Sunday, October 14, 2001

Just call me Lars.

At A.'s parents last night, we partook in a Swedish tradition that calls for a strong will, a strong stomach but a weak sense of smell: Surströmming. Which translates to something like rotten fish that smells like babyshit. Er, at least that's how I would translate it.

I should preface this all with the observation that to an American, Swedes have rather odd palates when it comes to comfort foods and important feast days such as Christmas and Midsummer. These holidays are connected with the eating of lots of cold preserved fish, herring mostly, in various sauces, served with plain boiled potatoes, knäckebröd - crisp bread - and cheese. At Christmas they generously add plain boiled ham and something called Janssons frestelse (which translates rather grandly into Jansson's temptation, rather a misnomer I would say considering it is sliced potatoes baked with cream and anchovies). No matter the holiday, however, it is important to include lots and lots of snaps, of which the most popular flavor would be caraway, I'd say.

There's also another lesser food holiday not universally celebrated and with no fixed date, a kräftskiva, or crayfish party, which is crayfish boiled with dill, served with knäckebröd and strong prästost (priest cheese), and of course snaps. This is usually held in mid-August when the crayfish are first in season.

The thing about these feasts is that there is nothing comforting about them to me. They are, um, okay I suppose, but a meal centered around cold fish just doesn't shout ''indulgence'' to me. My favorite is the kräftskiva... it's a lot of work and your fingers end up covered in small painful cuts, but while you're partaking, it's fun and tasty (as compared to eating herring).

But surströmming is rather another thing.

It is legendary in Sweden, coming from the north. The fish are kept in tin cans that tend to expand as if they were harboring enough botulism bacteria to poison the earth. When I saw them last night, the bulging cans were shouting ''danger'' and ''get out while you can''to me, but the Swedes just snickered and tried to make me open the can myself, warning me that it can actually explode and essentially ruin someone's kitchen. Because, of course, as soon as some air escapes from the can, there is an overpowering stench that smells remarkably like, well, shit from a killer baby.

So, I was fumbling with the can opener (they don't have can openers with handles that you twist, for some reason - everyone has these primitive things that require you to stab the can with a powerful blow, and then just keep gashing until you get the damn thing open somehow), a plastic bag over the can to prevent the foul liquid from spraying all over the kitchen, and of course I couldn't manage it. Finally, they took it away and opened it up themselves, giggling at the horrendous smell and everyone looking at me, their hands over their mouths.

Well, the smell is nasty, but it's bearable in fact. I mean, it certainly doesn't smell like anything edible, but it doesn't make you cough. Well, maybe just a little. But I felt like everyone was expecting me to react quite negatively somehow, confirm the horribleness, and so I said ''It smells like shit.''

Which seemed to be the appropriate response.

''He says it smells like shit,'' they laughed.

Well then the next step was to eat it. The fish was put on the table, next to the husband, who looked rather pale, and we were to make sandwiches of it with tunnbröd - a flat soft bread - or knäckebröd, and tomatoes, chopped onion, gräddfil (a thin sour cream) and tiny little pieces of the fish, which we deboned and cut up ourselves on our plates.

In fact, it tastes a bit like it smells, pungent and overripe, but it's not horrible by any means.

And of course, after five minutes your brain refuses to acknowledge that it's smelling something bad, provided the smell is continuous, so you kind of get over the stench and just eat.

''Oh, is it too bad?'' A.'s mother asked me.

''No, it's not too bad,'' I said.

''He says it's not too bad!'' they all said, and they laughed some more, but they were secretly proud of me, and proud of themselves, that they had fed me this rather peculiar but very traditional meal, that I had said it smelled as bad as they told me it would but I had eaten it readily. Everyone had played their proper roles, and played them well.

''Next time you'll eat two sandwiches!'' they said. ''You're a real Swede now!''

- by Francis S.

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