Fika: Sweets for the Swedes
My family hails from mixed marriages- between Swedes and Norwegians. My grandfathers were of Swedish heritage and my grandmothers were of Norwegian. Don’t laugh- it’s far more contentious than you might imagine. They have all passed now- but while living there was a gently simmering disagreement about which nationality was superior. The culture and customs I learned of each have blended together into something vaguely Scandinavian but, there is likely not much in our customs with which a modern Swede or Norwegian would identify.
On Saturday, my mother and my aunt who lives in Northern MN and I went to Fika, the café at the Swedish Institute. The assumption I think we all made was the food would be familiar given our strong cultural history. But there is no head cheese, lutefisk or lefse in sight. This is modern fresh Swedish food. What was familar was ingredients found in our common latitude. We each had a story of learning to like beets. My aunt ordered a smoked whitefish salad reminiscing that her first husband often fished for whitefish and made her be quiet when she visited him in the ice fishing house- later learning that noise level had nothing to do with catching fish. Mom and I ordered the salmon smorebrod, an open faced sandwich. The sandwich is very good- a piece of grilled salmon with arugula on a slice of dense bread with grainy mustard sauce and a scoop of beet puree. I also got a cup of celery root soup with tiny button mushrooms, spring onion, and espresso salt – which sounds a little weird but popped the celery root-cream-mushroom amalgam. And at three dollars for a large ‘cup’ it is definitely the best deal on the menu.
Prior to a trip to Sweden a few years ago, my mom took Swedish language and culture classes at the Swedish Institute. She learned that Fika is a coffee break typically with seven different kinds of sweets (Wikipedia says there should be a minimum of three sweets- less than that could offend guests.) It’s curious to me that the Swedish Institute hasn’t taken an opportunity to educate diners on this common custom by offering some kind of assorted plate of Fika sweets but instead have a full desert menu with items like bread pudding and chocolate cake. I ran over and took inventory of the deli case which held a variety of baked goods. In the end I ordered an “arrak ball”which was a somewhat chalky ball of what I’d guess is cocoa powder, sugar, butter and flour rolled in toasted coconut. My mom got a lovely light pumpkin walnut cookie to go with her coffee. She tasted her cookie and insisted her sister, ‘Taste this maple frosting. It’s exactly like Myrtle Nordlund’s. Remember her spice cake?’ So, maybe there is something that holds our old and new cultures close after all: maple frosting.