I’m elbow-deep in ground meat, onions, and potatoes, giggling with Kat, my friend and meat-project partner for life, who is thanking the kitchen gods for mechanical meat-grinder and sausage-stuffer attachments for KitchenAid mixers. During our first foray into the world of homemade sausage, we used an antique, hand-cranked grinder that I assume, historically, could have only been operated by the strongest of women. After a failed attempt using funnels, we were quite proud of ourselves for figuring out that sawed-off water bottles did the trick. The end result was worth the battle with salmonella: delicious potatis korv, a sausage I used to only be able to purchase at IKEA.
We’re making the korv for my eighth annual Christmas party called, usually in all caps and using many exclamation points, Smorgasfest. It’s a take on the Christmas meal I grew up eating, the major difference being the guest list is about ten times longer. There’s also a crock pot full of glögg, floating with warm spices and periodically replenished by imprecise splashes of brandy and cheap red wine provided by guests.
I am half Swedish, on my father’s side. Two of my great-grandparents were born in Sweden, the other two in the Swedish Midwest, and a few things have made it through space and time to me and my sisters: a lifelong affection for coffee, bread, cheese, butter, and IKEA. Most of the Swedish food we grew up eating was for breakfast: Swedish pancakes on special occasions (or whenever my dad was feeling particularly Swedish), ugnspannkaka (an oven-baked pancake), fontina cheese on cardamom or rye bread, and, of course, lingonberry sauce on everything.
And then there’s Christmas smörgåsbord.
Every year we spent with my dad’s side of the family was a smörgåsbord year, when the buffet of champions was served on Christmas Eve. My dad remembers that it was always Christmas Eve when he was growing up because after everyone ate, the kids had to wash the dishes before they could open their presents (and there were a lot of dishes—my grandma has always been a crafty lady).
Smörgåsbord, at Christmas, is a large, buffet-style meal, and the Peterson smörgåsbord has pretty much been the same since my grandmother was a child: meatballs with cream sauce, potatis korv (potato sausage), bruna bonor (brown beans with molasses, butter, and vinegar), rice pudding, pickled cucumbers, pickled herring, fruit soup, cardamom bread, limpa (rye bread), hard tack, cheese, lingonberry sauce, and lutfisk (“lye fish,” although no one but my grandparents ever really ate it unless you were dared). For dessert, there’s coffee, paper-thin pepparkakor (ginger cookies), and spritz (butter cookies).
In my family, many of these dishes go on the same plate, and everyone has their favorite combinations. My first bite of smörgåsbord every year is bruna bonor, rice pudding, and lingonberry sauce, all shoved on one fork. It still tastes the same as it did when I was forming my first memories, and I still use the same recipes, with slight modifications. Out of everything on that heavy, heavy plate, it’s the bite that shoots me farthest back in time.
My grandma made potatis korv growing up with her family, with one of those strong-women-only hand-cranked machines, but no one has really made it for decades. It was possible to purchase it in Southern California, where my dad grew up, so no one bothered. It’s far more difficult to find here in Washington, D.C., and since I’ve always enjoyed slightly masochistic kitchen projects, I’ve become the Peterson who makes potatis korv. I’m not so masochistic as to follow in the footsteps of my grandpa, who grew up making the lutfisk, a process that involves rehydrating dried whitefish and soaking it in lye. Although I’m sure many people in the world continue to enjoy this fermented delicacy, my dad and his sister say that it was “sort of a joke.”
When I was a kid, my grandma still made the meatballs she learned how to make from her mother, but after a while, it became much simpler to rely on IKEA’s, since—come on—she deserved a break. My first few years hosting Smorgasfest were filled with IKEA’s (excellent) meatballs as well, but I feel more of a pull every year to do things the right (hard) way. I feel more connected to the women in my family tree when I have to sit and toil a little.
Soon, I will sit at my kitchen table for hours, elbows deep in more ground meat, onions, and spices, delicately forming two hundred beautiful meatballs. I’ll spend another day rolling out thin pepparkakor and hard tack with my special pegged rolling pin and putting out an unsettling number of wooden tomten (not-quite-Christmas elves) around the house to keep the straw Yule goat company. I’ll hand out recipes to friends who have so graciously gone along with my frantic plans, making every Smorgasfest bigger and better than the last. The day of, I’ll finish up my bruna bonor, bake the rice pudding, and start panicking that this will be the year everything fails.
Of course, this is impossible. Smörgåsbord brings people together in the best way: over a comforting meal and a hot drink (or two, or three), in a warm house with lots of light, with cookies enough to last ’til the last good friend goes home, at 2 a.m.
The following recipes are from what my grandma calls “The Book.” If it’s not in The Book, it’s not in the smörgåsbord. The Book is actually The Little Red Cookbook, published by the women of the Pasadena Covenant Church. It’s full of the delightfully dated recipes normally found in church cookbooks, attributed to this lady or that lady, with a disproportionate number of Swedish dishes. My third edition from 1976 is falling apart from overuse, but it still works. I’ve updated the recipes slightly (“bake in a moderate oven” is quite vague, and we tend to like more spice these days) and added the descriptions, but for the most part, this is as they were in 1960, when the book’s first edition was printed.
This is a set custard-type of rice pudding. It’s only slightly sweet, delicious with lingonberry sauce or as part of a modest smörgåsbord spread with meatballs, gravy, and bruna bonor.
1 pint warm milk
¼ cup sugar
¾ cup cooked long grain rice
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of cinnamon
Pinch of salt
Beat eggs slightly. Add all ingredients except cinnamon. Pour into a buttered casserole. Sprinkle top with cinnamon and sugar. Bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) in a pan of hot water until a silver knife comes out clean.
These beans resemble baked beans in that they are a little sweet, and spiked with tart vinegar. Don’t skimp on the butter—together with the cornstarch, it makes the sauce around the beans velvety and rich.
1 pound Swedish brown beans or kidney beans
1 tablespoon molasses
2–4 tablespoon vinegar
2 tablespoon cornstarch
¼ cups butter
Brown sugar and salt to taste
Rinse beans well. Cover with water and soak overnight. Cook about 2 hours. When done, add molasses, brown sugar, salt, and vinegar. Thicken with cornstarch diluted with water. Add butter.
These meatballs are traditionally browned in a skillet, and you should still feel free to cook them that way, but I find sauteing them too fussy. Browning them in the oven produces a very similar result and has the added benefit of being totally hands-off.
2 pounds ground beef
1 pound ground pork
4 slices white bread
1 cup milk
1 medium onion, grated
1 teaspoon allspice
½ teaspoon sage
1 ½ teaspoon salt
⅓ teaspoon white pepper
Soak bread in milk. When very soft, add rest of ingredients, mix until all is well incorporated, and gently roll into 1-inch balls. Do not overwork the meatballs. Bake on a rimmed cookie sheet at 400 degrees for about 15-18 minutes.
—Alice Anderson, modified by Cecilia Peterson
Serve these meatballs with or without cream sauce. Alton Brown’s technique works nicely—you can (carefully) deglaze the cookie sheet on the stove, then finish the gravy off in a saucepan.
Cecilia Peterson is the digitization archivist in the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections. She is strong enough to crank an antique meat grinder.