The smörgåsbord's second course includes cold cuts — Photo courtesy of Door Guide Publishing
At the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, American audiences at the Three Crowns restaurant, inside the Swedish pavilion, got their first taste of the pickled, eggy, dill-laden dishes of a smörgåsbord.
The spread is based on a tradition that dates back as far as the 12th century in the Nordic nation, but for the fair’s visitors, it was the birth of what we in the United States have come to know as the all-you-can-eat buffet.
But what exactly is a smörgåsbord? While the American version isn’t typically equated with gourmet fare (and we tend to use the word to refer to any large quantity of food), the Swedish feast is a much classier affair, reserved for holidays and special events.
"It’s definitely not served all the time," says Fred Bexell, general manager and head chef at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Door County, Wisconsin. "The holidays – Christmas and Midsummer – are really the only time you have smörgåsbord in Sweden."
Most dishes are paired with pickles and sauces — Photo courtesy of Door Guide Publishing
That’s not all that surprising when you consider the time and effort that goes into making a four-course meal featuring two dozen or more dishes, many of which are soaked, smoked, pickled or slow-roasted. What sets the real deal apart from its buffet-style cousin? At the latter, tempting gravity as you pile food on your plate is par for the course, and no one will bat an eye as you balance a slice of pizza atop a small mound of sweet and sour chicken.
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A smörgåsbord, on the other hand, consists of very specific dishes laid out in a very specific order.
"First are the crackers or knäckebröd, and maybe some greens, like an appetizer," says Bexell. Those are joined by beet salad, deviled eggs and the fishes: smoked salmon, whitefish, and senaps sill, citron och dill sill and inlagd sill – mustard herring, lemon and dill herring and pickled herring.
Deviled eggs with shrimp, a traditional Swedish dish — Photo courtesy of Door Guide Publishing
"If you haven’t had it before, the herring is one of those things that people get a little leery about," Bexell says. "But it’s something we’re known for, and if you try it you might like it. I make traditional, straight up pickled herring in a sugar and vinegar solution for at least three weeks."
The second course features cold cuts like roast beef and pork and liver pate. Experienced smörgåsbord eaters then head up a third time, filling their plates with köttbullar, or Swedish meatballs, tiny sausages called prinskorv and Janssons Frestelse, otherwise known as "Jansson’s Temptation," a casserole of scalloped potatoes with anchovies.
Finally, the dessert course: rice pudding, three-layer cake, sweet rolls and cardamom bread. It’s all washed down with Glögg, a mulled, spiced, hot wine. And the whole experience is occasionally punctuated by a rousing drinking song, shouts of "SKOL!" and shots of Aquavit, a liquor distilled from potatoes that carries the heady, herbaceous flavors of caraway, cardamom, anise and fennel, plus a serious bite.
Doughy desserts round out the meal — Photo courtesy of Door Guide Publishing
"If you’re having smörgåsbord, it’s common to sit down for two, two and a half hours," Bexell says. "I think the food itself is special because the dishes are so specific to the holidays, and you only eat them once or twice a year. You’re actually enjoying and tasting the food."
Bexell uses his grandmother’s recipes to craft the special-event smörgåsbords at Al Johnson’s, a quirky establishment on the heavily Scandinavian-influenced Door Peninsula where goats graze on the sloped roof in the summer months. This year, the restaurant was forced to cancel its Julbord - a Christmas smörgåsbord, but is selling ingredients in their "butik" (Swedish for shop) and online for people wanting to make their own traditional holiday meal.
Servers in traditional costume at Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant — Photo courtesy of Rachel Brockett
"We’re going to go pick up the beef, the herring, the lingonberries, and do our own personal Julbord at home," says John Nelson, who lives in Door County. Many of the iconic dishes are made with things that can be found at any supermarket, and most gourmet stores will stock the more unusual ingredients.
"Scandinavians are very particular about their anchovies," says Nelson, "But you can find them in most gourmet stores, especially in neighborhoods with a strong European immigrant history."
If you're not feeling quite up to a DIY four-plus course meal, Lindsborg, Kansas, otherwise known as Little Sweden, USA, hosts a wildly popular smörgåsbord during the biennial Svensk Hyllningsfest. The next one is set for October 2021.
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While it’s not exactly customary Swedish fare, you’ll find a number of smörgåsbords in Central Pennsylvania, where traditional Pennsylvania Dutch cooking at least nods toward Nordic flavors; pork, potatoes and pickles certainly aren’t in short supply.
The mood of any smörgåsbord is celebratory, Bexell says, because it’s an occasion that brings families together over a meal in a rather unique way.
"It’s one of the only times you really sit down and talk about the food itself, because everybody is trying a little of everything. You’re going to find things your family isn’t used to, and things that are a little different."
So, if you’re looking for a little adventure – and you’ve got an open-mindedness toward pickled fish – make this the year you ring in the holidays with a smörgåsbord.
Jansson's Temptation, a potato and anchovy casserole — Photo courtesy of John Nelson
(by Fredrik Bexell, Kitchen Manager, Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik)
- 4-6 medium peeled Idaho potatoes cut into 'French fry size' (about 1/4 in.)
- 1/2 thinly sliced and chopped onion
- 1 tin of Swedish anchovies or sprats
- 1/4 cup bread crumbs
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 2 cups of heavy cream
- Salt and white pepper
- Pre-heat oven to 350° F (convection), 375° F in regular oven.
- Spread 1 tablespoon butter inside 9 in. x 9 in. baking pan.
- Layer potatoes, onions and anchovies. Finish with a layer of potatoes.
- Pour liquid from anchovies and 2 cups of heavy cream over potatoes.
- Sprinkle bread crumbs, a pinch of white pepper, salt, and 3 tablespoons of butter cut into pieces over top of potatoes.
- Bake for about 45 minutes to one hour, or until top is golden brown.
- Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.