Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Pannkakor? Nej, tak. Just Coffee!

Above: Swedish fika (coffee snack): coffee, pannkakor (crepes), lingonberry jam and cream.
The Swedes are supposed to be great coffee drinkers, and anyone who has read Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009, film in 2010), The Girl Who Played With Fire (2010), or The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (2010) will have to agree. In fact many arts-oriented blogs such as Paper Cuts and SpaceLoops have welcomed readers' comments about over-emphasis on coffee and Larsson's suspicious reluctance or unwillingness to describe what his characters actually eat.

No herring? No Arctic Char? No Reindeer steaks? Not even aquavit, chased by a Carlsberg beer??

Alas, Coca Cola, fast foods and convenience meals alone nourish our heroes (And for a witty and perspicuous comparison, readers may wish to peruse Sam Sifton's hilarious restaurant review in the NYTimes, "The Chef Who Played With Herring," July 21, 2010, p.D6).

In Larsson's books we see the words lunch and very occasionally dinner and breakfast but nary a word abut those meals which, in Sweden, can be joyous gastronomical occasions. I know. I've been there.

Admittedly, this authors swift-moving plots are not really about foods and beverages, however much those items work to delineate a character or give us a sense of place in other novels. Witness the success of American detective fiction writers, Rex Stout (Nero Wolf) and Robert B. Parker or espionage writer, Alan Furst.

Clearly, the larger issue in Larsson's work is women's rights, their personal and professional opportunities and, quite basically, their welfare in a modern world that should know better. In fact, the first novel was originally titled, Men Who Hate Women.

Larsson supplies us with a few pages, laying all this out for us by citing the documents of Swedish democracy, principally the the Right to Free Speech
(or RFS) and of the necessary four restrictions of the press (i.e. no child porn, etc).

Somehow, the film version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (which I saw once again last night) communicates this at a more visceral level. Salander's scrappy fight with thugs in the tunnelbana, her abuse at the hands of her father, her revenge on and her legal "guardian," Advokat N. E. Bjurman, her vicious attack on Martin Vanger with a golf club and, in the third book, digging herself out of an early grave provide complex links with her powerful image as a brilliant and gifted computer hacker, investigator, a gritty and independent person, and, quite literally, a life-saver in several male-dominated conflicts. Her unusual compassion for George Bland (in the second novel), Dr. Jonasson, and for her original guardian, Holger Palmgren are sensitive, realistic and well-developed.

But returning to the subject of Scandinavian influence, modern Swedish coffee houses, favoring the Italian-based espresso, do not offer the traditional "egg coffee" that is known here in Swedish immigrant enclaves of the Midwest and beyond. the recipe below was used in after-service luncheons in Lutheran churches in Minnesota, Wisconsin and other areas in the 1800s and on into the twentieth century [See The Minnesota Ethnic Food Book, MHS Press, 1986. Also, at that time I came across the most wonderful article by children's book writer Carrie Young, "A Scandinavian Thanksgiving Dinner," Gourmet 43 November 1983. A delightful menu and setting and a startling sense of place]

Recipe : Mix one beaten egg with your desired measure of ground coffee. Add 1/2 cup cold water; blend well.
Stir in the set-aside crumbled egg shell.
Add 8 cups (or less) hot water [a few degrees below boiling]. Continue heating until foam disappears. Cover and let settle for 7-10 minutes. Serve through a fine mesh strainer.

Swedish Gavalia coffee ,well-advertised in the US, is thought of as one of the best, offering blends from Columbia, the Dominican Republic and Peru.

So, because of this background of the Swedes' devotion to coffee, San Francisco-based Folger's Coffee (in the 1960s) introduced Mrs.Olson (played by actress Virginia Christine), an attractive and neighborly Swede whose ads recommended (with a sweet Swedish accent) that their Mountain grown coffee as an answer to most problems.

The ad always concludes with: A young wife serves her husband morning coffee and he exclaims: "It's as good as Mrs. Olson's!"

Today, with Pike's Roast, Peet's Coffee, Starbucks and numerous micro-coffees on the shelf, anyone who is disinclined to brew freshly- roasted and carefully filtered coffee is told, "You might as well be drinking Folgers!"

So those of us who are entranced by the Millennium novels (with the Blomkvist and Salander action team) has noticed the obvious: very little about food; hundreds of coffee reference: Office coffee, espresso makers, coffee breaks (
fika in Swedish). No police conference is possible without coffee. Breaking news at Millennium Magazine requires mugs of machine-made coffee (Yuck!)

While coffee is traditionally popular in Scandinavia (Finland has the highest consumption, Sweden is third after Norway), Larsson seems to have gone out of his way to avoid mentioning any details about food even though occasions arise. His characters eat lots of burgers, pizza and "sandwiches" (lingonberry and peanut butter? Grilled cheese? Sardines and mayonnaise?), but never the famous Swedish open sandwich of rye bread and roast beef or Jarlsberg cheese or shrimp, lettuce and pickles and sliced boiled eggs.I have never yet read of husmankost ("down home country food," herring or anchovies with potatoes, for example, also known as "Jannson's Temptation" or meatballs and no sign of delicate cardamom-loaded Swedish pastries either).

It is true, of course, since 1960, Sweden has been swamped with American-style fast food, pizza and Coca Cola, primarily, and Salander seems to prefer Billy's Pan Pizza and McDonald's. But, on the bright side, it's good to know that korv, a Swedish sausage or wurst, sometimes made with potato, out-sells even pizza.

Below: Street Food: Korvkiosk or sausage stand. Goteborg, Sweden. Photo by JC, 2006. Korv is often enjoyed with mashed potatoes and pickles.

Men gathering in an urban settings seem to drink lattes or strong beer (amber,intense aroma of malt, and high alcohol content). In Norway it is Carlsberg Elephant beer).

How does Larsson sharpen the coffee image? Simply by inserting it everywhere. Take the scene in which Blomkvist first visits Salander's apartment in Mosebacke, a popular but expensive Stockholm neighborhood.

He finds Salander's super, upscale Jua Empressa coffee machine (70,000 Kroner) and a separate espresso with attached cold milk cooler, neither much used.
Sounds like Bobos in Paradise by David Brooks (Touchstone, 2000)
.

But wait!

I have just finished Larsson's third book and at last his characters dine in
style. True, in the first half of this novel it seems as if he is parodying himself with coffee, coffee, coffee. And at the most questionable times
.

Then it happens:

At one point, Blomkvist makes himself a lunch - OPEN sandwiches, Scandinavian style Perhaps it's a national idiosyncrasy but these guys like to brown-bag it). Can you imagine Micky Spillane making himself a PB&J?

And then, Blomkvist, ever the aloof charmer, is taken to dinner by the Amazon-detective , Monica Figuerola ( she is soooo hot for him) and they eat
burek, ( p 322) in a Bosnian place at Fridhemsplan. In real life, its name is Tabouli.

Just in case that went passed you, Burek is a fantastical mix of minced veal and beef, onions, butter, eggs, seasoning, and cooked in pork fat. Almost like a Russian pirog in snail-shaped pastry, served with butter or a cream sauce. Yum! It is also traditionally made throughout the Balkans, sometimes with cottage cheese.

Right: Bosnian burek
The gig goes down at yet another restaurant, the quiet Lebanese restaurant, Samir's Cauldron on Tavasgatan, with newly-returned editor Berger. The bad guys show up, Blomkvist takes them down, and the trilogy comes to a satisfactory close.

The truth is (and ask any European) there is no more narrowly conceived "Swedish food" (or Spanish or German, etc.). Every country in Europe has been gastronomically internationalized, whether it's berik or pizza or General Tom's chicken or sushi. It's tapas in Oslo and crepes in Israel and eggplant parmesan in
London.

PS: I hate to flog a dead horse, but I must comment on one other Swedish detective author, Hennning Mankwell. I just finished his 1997 One Step Behind (one of four such narratives), and feel compelled to report the food issues.

First, the hero detective Kurt Wallander, fiftyish, divorced and a workaholic, shows signs of diabetes and is warned by his doctor to restrict his diet. He makes a few feeble attempts but generally follows the Swedish work place diet: pizza, hotdogs, and coffee, coffee, coffee. Honestly, Mankwell mentions coffee twice as often as Larsson, almost to the point that the reader feels he is being naughtily perverse about the Swedish caffeine habit. At one point, our hero has for breakfast coffee and a tomato!

As an adendum, I shall mention the 2008 Danish film, "Terribly Happy" (Frygtelig Lukkelig), released in 2010 in English, starring Swedish actor, Jakob Cedergren (b. Sweden, 1973). Directed by Henrik Ruben Genz, the narrative is more sophisticated than the detective tales above and shows antecedents in old European literature, notably Dr.Faustus, but with a touch of Shirley Jackson.

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