In colloquial English, the word “smorgasbord” is used to describe “a delightful (if not overwhelming) array of choices,” and rightly so. The true and original meaning of the word relates to the traditional Scandinavian smörgåsbord that originated in Sweden, where myriad dishes were laid out buffet-style for guests to help themselves, with frequent trips to the table encouraged. Nowadays it’s typically prepared as a celebratory meal, as at Christmas, when it’s known as the Julbord (yule table).
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Smorgasbord: Buffet Food at Its Best
Smörgåsbord translates to “sandwich table” and is found in all five Nordic countries. In Denmark and Norway, it’s known as the koldtbord; in Finland, it’s the voileipäpöytä; and in Iceland, it’s the kalt bord or hladbord. Despite the different names, the customs, etiquette and menu are similar, yet each is enriched with the local delicacies of the country.
The hordes of Scandinavians who immigrated to the Midwest sections of the United States in the 19th century brought their culinary traditions with them. The smörgåsbord was enjoyed in their new country, though only officially since the 1939 New York World’s Fair, when it was offered at the Swedish Pavilion’s Three Crowns Restaurant. After that, the diacritics were dropped from the term, and the buffet-style meal became known all over America as simply “smorgasbord.”
History of the Smorgasbord
The origins of the smorgasbord date back to the 14th century when members of the Swedish upper class would serve a small buffet table (brännvinsbord) of schnapps and hors d’oeuvres prior to a meal. Consisting usually of bread, butter, cheese, herring and liqueurs, the brännvinsbord was meant to be a light repast for guests, served two to five hours before dinner, and eaten while standing. This custom expanded in the 17th century when the “Lord of the Manor” invited folks from all over Sweden’s sparsely populated countryside. Cold dishes — like salty herring, potato and vegetable salads, hard-boiled eggs, smoked salmon, sausages, cold cuts, and bread — were prepared several days in advance in order to feed the arriving guests.
Through the centuries, the smorgasbord tradition continued to evolve until it became the main course rather than just the appetizer. Hot dishes were added to the traditional cold ones, and a dessert table laden with Scandinavian specialties eventually became the norm for special occasions.
The smorgasbord grew in popularity, and in its most lavish form was served in restaurants, hotels, railway stations, and the big passenger ferries crossing between Finland, Sweden and the other Nordic countries. Informally, it was a popular way to serve guests at home, whether it be an intimate gathering or a large party. Today, the smorgasbord is prepared mainly for special occasions, from a house warming to an anniversary, but mostly at Christmas, Midsummer (late June) or Easter.
If you’d like to start a new holiday tradition this year, keep in mind that smorgasbord delicacies are meant to be eaten in a special order, each course on a clean plate so flavors do not combine in an unpleasant way (think of herring). Keep lots of plates stacked up for guests (see “Setting the Smorgasbord Table”), and don’t hesitate to add your own favorite dishes, regardless of origin. From start to finish, the smorgasbord is a work of art, lovingly created and shared among neighbors, families and friends.
The following recipes were excerpted with permission from Scandinavian Smorgasbord Recipes (Penfield Books, 1991), by Karen Berg Douglas, unless otherwise noted. Copies can be purchased online for $12.95 postpaid at the Penfield Books website.
Setting the Smorgasbord Table
Festive smorgasbord tables are decked out with fresh flowers and greens, candles, and perhaps even flags, though the colorful variety of foods provides the most exciting decoration.
As with any buffet, smorgasbord diners will serve themselves, going around the table. Set up the table so guests can proceed effortlessly through the line, without bottlenecks forming in any area. A large table should be placed in the middle of the room with lots of free space around it. Set up two starting points, one on opposite ends of each side, so diners can go around the table simultaneously from different directions.
Dinner plates should be set at each starting point. Line up the buffet food in this order: pickled and marinated herring, boiled potatoes, cold salads, cold fish, sauces for fish dishes, cold meat dishes, sauces for cold meat, hot fish dishes, hot meat dishes, cheeses, sauce for hot dishes.
At the end of the serving line should be cutlery, napkins and drinking glasses, so diners do not have to carry these through the line. Alternately, cutlery, napkins and glasses may be set on a smaller, separate table with the beverages and desserts, if there’s enough space.
If you are hosting, tend to the serving platters and refill when necessary. Frequently remove used dishes and cutlery.