Food Culture and Tradition

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Meals and Customs in Sweden


Once again, the predominant word for this discussion on meal patterns is “ritual.” Incredible as it may seem for such a sophisticated people, the Swedes delight not only in drinking according to prescribed ritual (as in the shoal tradition) but they eat certain foods in a specifically prescribed way, and they prepare festive foods exactly in the traditional way following centuries-old patterns.

The ritual of the smorgasbord is but one example. Accompanied by suitable skoals, salty herring dishes with tiny potatoes are always the first foods eaten from the huge array of selections. Each subsequent “course” follows a special order (never varied) and is eaten from a separate clean plate: other fish dishes and cold marinated salads, cold meats and varieties of pickles, a selection of hot dishes containing meats, eggs, fish and finally, on still another plate, a dessert of sliced cheeses and fruits.

It is even more interesting that this type of ordered procedure also applies to individual dishes. The familiar smaland ostkaka (previously made at home in a copper mold, but now available in stores everywhere in Sweden) is a rich but delicate molded cheesecake savored as a special dessert. Even at a party, the custom is for each person to taste a spoonful of the various ostkakas on display, but to take their taste from the center of the mold so that the cake may be fruit-filled the next day and served as a new dessert.

The potato dumplings of northern Sweden demand their own special ritual, too. A wedge is cut into the dumpling and the center filling of ground seasoned pork is removed to be immediately replaced with a golden lump of butter. As the butter melts in its warm potato cavern, the diner cuts off small pieces of filling and dumpling and after dunking each into the melted butter, pops them into the mouth.

Aside from carefully preserved traditions in drinking and eating, the Swedes also have a cherished way of thanking their hostess for a meal. The guest to the left of the hostess expresses thanks first, followed in order by every person around the table.

There are eating rituals for certain days of the week as well. Traditionally, on Thursday night, it is said that everyone in Sweden, from the king on down, enjoys a supper of yellow pea soup with pork, followed by tiny pancakes with lingonberry preserves. And on every Tuesday during Lent, the dessert can be counted on to be buns filled with almond cream (semlor) enjoyed with a glass of milk.

The Swedish day begins with coffee, which is essential for breakfast. One or two open-face sandwiches with coffee will likely take the hardworking Swedes happily off to their jobs, but those at home and children will often have yeast coffee cakes or bread and butter with their morning coffee. Children often take milk.

Lunch is most likely to be a small basic version of the smorgasbord called simply sos, meaning herring, cheese, and bread with butter. Or it may be the full splendor of the smorgasbord itself.

The evening meal, most often taken at home together with the family, is the hot meal of the day, often featuring a satisfying soup or a hearty meat or fish casserole always accompanied by potatoes. It finishes with a dessert and strong black coffee.

Throughout the day, coffee and pastry shops, sandwich shops, and fruit stands are all arrayed to tempt the unwary: It is certain that the Swede will have at least one coffee and pastry bread in the day. And at the close of a pleasant evening with guests, there is sure to be an offering once again of coffee and pastries or a savory hot casserole with beer as a nattmatt (nightcap) to assure that the guests will not suffer hunger pangs on the way home!

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