Swedish-American dining in Chicago:
You're not in Kalix anymore

[Editor's note: While attending a conference in Chicago recently, kulturCHOCK!s restaurant critic took the opportunity to visit a venerable Swedish-American Institution, Ann Satherís restaurant on the North Side. Here is his report.]

As any student of Swedish-American history knows, Chicago once had more Swedish-born inhabitants than any city in the world other than Stockholm. Swedish craftsmen built much of the housing stock that still remains in the city, but aside from that there are not many physical traces of the Swedish influence. Tourists looking for a slice of Swedish Chicago usually wind up at a small pocket of Swedish shops and restaurants in a section of Clark Street known as Andersonville. Meanwhile, all around Andersonville and up and down Clark Street, one is overwhelmed by a riot of competing influences from cultures with more recent roots in Chicago, particularly in the form of Asian and Latin American restaurants and stores.

I jumped on Chicagoís famous elevated railway (the El, which, despite its name, runs underground through central Chicago) to head up to Ann Satherís restaurant. The restaurant is practically right under the elevated station on Belmont Avenue, just west of Clark Street. This isnít far from Wrigley Field, named after the chewing-gum magnate and home of the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Up and down Belmont youíll find Indian, Thai, Mexican, and Japanese restaurants in abundance, not to mention a Tatoo parlor, coffee shop, and an S&M sex shop. All thrown together in a happy jumble and anchored by the neighborhoodís oldest tenant, Ann Satherís.

I was ready for some good Swedish food.

I was surprised at the size of the restaurant when I came in. The front room is paneled in dark wood, with a roaring fire (probably gas - I never saw anybody toss in a log). A middle room with a barreled ceiling was painted in a bright yellow, Dala-inspired pattern. A long rear room featured murals with 18th-century scenes painted in a modern interpretation of blues and pinks. I believe I spotted Carl Michael Bellman smuggling a cask of akvavit out of a tavern in one of them. I was ushered to a table in the middle room. The other guests seemed to be folks from the neighborhood, ranging in age from a gang of scruffy 20-somethings to a group of prim ladies of a certain age to one old gubbe in the corner who ate what looked to be one in a long line of identical meals here. Every menu, napkin and waiterís t-shirt proclaimed Ann Satherís 50 years of presence in this community, and this guy looked like he hadnít missed any of them.

Before I could remove my coat a substantial waitress lay a plate full of breads in front of me. It was then that I reminded myself that this was not going to be a Swedish meal. This would be a Swedish-AMERICAN meal, with more emphasis on the latter than the former nationality. The bread plate consisted of a slice of good home-baked white bread, a piece of pumpkin bread, and two heavy, gooey cinnamon rolls.

Swedes may have a number of curious eating habits, but I can assure you that eating sweet pastries before or during a meal is not one of them. This was obviously a Swedish-AMERICAN invention.

I looked at the menu with utter dismay at first. It seemed to be filled with unimaginative - and un-Swedish - fare of the type that one would find at any ordinary American diner. Everything looked good (including one of my key standards for a good diner: "breakfast served all day everyday"), but there wasnít much that seemed particularly Swedish.

In all fairness, there were a couple of Swedish items on the menu. There was something called "Swedish Pot Roast" whose Swedish counterpart I was unable to identify. One could order Swedish Pancakes with whipped cream and strawberries. Very Swedish, except that they were on the breakfast menu. No Swede that I know will eat Swedish-style pancakes for BREAKFAST. I know of very few who have been convinced to eat American-style pancakes for their morning meal, much less the Swedish variety. Somewhere on the menu I spotted potato sausage, also a Swedish favorite.

But all in all, the only item that I thought could transport my palate back to Sweden was the broiled salmon filet. I ordered with trepidation, because good fish is not something I normally entrust to just any corner diner, which is what I was beginning to suspect that Ann Satherís really was.

The dinners came in two versions: a "lite" version for $9.95 came with the choice of two extras from a list of potatoes, rice, vegetables, etc. A "full" version for $10.95 came with the two extras plus a starter and a dessert. None of the starters was particularly Swedish except a herring plate. Determined to make this meal as Swedish as possible, thatís what I ordered. I was quite disappointed at the tiny plate that showed up with four bits of dry pickled herring, some red onion and a slice of what looked like last weekís tomato. No boiled potatoes, no gräddfil or even sour cream, no chives. None of what makes Swedish herring worthwhile. Nothing wrong with the herring itself exactly, but this was not really a Swedish presentation.

I was beginning to regret not stopping two doors down for some good pad thai. My untouched cinnamon rolls were taunting me from their little plate and I looked forward to my main course with trepidation.

Once again, I was surprised, but this time pleasantly. My salmon filet was nicely broiled to a perfect texture and obviously fresh. It was coated with a sauce that resembled Swedish hovmästaresås. Moreover, the medley of wild and white rice that accompanied it was very tasty indeed, the wild rice being something uniquely AMERICAN in this (I kept reminding myself) Swedish-AMERICAN meal. My other extra, a small plate of mixed vegetables, were nicely prepared, not soft and boiled but steamed and served in a tasty, seasoned butter sauce.

This main part of the meal was clearly more than satisfactory. Iíve had many a meal in Stockholm that would compare infavorably to this.

Then it was time for my dessert. I passed over the various pies, knowing that they would be the traditional American-style creation. I chose the bread pudding, which was topped with Lingonberries. This was not bad but it was HEAVY, and I couldnít finish it. The sight of those two enormous cinnamon rolls staring at me from the bread plate had something to do with it. I had failed to clean my plate. The shame of my motherís admonitions came back to me in a calorie-induced flashback. I had fought Ann Satherís, and Ann had won.

Many of us who grew up in Swedish America need to be reminded that the foods, traditions, and attitudes that we live with are not, as we often claim, Swedish. We need to remember that our forefathers created a new culture out of two. We are no more Swedish than the Italians in Boston are Italian or the Puerto Ricans in New York are Puerto Rican. We are all making it up as we go along, and that is the fun part. Swedes visiting North America need to keep this in mind as well. A Swede dining at Ann Satherís or walking through Andersonville would find little to remind him of home, but he will miss out on a lot of interesting Swedish-American culture if he ignores it altogether.

Ann Satherís is exactly what a Swedish-American restaurant should be: a sometimes strange but tasty combination of the things we like in both cultures. I waddled up the stairs to the train and headed back to my hotel in the American part of Chicago.

-David Curle

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