I looked down at the array of dishes on my “Swedish Sampler” during this year’s St. Lucia Festival at the American Swedish Historical Museum in Philadelphia. As I did, I thought of how little the food in front of me resembled the art-on-a-platter photos of trendy New Nordic cuisine I’ve seen everywhere in food magazines lately. Carefully placed elaborate foams and meticulously designed dustings of local dirt didn’t adorn the food. And there weren’t foraged mushrooms, bunches of fresh moss, or just-caught seafood anywhere to be found on the plate.
No, there was nothing “new” about my festive dinner. But it looked exactly like what most people think about when they think of Scandinavian food–a homey hodgepodge of old Nordic cuisine.
With foreign names like köttbullar, rödbets sallad, and knäckebröd, the food both intrigued and intimidated me. No traditional Swedish smörgåsbord buffet would be complete without herring, pickled salads, boiled potatoes, or lingonberry jam either. Having never had a taste of anything Nordic, I approached the meal cautiously. I knew that pickling was used frequently in the cuisine, so I expected vinegar to dominate and taste too unfamiliar for my American palate.
But despite the stark difference between this plate and what I normally eat, the meal ignited familiar feelings of comfort. A bite of köttbullar, better known as Swedish meatballs, doused in tart lingonberry jam, reminded me of a similar combination we make here during Thanksgiving. Janssons Temptation, a warm casserole that combines potatoes with onions, anchovies and cream tasted like a saltier version of something my Irish grandmother cooks. And knäckebröd, a type of crisp, thin bread, was a staple to the meal in the same way fresh bread is for Italians.
The pickled-everything sides were also more approachable than I had anticipated. The pickled red cabbage and cucumbers and red beet salad, called rödbets sallad, brought a bright acidic kick to the plate. After I braved the fishy favorites–pickled herring and karrysild, herring in a sweet and creamy curry sauce, I began to wonder about the origins of this Swedish Christmas dinner.
“For families at Christmas, the food was most important,” said Birgitta Paddack, a sweet old Swedish woman dressed in a Scandinavian Christmas gown. “They were poor so the meal was the present.”
Unlike New Nordic cuisine, the focus of old Swedish cooking wasn’t always on featuring the freshest of ingredients, mainly because they weren’t always available. Many of the culture’s culinary traditions have been the result of poor farmers coming up with ways to make their food survive long, cold winters. Its foundation lies in pickling, salting, and preserving, which allows food to last several months.
“During the winters in Sweden everything would freeze,” said Margaretha Talerman, past curator of the American Swedish Historical Museum. “So if you wanted to keep it, you pickled it!”
But before I could dig deeper into the roots of Swedish cuisine, it was time for the traditional holiday Lucia procession to begin. The Swedes actually begin celebrating Christmas weeks before, starting with St. Lucia’s Day on December 13th. In the US, many church groups, museums and organizations hold a Lucia pageant and choose their own girl to portray the saint.
The crowd gathered around the museum’s main staircase for the celebratory event. Young boys and girls dressed in holiday outfits sang carols and performed choreographed dances. Clothed in a white gown with a crown of lighted candles, Lucia followed carrying a tray of sweets and coffee.
After the Christmas performance, I followed the ladies to an elaborate table of Swedish sweets. Wearing a bright nostalgic smile, Birgitta guided me through the collection of desserts. She directed me over to the tray of lussekatter, saffron buns with raisins that are traditionally served on St. Lucia Day. Then she pointed out her favorite treats, pepparkakor, which were cut into different shapes and tasted like spicy gingersnaps.
“As a young girl, I remember the smell of Christmas always being gingerbread,” she said with a Swedish accent as she smiled and reached for one.
It was clear that the lovely older ladies, their families and children were all celebrating their heritage while trying to preserve old traditions from their homeland. I wondered if these Swedes were aware of the cutting-edge New Nordic craze, a modern approach to their own ancient cooking techniques, which has been gaining momentum around the world for the past several years.
As I sipped from a mug of glögg, mulled wine with vodka and spices, I asked them, “Have you heard anything about New Nordic food?” The women stared blankly at me. So I paused and I tried again, “Ok … What about the restaurant, Noma?”
“Ah, yes. Isn’t that in Copenhagen?” said Kristina Antoniades, a longtime member of the museum. “Last year there was a Noma cookbook giveaway. It went quickly.”
“There are commonalities between old Swedish food and New Nordic cuisine,” I told them, “like pickling and preserving.”
“To me, that’s too funny!” said Margaretha. “Many of the food traditions came from poor farmers, so it’s funny to hear they are so popular and desired.” She later pointed to the buffet trays across the room, “But this would never be served at Noma. Oh no, no!”
What the traditional Swedish Christmas dinner may have lacked in New Nordic trendiness, it made up for with its warm reminder of tradition. Sure, the New Nordic movement looks vastly different than historic Swedish gastronomy, but the purity and simplicity of the region have been carried on with traces of old culture in modern dishes.
The ladies were surprised to learn that the food they have been cooking and eating all their lives was now part of the foundation of the New Nordic food manifesto, but they weren’t afraid the ancient traditions would be forgotten.
“Twenty years ago, the younger generation wouldn’t even try the herring,” said Kristina. “But with this new exposure, maybe now they will.”
Unless otherwise noted, photos by Michael Bucher.