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Herring On My Mind

LUND—The pickled herring comes in long, greyish white filets mixed with onions and scallions and carrot. We’d just bought it from a stand in the Saturday farmer’s market fresh from Gothenburg where I was told all the best fish in Sweden comes from. Lena cut it into chunks, placed a piece on a hard, dark cracker and handed it to me across the table. She poured glasses of a caraway flavoured drink called Skåne, raised hers and said, “Skål?” expectantly.
I looked at the quivering piece of fish flesh on my cracker and thought, “I can do this. I eat sushi, right? How different can it be?” She was still looking at me and I wondered if this was a Scandanavian initiation test — that if I failed I’d me unceremoniously put on a plane and deported back to Ohio – that for years afterwards they’d be laughing across Sweden about the big strong American who quailed in the face of a harmless piece of pickled fish.
Do it for America then, I told myself, smiled and popped it into my mouth where it stayed on my tongue like, well, a second fishy tongue. Finally I chewed. Lena was already preparing herself another herring treat and pouring more Skåne. Hmmm, not so bad actually, I thought, not exactly a California roll, but not bad. She looked at me with a raised eyebrow.
“Very good indeed,” I said after rinsing my mouth with the caraway drink, “Why, I think I’ll have another!”
She smiled, “Most foreigners don’t like it.”
“Well I think it’s great. In fact I think I’ll try some of that Danish fish paste with caviar in the big toothpaste tube…”
“Oh, you don’t have to. You know, when I was in Peru even the cat wouldn’t eat it.”
“Well I’m not a cat, I’m an American,” I added, thinking that cats aren’t so stupid after all.
Before I left on this trip I took an informal poll amongst friends and acquaintances as to what they knew or wanted to know about Sweden. Everyone said it was a place they’d love to visit but knew very little about. If I’d asked about many other countries I would have gotten more detailed answers. France = The Eiffel Tower, Versailles, The Louvre, Notre Dame de Paris, French food, St. Tropez; India = The Taj Mahal, the beaches at Goa, curry, sacred cows, the funeral pyres on the Ganges, savage monkeys; Brazil = beaches covered in Brazilians, the Amazon rainforest, Carnival and etc.
But Sweden? When I’d say the word “Sweden” American’s eyes would light up. Everyone seems to be in love with Swedes even if they’ve never met one but the answers were vague as in, “….hmmmm, well, uh, blonde girls, uh, yeah, blonde girls! Oh, uh…Volvos, Saabs, Ikea….hmmmm, Vikings? Pickled fish? Cold? More blonde girls!…
It seems that in recent times the Swedes had been so competently civilized, vaguely socialist and quietly ordered that they had receded in American knowledge to a sort of Nordic fairyland full of light-haired people driving sensible cars through the snow whilst munching fish on their way to shop for cleverly designed, affordably priced furniture.
This impression of homogeneousness is not, in fact, all wrong. At present, however, Sweden is experiencing some social change. It seems upsetting to generations for whom the government has always provided a basically benevolent guiding structure and cradle-to-grave care. The Social Democratic party responsible for this fabled welfare state was recently voted out in favour of Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt and his conservative Moderaterna party who are drastically slashing the social programs for which Sweden is famous. Most Swedes I have talked to seem vaguely horrified, as if they had accidentally voted Republican in the last election and shake their heads in embarrassment when I point out that someone must have voted for the guy.
“Yes, well, people weren’t voting so much for him as they were voting for a change…” they reply.
I thought about our own recent elections and how so many Americans had done the same thing, voting not so much for the Democrats as against the Republicans, changing politics rather like Carrie Bradshaw and friends do shoes on Sex and the City. This is, of course, a gross oversimplification, but I did gain a sort of perverse satisfaction from seeing the Swedes having done something illiberal and, at least in many eyes, not sensible.
But I was trying to write about food — that thing we all need that defines culture and even politics, both in its form and use and, certainly in less fortunate countries, in its absence. Most Swedish cuisine is almost shockingly normal. It is relatively uncomplicated, straightforward and when you get by their predilection for pickled swimming things, uncommonly good — rather like Volvos, Saabs, Ikea and the Swedes themselves.
We had dinner one night at the house of Eleena and Johan. Eleena Thelander is a self-described kitchen fascist. It is her domain and woe betide Johan should he get in the way or anyone who should refuse seconds on such flimsy excuses as being stuffed. The menu itself was remarkably ordinary: roast pork with brown gravy and prunes, boiled potatoes, green beans and purple, pickled cabbage. The resulting meal, however, was sublime. Stuffed or not I didn’t balk at a second or even third helping and Eleena finally relaxed, put down her carving knife and decided I was acceptable.
The same went for a meal a few days later at Lena’s mother’s apartment. There was a salmon and white fish stew that tasted almost like a hearty bisque, served with whole grain bread, a tasty cheese and washed down with plain mineral water. It was one of the best things I have ever eaten.
Lunch out in Malmö was the house special of meat loaf and roasted potatoes and if I had not gone on an active photo assignment shortly thereafter I would have slipped into an afternoon food-coma.
But of course I was missing that most famous of all Swedish culinary experiences: The Smörgåsbord. I suggested it to Lena one night, hoping I didn’t sound too much the tourist. I needn’t have worried.
“Oh yes, of course you must have the smörgåsbord. Well The Grand Hotel does a nice one, expensive of course or, well…”
“Well really we do it most often at home. You know, like a party. You wouldn’t mind having a smörgåsbord party would you?”
“Uh, no.”
So it was all arranged. Eleena came first, insistent that she make the meatballs, even allowing me to chop the onions. Then the Swedes began arriving, each bringing a special dish. There was ham with mustard, sausages and eel, cheeses and bread, hot cabbage and, fear not, herring aplenty. There was the aforementioned Gothenburger herring, herring in mustard, herring in cream, more herring and herring in pickled beat salad that pushed my courage to the breaking point. For desert there was rice pudding, thin heart-shaped ginger cookies, figs, dates and strong coffee. It was a merry gathering with the added treat of an American to scrutinize. I explained as gently as possible that I had no input into US foreign policy, that even when I go out with Condoleeza she insists on not discussing work and that George W. recently deleted me from his MySpace friends list after I questioned his immigration policies. I turned the conversation around and asked them about their Scandinavian neighbours. While I won’t detail their observations on Danes, Norwegians and Finns I will report that even Swedes have their prejudices.
In the end, however, all cuisine inevitably comes down to this… Eleena, Johan, their daughter Osín and newborn son Vile (it sounds better in Swedish) came over one night. We all were hungry and it was raining out.
“I want sushi,” said Johan.
“How about Chinese?” replied Eleena.
“Thai?” said Lena.
Eight-year-old Osín was unimpressed by all these suggestions.
“Well,” said someone, “How about MacDonalds?”
An embarrassed silence descended on the room and everyone looked at me, trying to gauge my reaction. But the night before I’d had a peculiarly American nightmare in which some long-haired Euro-hippie was trying to snatch away my Big Mac.
“Well,” I said casually, “I could go for a Big Mac, fries and a Coke.”
“Me too,” said Lena, “and an apple pie!”
Osín wanted a Happy Meal and Johan a hamburger and a Big Mac.
“I’ll have a Quarter Pounder,” said Eleena, which took me by surprise.
“You call it a Quarter Pounder?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied, a slightly puzzled look on her face, “Of course I have no idea what a quarter pound is. We have the metric system you see….”

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