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."
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.
A smörgåsbord consists of very specific dishes laid out in a very specific order. The crackers come first. Those are joined by beet salad, deviled eggs and the fishes.
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 Swedish meatballs, tiny sausages and "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.
"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."