Friday, November 07, 2014

Sandwich Cake WTF?

“smörgåstårta. wtf is this? you cant put a sandwhich on a cake! *explain further*”

That is an actual email I received several years ago while teaching Swedish. I haven’t changed a single thing. That’s a copy and paste job right there. And I know you’re supposed to cite your sources, but I’m not citing this student. It’s best for everyone involved.

In a stroke of pedagogical genius, I just sent this student links to the Wikipedia page in English AND in Swedish. See? A learning opportunity.

I don’t necessarily expect super formal emails to be sent to me when I teach. Especially as, at the time, a graduate student who was only a few years older than some of the students in my class. But this one was new. I got the full on “wtf.” It bothered me, I’ll be honest.

Which is too bad, because it’s a legitimate question. Seriously, smörgåstårta? Wtf?

I’m hungry right now. And I walked by a bakery earlier. And bakeries make me think of delicious baked goods. And delicious baked goods make me think of things like kladdkaka and princesstårta. And the word tårta makes me think of smörgåstårta. And that, my friends, is how genius happens. Or a complete and utter inability to focus on anything important the second I get a little bit hungry.

The smörgåstårta first made it’s way into Sweden around the 1940s, was credited to Gunnar Sjödahl from Wedemarks konditori in Östersund in 1961, and became a Swedish staple in the 1970s. Since then, the smörgåstårta has been a staple of the finest Swedish cuisine. And by fine Swedish cuisine, I mean something that will feed a bunch of people, because it sits like a rock in your belly and can be served as leftovers for days, because no one can eat more than a piece at a time.

Anyway, a smörgåstårta is a sandwich cake. Literally. What it really is is a sort of savory cake with several layers of hedonistic Swedish pleasures smushed into a sort of creamy spread smothered all over bread. It’s not uncommon to bite into a cake filled with shrimp, salmon, crayfish, eggs, tomatoes, and cucumber. Of course, none of those things are creamy. That’s where the liver pâté, and mayonnaise comes into play. If you’re really lucky, you’ll also find some cold cuts, maybe an olive or two, and of course some lemon slices on top.

Now I want you to read through that last paragraph one more time. Then I want you to imagine biting into that and letting that sit in your gut for the rest of your workday.

Because, you see, the only time I’ve ever run into a smörgåstårta in the wild is at a Swedish office. Every now and again, while working here, we were graced with the presence of this monstrosity and invited to partake in the glory that is the smörgåstårta. I’ve heard rumors that this is sometimes served at parties. Apparently, my friends have better taste than that. Or they just don’t invite me to their parties. My friends are clearly assholes.

Welcome to Sweden. And Swedish foods that Americans fear.


  1. So do you or don't you like smörgåstårta? I have a kind of love-hate relationship with it. I guess it depends on the pålägg. I hate leverpastej (but don't think I've ever had it on a smörgåstårta actually...), fancy caviars and the slimy gravad lax (bläää!), but there's nothing wrong with cold cuts, cheese, mayonnaise, tomato, cucumber, salad and stuff like that. That sounds pretty much like the kind of sandwiches you eat in the US, right? And shrimp?! Damn, I love shrimp! Smörgåstårta isn't all that bad, imo.

    Anyway, I would say it's more common to serve smörgåstårta at "släktkalas" - a fine, Swedish institution where you have to invite hela släkten when someone fyller år eller tar studenten, and bju' på kalasmat (e.g. smörgåstårta) followed by coffee, an assortment of småkakor and regular cake. You have to make awkward conversation with people you don't really like or know, but who are, unfortunately, related to you by blood and marriage. You have to answer the same boring questions ("Jaha, vad gör du nuförtiden då? Hur går det med kärlekslivet? Vad ska du plugga? Hur går det på jobbet? Vilket fasligt väder vi har haft det senaste, eller hur? Sommaren/vintern har bara regnat bort, som vanligt!"), all the while smiling and, in between questions, saying things like "Jahaja", "Jo, så är det", and "Mmmm". This is pretty much mandatory, at least until you are 18 and can decide for yourself what you want to do.
    Ever experienced a real Swedish släktkalas?

  2. I don't like them one bit. I think it's all the creamy stuff. It just feels like its a mush of things that I'm supposed to try to eat. It doesn't work.

    And I have been to a few of those fun little family gatherings in both the US and Sweden. The awkward conversation is the best with people you've met once. When you were three. And they seem surprised that you've gotten so much bigger in the last 27 years. And my how you've grown. And oh, I remember when you were this big. Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly at all, your description also seems to fit the bill for an American family gathering.

    Also, this was the best mix of Swedish and English in a comment I've seen in a very long time. I love it so much.

  3. I understand your aversion to smörgåstårta. It's not everyone's cup of tea. If there's a lot of mayo on it I have a hard time eating it too. It doesn't always sit well in my stomach.

    Haha, yes, the "oooh you're so much bigger since I saw you last when you were a toddler" comment - classic! I think the whole awkward family gathering situation might be pretty universal. Everyone's family is awkward I guess :)

    Why thank you Hairy, the mixing of Swedish and English is how I usually speak. I think languages are best when mixed :)