Grace and Swedish Cooking

Swedish Breadsticks

Well, mostly Swedish cooking. I’m sure I could work grace in but you’d notice that I was working too hard. We don’t want that.

This summer, I went to the annual gathering of the Swedish relatives from my mother’s side of the family. We call it Cousins’ Picnic. It’s a pedestrian name, but functional. If we said it in Swedish, we’d probably need more umlauts than I care to negotiate right now. Anyway, we take the ferry to my aunt and uncle’s property in Poulsbo, Washington, a small, Swedish enclave on the Washington peninsula, and eat.

When we arrive, we tote our coolers into the kitchen and unload whatever we brought. On the porch, as we enter the house, my aunt and uncle set up a sort of coffee bar with little snack-y things to nosh on before the main course. This year, there was a large container of breadsticks sitting on the table. This puzzled me. Swedes don’t really do breadsticks.

Let’s be honest. Swedes are not noted for their elegant cuisine, unless you think dehydrated codfish reconstituted in lye and baked until it’s gray and gelatinous is elegant. Swedes are better known for safe cars, cheap/chic furniture stores and pop-cult rock groups. And for hyper-practical cuisine. Swedes make things called lutefisk, which I’ve described tantalizingly above, and hardtack, which is basically rye bread, flattened out and baked until it’s a cracker. This is the kind of food that stocked 17th century sailing vessels and was rationed to sailors when fresh food stores were depleted. But the Swedes make it for Christmas dinner! There are three rules for Swedish cooking. Rule #1: Do we have all the ingredients lying around? Rule #2: Will it last a long time without spoiling? Rule #3: Can we eat it without dying? If the answer is yes to those questions, pretty well anything goes. One clarification on Rule #3: it can actually seem like it would kill you but if it doesn’t, it still qualifies as Swedish cuisine. For example, surströmming.

But I digress. Back to the picnic. My mom’s brothers were sitting on the porch kicking it old Swede as I grabbed a breadstick and took a bite. Hmmm. Not your average light, crispy Italian breadstick. It was denser and darker. I’d say chewier but no… chewy was something it could have been if it had been undercooked, and that’s another Swedish no-no. Rule #4: cook the crap out of it. To be fair, this breadstick was a much more flavorful than its Italian counterpart, though I couldn’t place the flavor. I knew it. It was on the tip of my tongue, literally, but out of context. My Uncle Don was smiling at me because he could see all these thoughts going through my little, third-generation Swedish brain. “Like it?” he asked. “It’s hardtack.” Ahhh… Knäckebröd. Then he proceeded to tell me how he made them. No. Actually, how he engineered them.

A little context. My Uncle Don is a retired biologist who worked for the government for many years as a food tester. At heart, he’s a scientist. His laboratory is the kitchen. He admires the heck out of John Snow, the Victorian physician who, through painstaking research, proved that you got cholera by drinking contaminated water. Was the water from Sweden? We don’t know. Anyway, Don knows a lot of stuff. Really. A LOT of stuff. Remarkably, it’s all either useful or entertaining. Often both. He has kept us amused, but more importantly, safe at many family gatherings by whisking the potato salad into the fridge before it killed us (remember Rule #3) or making sure we knew that baked beans could be deadly for reasons other than grandpa’s farts.

Don has always been the “educational” life of the party and it was him who came up with the idea of doing our own Swedish cookbook. Don’t laugh. Despite what I’ve just told you, we’re all actually really good cooks, having subjugated our Swedish heritage for making foods that only seem like they’ll kill you to our American propensity for making foods that appear safe and delicious but actually will kill you (eventually). The main problem with us doing a cookbook is that recipes usually spell out specific ingredient quantities and none of the cooks in my family are much for using measuring cups or spoons. They all learned to cook from Grandma Dagmar, whose recipes say things like, “add flour until the mixture is the consistency of pancake batter.” So I challenged my uncle that if the ostensible purpose of a family cookbook is to pass the secrets of Swedish cuisine on to the next generation (a questionable proposition anyway), then didn’t it make sense to specify, at the very least, what KIND of pancakes? Big, thick flapjacks? Thin, delicate crepes? My uncle had to agree that this was a valid point. After several moments’ silence, he said, “We’ll include a viscometer.” Well, you can’t argue with a viscometer.

The cookbook is, of course, still in the works because… well, mainly because the kinds of recipes that might end up in the book are not an easy sell to the American consumer. Plus, some of the more uniquely Swedish recipes already inhabit a couple other old Swedish cookbooks I dug up. These books include instructions on how to make dishes like Marrow Pudding. Yeah, that’s right. Some Swede actually thought, “What am I going to do with this stale coffee cake, this handful of raisins, and this spare cup of bone marrow left over from Old Bessie’s left leg? I know. I’ll make pudding!”

The upside is that Swedes do understand how to mitigate with alcohol. The sauce that goes over Marrow Pudding has only three ingredients: sugar, water and whiskey. NOW we’re cooking with gas!

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