Helan går Sjung hopp faderallan lallan lej
Helan går Sjung hopp faderallan lej
Och den som inte helan tar Han heller inte halvan får
Sjung hopp faderallan lej!
And so it begins, or rather, as the lyrics say, goes down: the first bracing aquavit of the evening. You would expect to hear the strains of this Swedish drinking song happily being sung in Stockholm, on a perpetually dark winter’s night. But the singing here is taking place at my mother-in-law’s annual Christmas smörgåsbord in Sandpoint, Idaho, a hamlet of about 7,000 people, set in the mountains of the Idaho panhandle. The singers are a motley bunch of friends of family and friends. We are singing the song phonetically from a cheat sheet provided by my father-in-law. (It doesn’t help. In fact, it sounds like my son’s fourth grade band concert.)
This particular time of year, replete with blankets of snow, stands of birch and the occasional moose sighting is a far cry from my childhood Christmas. As a boy in Houston, Texas, I always felt there were two types of people in this world: those who actively stir their 7-Eleven slurpees as they drink them, and thereby maintain their structural and taste integrity, and those who just suck and suck until the top turns into a white icecap. And, there are those people, who open presents and celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, and those who celebrate on Christmas morning. Growing up on the Texas gulf coast, Christmas meant shopping for Christmas trees in shorts, hoping that the temperature might dip into the 50’s, Turkey and Cajun-style oyster stuffing, and always-always opening and celebrating on Christmas morning. We largely did not do anything meaningful on Christmas Eve, save the occasional Midnight Mass, unless you count my father having a number of cocktails, reminiscing fondly of the kale he had in his native Germany, and, possibly due to the cocktails, forgetting to put the packages under the tree, choosing instead to hide them behind the couch.
All of this changed for me when I married my wife. She and her family are solidly in the Christmas Eve camp and showed me the error of my ways. She is, after all, always right. Her mother hales from Stockholm and is in charge of the holiday traditions. And, I am sure my wife learned to celebrate on Christmas Eve from the Swedish influence since there, as in much of Europe, St. Nikolas visits children on Christmas Eve, rather than Christmas morning. Whatever the reason, I am now a fire-breathing convert. There are two very important and I might say pragmatic reasons for this. First, celebrating Christmas Eve in effect extends the eating and drinking one full day. Second, and this was crucial when our children were small, celebrating Christmas Eve solved the problem of not waking up at an ungodly hour to open presents since that task was already marked off. Third, we choose to ski Christmas mornings in lieu of church, assuaging our guilt with the promise of uncrowded ski runs. But the last reason is the best: celebrating on the eve is elegant and no one has morning septic tank breath.
But, before the actual holiday, the season officially starts a couple of weeks prior with my mother-in- law’s smörgåsbord, when our town resembles a true winter wonderland. Sandpoint, like many communities situated above the 48th parallel, really needs no incentive to make merry, as the winter skies darken as early as 3:30 in the afternoon. Founded in 1900, Sandpoint is an idyllic town situated on the banks of Lake Pend Oreille, a magnificent deep water lake fed by the waters of the Clark Fork River flowing out of Montana.
The town is historically a logging town, but now our economy also relies on tourism as well as major employers like Coldwater Creek, Kochava, and Quest Aircraft. It is also the home of Schweitzer Mountain, part of the Selkirk mountain chain, that, with its 2,440 feet of vertical descent and stellar tree skiing, is a prime, but largely undiscovered skiing destination. In fact, on a clear day at the summit, you can see Washington, Montana and Canada.
Sandpoint is also home to quite a few Scandinavians; in fact fully 10% of the town’s population is of Scandinavian heritage, including of course, my mother-in-law and her daughter, my wife.
Why so many Scandinavian and northern Europeans? Could it be the skiing? Could it be the interminably long winters? Whatever the answer, you know the population has sufficient Scandinavians when the local grocery store features lutefisk, that frightening fish dish that is made with lye, looks and tastes like Elmer’s glue and is only palatable buried in cream sauce and chased with a gallon or so of vodka. Perhaps it is only coincidence that my in-laws discovered this place, or perhaps it is some strange Scandinavian homing signal, as their house sits overlooking Oden Bay.
The Swedish smörgåsbord, which literally translated means, open –faced sandwich board, really refers to any Swedish buffet with a variety of dishes, both hot and cold. The typical smörgåsbord consists of three courses. The first course might be a variety of fish dishes, like gravlax, or herring. These dishes are classically accompanied by a strong spirit, like aquavit. The second course can include cold meats, sausage, cheeses and knäckebröd, or Swedish cracker bread. The third course most often consists of warm dishes including Janssons Frestelse (Jansson’s Temptation), and köttbullar (Swedish meatballs.) The drink served throughout most times is a crisp lager. Our family smörgåsbord is different in that all of the dishes are served at once, no breaks, no messing around. Also, the aquavit, for better or worse, is not limited to the first course, but flows freely throughout. The bounty is indeed served buffet style, in a small house overlooking the lake aglow with candle light.
The menu this night indeed does consists of gravlax, that wonderful cured salmon with plenty of dill; fågelbo, a salad made of concentric circles of beet, potatoes, anchovies, with a raw egg yolk center that is mixed together by the first person serving it; rare roasted beef tenderloin taking the place of the native Swedish caribou, served at room temperature with soft butter, rolls and Swedish hard bread; boiled shrimp, pickled with blanched onions, capers and bay leaves, traditional Swedish meatballs, matjessill, the ubiquitous herring, and the standout: the aforementioned Jansson’s Temptation. This dish, beguiling simple, is basically a scalloped potato made sublime with the additions of onions and anchovies.
And to drink? Enter the aquavit, a marvelous neutral spirit flavored with caraway that marries extremely well with the salted and smoked Scandinavian specialties, ice cold beer, and the Swedish drinking song.
Preparation for this Christmas feast starts a couple of days prior with preparing the gravlax. Literally translated, gravlax means salmon that is buried in the ground. Early fisherman would salt the fish and then bury it in the ground to cure and ferment. These days, the only burying that happens is in a dry- brine of salt sugar and dill. Then the fish is wrapped, and weighted down to flatten, and is refrigerated for 48 hours or so. The brine “cooks” the fish by altering its proteins and draws out moisture. The resulting flesh is dense, and wonderful, and served with unsalted butter on knäckebröd, a perfect foil for an icy neutral spirit like vodka, or aquavit.
Next, my mother -in-law, prepares her version of pickled shrimp. This simple preparation is truly greater than the sum of its parts, with the bay leaves supplying a perfect background note, the capers enhancing the acidic component of the vinaigrette and onions, softened a muted in the sauce, adding sweetness and crunch. The same day of the party, in the afternoon, it’s time for the Jansson’s Temptation. Like
any scalloped potato dish, the potatoes are first peeled and then cut in uniform slices about 1/8 inch thick. Then the potatoes are layered in a casserole dish in intermittent layers along with sliced white onion and diced anchovies. Cream is then poured on top, the casserole is dotted with butter and then it’s covered, waiting to be baked about an hour before serving. The anchovies will break down and combine with the cream, adding seasoning, and the elusive umami flavor enhancer. My father-in-law wisely clears the kitchen at this point, as he recognizes the signs of pre-party stress after forty plus years of marriage.
Finally the guests arrive, many sporting Dale sweaters and shod in Dansko clogs. I never fully appreciated the clog as a child of the South. But, they are essential in our snowy area as they slip on and off with ease, rather than tracking in snow.
The guests are greeted by my father-in-law, a former Marine colonel and aviator, who, while no help whatsoever in the kitchen, makes up for it in any and all bar related activities. Guests are greeted with glögg, a high octane punch studded with raisins and almonds, and depending on the state where they have lived- remember former military family- fortified with everclear or less incendiary vodka. After guests politely down the glögg, other cocktails are served, along with simple boiled shrimp, as well as the addictive, yet simple pecans spiced with Worcestershire, soy sauce, butter and Tabasco. With a martini, these nuts are dynamite. Friends catch up on the holiday parties, small town gossip, or the most important topic of them all, the snow conditions on Schweitzer Mountain.
At last, it is time to eat. Guests queue up to make their selections, with old hands dividing their plates into quadrants in order to negotiate every last square inch of usable plate space to fit it all in. Then it is on to the toasting. My father-in-law normally makes sure the glasses of beer are all filled, as are the schnapps glasses with the icy cold aquavit. First we raise our beer glasses and toast a benign skål, all the while looking each other in the eye as it is custom to do so. After we have all had the chance to sample our way around our plates murmuring with satisfaction as we do so, the serious toasting starts with the song Helan Går. A search on Wikipedia about the song reveals an unconfirmed legend that when Sweden’s 1957 ice hockey team won the World Championships in Moscow that year, not all of the Swedish players knew the words to “Du gamla du fria,” the de facto Swedish national anthem, so the players sang Helan Går instead.
My Swedish vocabulary does not contain much more than the words Saab, and Mats Wilander, so I believe loosely translated the words to the song go something like “drink drink drink, it’s dark, we’re cold, drink drink drink.” Something like that. It hardly matters as the crowd shoulders on, mincing the words as they go. Toasts degenerate into women only, and then the men. If the stars are all in alignment, my father-in-law might throw in a special treat- a “dead bug,” a toast used in the military to see who buys the next round. But, this is rare.
We wind down the evening with assorted sweets, and, if we are lucky, this includes assorted Marabou chocolates from Sweden to go with coffee. As the dishes are cleaned, we rest assured, as the leftovers are as good or better the second day, are tailor made for a snack after a night of revelry, and we will see them a few weeks later at our Christmas Eve dinner. The aquavit? Although it’s rare to have any left, it makes a dynamite Bloody Mary, should it make it all the way to New Year’s Day.
Snow can be a wonderful thing for a dog owner. Especially so for the owner of a Labrador Retriever, or any larger breed that shits look more like the logs from immature trees than the average poop. Yes, aside from the joy of seeing your lab romp through a new snowfall ears flapping and tongue lolling, snow also represents the perfect poop concealer.
Also, no to be too graphic or disgusting, but frozen shit doesn’t smell it just lays there until spring.
I walk my dog down the alleys that we have running throughout Sandpoint. I bring a Wal-Mart bag during winter for looks only really. (Note: if you live in Sandpoint on the block bordered by Lake St./4th Ave./Superior St. and Euclid Ave, I am only saying this in jest- I pick up every pile.)
When my dog then takes one of his epic shits, I first look around – very casually. Is anyone having coffee in their backyard facing kitchen? Walking out to their car? If the answer is no, I then morph into a cat, quickly using my snow-booted foot to cover the offending pile with snow.
The bad thing though is that the dog doesn’t always take his dumps on other people’s property. And I can’t be everywhere at once. So more often than not, Brisket the one-eyed, ten thousand-dollar dog takes his shits in our backyard. Or the driveway if it is snow covered. Normally though he is too classy to poop on cement. (This is the negative of the snow concealing positive.)
Over the span of a 14-month Sandpoint winter, you can probably imagine that- no pun intended– things pile up.
So it became necessary to institute Sandpoint Poop Day. The actual date varies. It is usually around April, when most of the snow has melted and no more real snowfall mounts threaten. Then, trusty plastic grocery bags in hand, my sons are banished outside to scoop up a winter’s worth of dogshit.
It is only fair as those little bastards- and I say that with love- contribute absolutely nothing to the dogs existence, except perhaps deigning to pet him when they look up from their phones.
They shoulder the burden much better than they used to. Oh yes, when they were younger they did not like this chore one little bit. So much so that, being the Dad I always dreamed of being, I would open the back screened door when they were right in the middle of it. I would then, in my best stage voice recite a borrowed line from the movie “Cider House Rules.” Michael Caine would wish those little orphans goodnight with it. I modified it for my use:
“Good Job you Princes of Sandpoint! You Kings of Poop!”
(They were too small to say Kings of Shit, although honestly that sounds way better.)
Looking back, I’m not sure, but I am fairly certain they are not amused. ( they feel this way about the joke I told each of them their entire childhoods whenever they were upset or pouting.
Them: Scowling or Crying.
Me: Did I ever tell you the one about the Horse that walks into the bar? Bartender says, “why the long face?”
Them: Despite their willpower they broke into a very unwilling smile.
I enjoyed this immensely. As they grew up, I literally only had to look at them and they saw that joke dwelling in my corneas. Drove them crazy.
That is the end of this happy little story. You might wonder though, how much crap can a 120 pound Labrador produce over the winter?
And I will tell you. A lot.
One year the boys had the bright idea to weigh their bags. So, they hauled the poorly used scale from our bathroom down to the driveway. They even had a contest to see who scooped the most.
I forget who won, but the total was more than who is as big as a small child: 25 Pounds!