For the first time in a number of years, this half-breed-Swede is going to be out of town and miss the annual Midsummer Festival in Battery Park City. But I’ll be “skal-ing” on my New Haven visit and just wanted to send some vibes to all of you who are celebrating.
In honor of the day, I’m printing a piece (and a recipe) I wrote some years ago that got me a finalist nod in the Edible Communities Scholarship for the Greenbrier Food Writing Symposium:
In Sweden, where the sun barely shows a ray during winter months of oppressive dark and Artic cold, the summer solstice is celebrated with raucous abandon. Nature’s return to her senses drives Swedes to indulge theirs and they throng to the leafy-green countryside and pristine seashores, to open air fields, parks, and backyards for a feasting, dancing, singing holiday during which the sun—almost literally—never sets.
I was introduced to the glories of Midsummer on a late-June visit to Sweden that happened to coincide with the holiday. My friend Anders invited me to join his extended family in their annual gathering on the Stockholm archipelago—kind of a rustic Swedish Hamptons—for a celebration of nature at its most benevolent.
The roots of Midsummer are firmly planted in paganism. The first order of business for Anders and the other menfolk was to erect an eight-foot-tall birch midsommarstang (Midsummer stock), and wrap it with greenery. While most people are familiar with the European ritual of dancing around the “maypole,” in the far-northern climate of Sweden, celebrating the sun’s warmth on the first of May would just be tempting Odin. The midsommarstang differs in another respect from the maypole—it’s got a crossbar, from which hang two wreaths, entwined with wildflowers, in a more literal symbol of fertility. The assembly frolicked around the pole to a variety of (they told me) ancient tunes. One was about a little jumping froggie, apparently Leif Ericsson’s answer to the French chicken dance. And this before any snaps was poured.
The natural bounty of Midsummer is showcased on the dinner table, and tradition dictates that the feast include new potatoes, herring, snaps, and strawberries with whipped cream.
Brought to Sweden in the 17th century, the humble potato has been a year-round staple of its cuisine ever since. But after a winter of big, tough spuds, the arrival of the small, fresh tubers, in their thin red or golden skins, is an occasion for gratitude. Tasting their fresh young potato flavor, dressed with local butter, salt and dill, I understood how a Swede could get excited over them.
Plentiful in the seas surrounding the country, herring is a perennial staple of Swedish cuisine, and several kinds were offered at my first Midsummer meal—herring in cream sauce, herring in dill, herring with onions, herring in mustard. All showcased the fish without overwhelming them, each was tasty in its own right.
In addition to those Midsummer staples, there was a groaning board of mild, native cheeses, hearty breads, and a variety of meat dishes. The table was set formally, and each adult’s place setting included a shot glass that, I was to learn, was a key element of another ancient custom.
The glass was filled with aquavit or other spirits according to personal preferences. Every five minutes or so during the meal, someone would clink their glass and start singing one of many traditional songs, some said to have originated in Viking times—traditional songs with lyrics like, “Am I drunk on love, or do I love her because I’m drunk?” When done, everyone would raise their shot glass, shout “Skål” while making eye contact with their neighbors (a requirement for a Swedish toast), then down their snaps in one gulp. The glasses were immediately refilled in preparation for the next song. Sipping was strongly discouraged; in fact one of the most popular songs is Helan går, the lyrics of which loosely translate to “If you can’t drink the whole shot, you can’t have half.”
Despite the late hour, the sun was still bright in the sky. As the day’s festivities wound down, coffee was brewed and the strawberry and whipped cream desserts—dozens, it seemed—were set out. Strawberries grew wild in Scandinavia since before Viking times, and have adapted to climates as far north as Lapland. Now cultivated widely in Sweden, Midsummer marks the peak of their season and they have been celebrated along with the holiday for as long as anyone can remember.
Long around eleven p.m. or so, the sun got low enough in the sky to cast a dusky glow over the proceedings, and one of Anders cousins lit a bonfire, but nobody was even close to packing it in. The sky was bright again before we knew it, and the festivities continued. From then on, the days would get shorter and shorter, and the strawberries and new potatoes yielded to the long, harsh winter before they returned anew.
- Choose firm potatoes that are 1-1/2″ – 2″ in diameter.
- 1 1/2 pounds waxy red or yellow new potatoes (approximately 16 – 20 potatoes)
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 tablespoons chopped dill
- Lightly scrub the potatoes with a vegetable brush, enough to take off any dirt, but not enough to do too much damage the thin skin of the potato. One of the beautiful things about new potatoes is that you don’t have to peel them. However, for a more attractive presentation, peel a thin strip all the way around the middle to create a contrasting stripe.
- Place the potatoes in a pot large enough to cover the potatoes completely with water by a couple of inches. Add about a teaspoon of salt to the water and turn the flame on high. Bring the water to boiling and let the potatoes cook for 12 – 15 minutes, then test–you don’t want to overcook them. They’re done when they’re soft throughout, but if you care about presentation, test with a sharp knife, not a dinner fork because its tines will tend to break the small potatoes in half.
- When the potatoes are fully cooked, drain them into a colander. Jiggle the colander to help the potatoes dry a bit. If you’re adding butter, throw it into the hot empty pot and back onto a low flame and swish it around until it melts, then turn off the flame. Add the somewhat dried potatoes back to the pot. Sprinkle the dill over the potatoes, and salt if desired. The potato skins will be a bit loose, so gently toss them to coat with the butter, salt and dill, so as not to wreck the duotone effect.