To start with it was just something to occupy early-comers until all the dinner guests had arrived. It grew to become an hors d’oeuvre table, before eventually turning into a full-blown lunch or dinner. It then achieved renown abroad where, however, it can take on forms peculiar to the purist. So if you want to try a real Swedish smörgåsbord, there are certain things you should know.
Its origins go back some five hundred years. In the beginning it was a brännvin (aquavit) table, although there was some food apart from the alcohol. After becoming a popular hors d’oeuvre among the middle classes, new dishes were added in the nineteenth century. In the early railway age it was common for station restaurants to provide it, until trains had their own restaurant cars.
It remained an hors d’oeuvre, however, until much later, although during the 1912 summer Olympic Games in Stockholm some restaurants offered it as a stand-alone meal and there were ‘smorgasbord’ (now without the Swedish letters ö and å) restaurants in New York in the 1920s. But it did not become internationally known on a wider scale until the 1932 World Expo, also in New York, when the restaurant in the Swedish pavilion had a well-laden, rotating “Merry-Go-Round” table.
Its status as a starter to the main meal finally disappeared for good in the early 1960s, since when, with the addition of still more dishes, it has been complete in itself.
How to eat it
Swedes are often amused at the sight of foreign visitors piling a great mixture of dishes onto their plate, something the experienced would never do. The standard practice is to follow the recommendations made by a leading Swedish chef and restaurateur more than fifty years ago. You should go to the table five times, taking a new plate and fresh cutlery each time. The first visit is for the various kinds of pickled North Sea herring, perhaps also its smaller cousin the Baltic herring, plus a boiled potato and a slice of crisp bread and cheese, consumed with a glass of aquavit.
Visit number two is for other fish dishes, particularly salmon, boiled and/or cured and boiled eel. Number three is for cold cuts of meat and salads, number four for hot dishes, which will almost certainly include Jansons Temptation ( anchovies cooked in cream) and meatballs, and finally there are the desserts, which were the latest addition to the table.
What does it mean?
Literally, smörgåsbord means ‘butter goose table’, which may seem a strange name to give it, especially as it has never contained goose cooked in butter or anything else. But it derives from the time when people churned their own butter. During the process small blobs somewhat resembling the shape of a goose, would rise to the surface. Such a blob was thought ideal to spread on a slice of bread and the result is still called a smörgås, although it normally has some other topping or toppings in addition to butter, ie it is an open sandwich. And in its earlier days the smörgåsbord had that kind of character.