said. “The church picnic was Sunday. It was Memorial Day weekend. He’s so busy he doesn’t see it: a full moon, birds laying eggs, squirrels mating.”

Every Monday, Harden writes a one-page letter about what’s happening in everyday life, and he writes back saying what in her letter was appealing to him.

Toward the end of May, for example, she wrote about senioritis – “kids nutso for summer,” and about getting spring chores done, with summer coming so fast this year.

Then, between Tuesday and Thursday, she writes an eight-page letter detailing ordinary things like crops growing, plus things she overheard in restaurants, public restrooms, coffee hour at church. The gossip is always respectful.

“I don’t want to hurt someone,” she said. “That’s a kind of treason. You don’t publish or broadcast something to get someone.”

Many of the stories originate in Forest Lake, where she lives now, and Scandia, where she lived for several years.

On a recent tour of the Scandia parsonage where she used to live, she said, “It took my breath away, it was so familiar. I remembered which steps creak, the basement smell.”

“I love the place,” she said. “Scandia people feel like my people. You can count on them,” she said. “If a building collapses, they’ll be there in a minute.”

When she reported that Elim Lutheran Church’s head usher Myron Lindgren had retired, “Garrison just went with it,” she said.

Harden said sometimes Keillor will get an idea for a theme from her letter, as when he did a whole monologue about what the wind blew in.

When Harden gives her kids career advice, she tells them to “find out what you’re passionate about and share it with people.”

“I think Garrison Keillor loves to tell stories,” she said.

Writing class
For nine years Harden has taught a writing class in Forest Lake through the school district’s community education program.

Her students, some of whom repeat the class every year, include plumbers, doctors, a dog musher and a computer specialist, she said.

Laurel Carey, the Wyoming author whose book “Sunset Manor” was profiled in the Forest Lake Times, was in the class every year until she died in 2013.

“It’s as much a support group as a writing group,” Harden said. “They know each other.” She said the class jokes that they’ll probably bury each other, and she may not be the last one standing.

Each person is working on a large project, some writing for their families and some for publication. Harden asks questions and encourages them, giving pep talks and sending articles that might be relevant. Each person reads to the group and they talk about it for an hour.

“They’re guaranteed one hour that’s just about them,” she said.

Future work
A second Mrs. Sundberg cookbook on getting together with friends might be organized by seasons, Harden said.

“When you have a winter like we have, you really have to do something outside yourself. Getting together to have dinner is a good distraction and can be really comfortable.”

A third Mrs. Sundberg book could be just essays.

“My goal is to write five books before I turn 50. I’ll be 47 this summer,” Harden said.

Another book, one she says she’s been writing most of her life, is “The Pastor’s Wife.” She wrote a version of it in grad school and would publish it under her own name.

She would also like to publish a manuscript on parenting, not a guidebook but thoughts on what it means to raise a child.