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Swede Racer Learns of Thanksgiving

November 28, 1997

MAMMOTH MOUNTAIN, Calif. (AP) _ Ylva Nowen took a bite of pumpkin pie and, for a mouth-watering moment, became an American celebrating Thanksgiving.

``All I ever knew about Thanksgiving was that it was something with the Indians,″ she said. ``I’d heard that it’s a big weekend in the U.S., but I didn’t really know what it was or how big it was. And that it was a feast for eating, I didn’t know either.″

It was the eating part which appealed to Nowen, 27, one of the top woman slalom racers on the World Cup ski tour. A four-foot snowfall postponed racing on Thursday, so Nowen went to visit chef Brian Kirkeby of Mammoth Mountain’s Mountainside Grill to get a first-hand look at Thanksgiving from the kitchen.

Kirkeby, whose name means Church Town in Norwegian, put the Swedish racer to work, outfitting her in a chef’s hat while she took a crack at preparing a Thanksgiving feed for some 200 people.

One of Kirkeby’s cooks, ``Papa″ Rafael Plazola, pulled a 25-pound turkey from a pan and showed her how to separate the bird for carving. He handed her a knife _ no, more a sword _ that caused her to jump back.

``No, no, no, don’t worry,″ Papa said as he put a huge turkey breast on the carving board. ``Two fingers here, and slice smoothly. Yes, that’s right.″

Slice after perfect slice fell away to Nowen’s knife. Imagine how the lucky diner would feel to know the turkey on his plate had been sliced by a skiing champion.

Not all of it made it to the customer’s plate, however. Nowen, like any good cook, had to sample the food. The smile on her face showed it was a good bird.

``Turkeys are as dumb as a shovel, but they taste wonderful,″ Kirkeby said.

``If we have turkey in Sweden, we have it sliced,″ Nowen said. ``I’ve never seen this big a thing.″

Kirkeby told her the story of the first Thanksgiving, how the settlers survived through the help of the American Indians and how, in gratitude, the people got together for a feast to give thanks. There was turkey, sweet potatoes, cranberries, squash, stuffing, vegetables and pumpkin pie, and Nowen got to sample everything.

Not everyone wants turkey and trimmings on Thanksgiving, Kirkeby noted, and directed her to the stove where a huge kettle of pasta was boiling. And on the next table was a halibut being readied for the oven. Another cook was preparing salmon with a lingonberry sauce, a very Scandanavian dish that brought a grin to Nowen″s face.

``I’m not very good in the kitchen, but this is a very good place for me because I eat a lot,″ she said. ``I love to eat.″

Sweet potatoes seemed to fascinate the Swedish racer.

``Is it like a real potato?″ she asked. ``Does it grow in the ground like a real potato? I’ve never seen anything like this.″

She had a nodding acquaintance with pumpkins, ``but just with the eyes,″ she said, referring to its use on Halloween. She soon discovered that, with a dollop of ice cream on top, the inside of the pumpkin is the real treasure.

``It reminds me of the pepper cake we have in Sweden,″ she said. ``It’s almost the same thing, but they are hard.″

As she enjoyed the first slice of pumpkin pie she’d ever seen, she noticed the activity throughout the kitchen, cooks and servers dashing around stoves and tables much like slalom races slicing around poles on a race course.

``They are in a hurry now,″ she noted with the typical Scandinavian economy of words.

``We open in five minutes,″ Kirkeby said. ``Are you coming in to eat?″

Some Swedish friends, she said, had already invited her out to dinner.

``But what if it’s not this?″

Not to worry, she was told. When she got back from dinner, she could stop by the Mountainside Grill for a nightcap of pumpkin pie. After all, she’s one of the cooks.

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