By Lisa Carr
Reprinted with the permission of Nordstjernan (1-800-82SWEDE).
Originally published November 22, 1990.
Happy Thanksgiving from Malmö! This is the first time in my life I won't be enjoying turkey and football on the fourth Thursday in November. Swedes don't celebrate Thanksgiving, of course, although they do have turkeys and they do have "football." The problem, however, is that the football here is round and spotted, and the turkeys here taste like fish - that's what they feed them in Sweden. Why should turkeys be different from anybody else?
That brings me to the subject at hand. With the Christmas season comes the yearly denigration of that traditional Scandinavian delicacy, lutfisk. But I'm not going to talk about that. We all know what it is and how bad it is and why some of us eat it anyway. No, in this column I'm taking on bigger game: the Swedish tradition of eating processed raw fish in general, namely, herring.
I discovered when I came to Sweden that there is an entire row in the supermarket that doesn't exist in the US: the processed fish department. The main culprit is herring, known over here as sill. The variety offered is stunning, proof that people can get mighty creative with food when there's only one kind to go around: garlic sill, mustard sill, onion sill, plain old inlagd sill, dill and tomato sill, lunch sill, anchovy sill, wine sill, creamed sill, "French-style" onion sill. Don't worry, there's much more if nothing on this list appeals to you. I just got tired of typing the word sill.
We didn't have sill in our house when I was a kid. My mother bought it once just recently and it haunted the refrigerator for weeks - without any noticeable change in appearance. I have never successfully swallowed a bite of sill, although I've come admirably close. My stomach and I have decided that there is something dangerous about any food about which one postulates that the "stronger" it smells, the better it is.
A sure way to make a Swede in America homesick, though, is to mention the words "sill lunch": the traditional repast of sill and potatoes with sour cream and chives and snaps, most likely brännvin or aquavit. It'll bring tears to his eyes. The theory behind the lunch, I think, is that they eat the sill in order to earn snaps.
Of the 13 companies in Sweden that produce sill, 10 are located on the tiny island of Klädesholmen, an hour north of Gothenburg. Pople have been living here and preparing sill for more than 800 years, the "high period" for sill being the mid 1700s.
I had the opportunity with a Gothenburg group to visit Klädesholmen, and the Bråse & Sons Conserve Factory, a five-generation family business. Since the 1920s, they have been preparing 16 varieties of sill, anchovies and other delicacies in hermetically sealed cans using traditional secret recipes. We could smell these traditional secret recipes from a kilometer away. Maybe that's why they're stuck out on an island.
My experience with sill having been consistently unpleasant, I was worried when we docked next to a 12-foot high stack of barrels filled with old Norwegian fish. But my companions were thrilled - especially when offered the chance to buy wholesale.
As we toured the small factory, young Morgan Bråse explained the intricacies of modern sill preparation. The "aroma" was overwhelming. It occurred to me at the moment, as I calmly tried to breathe through my mouth and think stomach-calming thoughts, that I was experiencing one of those epic conflicts of heredity versus environment, with upbringing clearly winning this round: I don't care how much Swedish blood there is in your veins, you just aren't born liking this stuff. Unless you're a Bråse.