Helan går Sjung hopp faderallan lallan lej Helan går Sjung hopp faderallan lej Och den som inte helan tar Han heller inte halvan får Helan går Sjung hopp faderallan lej! And so […]
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.