Smörgåsbord became internationally known at the 1939 New York World's Fair when it was offered at the Swedish Pavilion "Three Crowns Restaurant". It is typically a celebratory meal and guests can help themselves from a range of dishes laid out for their choice. In a restaurant the term refers to a buffet-style table laid out with many small dishes from which, for a fixed amount of money, one is allowed to choose as many as one wishes.
In Northern Europe, the term varies between "cold table" and "buffet": In Norway it is called koldtbord or kaldtbord and in Denmark det kolde bord (literally "the cold table"); in Germany kaltes Buffet and in the Netherlands koud buffet (literally "cold buffet"); in Iceland it is called hlaðborð ("farmyard/courtyard table"), in Estonia it is called külmlaud ("cold table") or rootsi laud ("Swedish table"), in Latvia aukstais galds ("the cold table"), in Finland voileipäpöytä ("butter-bread/sandwich table") or ruotsalainen seisova pöytä ("Swedish standing table/buffet"). In Eastern Europe, each language has a term that literally means "Swedish table". In Japan it is referred to as バイキング / ヴァイキング (baikingu / vaikingu, i.e. "Viking").
The Swedish word smörgåsbord consists of the words smörgås ("sandwich", usually open-faced) and bord ("table"). Smörgås in turn consists of the words smör ("butter", cognate with English smear) and gås (literally "goose", but later referred to the small pieces of butter that formed and floated to the surface of cream while it was churned). These pieces reminded the old Swedish peasants of fat geese swimming to the surface. The small butter pieces were just the right size to be placed and flattened out on bread, so smörgås came to mean "buttered bread". In Sweden, the term att breda smörgåsar ("to spread butter on open-faced sandwiches") has been used since at least the 16th century.
In English and also in Scandinavian languages, the word smörgåsbord refers loosely to any buffet with a variety of dishes — not necessarily with any connection to Swedish Christmas traditions. In an extended sense, the word is used to refer to any situation which invites patrons to select whatever they wish among lots of pleasant things, such as the smorgasbord of university courses, books in a bookstore, etc.
A traditional Swedish smörgåsbord consists of both hot and cold dishes. Bread, butter, and cheese are always part of the smörgåsbord. It is customary to begin with the cold fish dishes which are generally various forms of herring, salmon, and eel. After eating the first portion, people usually continue with the second course (other cold dishes), and round off with hot dishes. Dessert may or may not be included in a smörgåsbord.
A special Swedish type of smörgåsbord is the julbord (literally "Yule/Christmas table"). The classic Swedish julbord is central to traditional Swedish cuisine, often including bread dipped in ham broth and continuing with a variety of fish (salmon, herring, whitefish and eel), baked ham, meatballs, pork ribs, head cheese, sausages, potato, Janssons frestelse, boiled potatoes, cheeses, beetroot salad, various forms of boiled cabbage, kale and rice pudding.
It is customary to eat particular foods together; herring is typically eaten with boiled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs and is frequently accompanied by strong spirits like snaps, brännvin or akvavit with or without spices. Other traditional foods are smoked eel, rollmops, herring salad, baked herring and smoked salmon.
Other dishes are pork sausages (fläskkorv), smoked pork and potato sausages (isterband), cabbage rolls (kåldolmar), baked beans, omelette with shrimps or mushrooms covered with béchamel sauce. Side dishes include beetroot salad in mayonnaise and warm stewed red, green or brown cabbage.
Lutfisk, lyed fish made of stockfish (dried ling or cod served with boiled potato and thick white sauce) and green peas that can be served with the warm dishes or as a separate fourth course. Lutfisk is often served as dinner the second day after the traditional Christmas Yule-table dinner. Julbord desserts include rice pudding (risgrynsgröt), sprinkled with cinnamon powder. Traditionally, an almond is hidden in the bowl of rice porridge, and whoever finds it receives a small prize or is recognized for having good luck. Julbord is served from early December until just before Christmas at restaurants and until Epiphany in some homes. It is tradition for most Swedish and Norwegian workplaces to hold an annual Julbord between November and January.
In Denmark a typical tradition resembling the Swedish julbord is julefrokost ("Christmas-lunch"), which involves a wellstocked Danish smörgåsbord with cold as well as hot dishes, and plenty of beer and snaps. It is distinct from the Danish Christmas dinner, which is served on 24 December, and is served as a lunchtime meal, usually for family and friends on 25 or 26 December. It is also a tradition for most Danish workplaces to hold an annual julefrokost some time during the months of November to January.
The members of the Swedish merchant and upper class in sixteenth-century Sweden and Finland served schnapps table (brännvinsbord), a small buffet presented on a side table offering a variety of hors d'oeuvres served prior to a meal before sitting at the dinner table. The most simple brännvinsbord was bread, butter, cheese, herring and several types of liqueurs; but smoked salmon, sausages and cold cuts were also served. The brännvinsbord was served as an appetizer for a gathering of people and eaten while standing before a dinner or supper, often two to five hours before dinner, sometimes with the men and women in separate rooms. The smörgåsbord became popular in the mid-seventeenth century, when the food moved from the side table to the main table and service began containing both warm and cold dishes. Smörgåsbord was also served as an appetizer in hotels and later at railway stations, before the dining cars time for the guests. Restaurants in Stockholm at the 1912 Olympic Games stopped serving smörgåsbord as an appetizer and started serving them instead as a main course.
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