All of Me

All contents © 2008 Philip Semanchuk.

You have been weighed, and found wanting.
- Daniel 5:27

I sit in sneering judgement of you all. You, wrinkled and puffy with age. Begone before you rot. You, hard and cold as marble, unwilling to soften even under the gentlest caress. You, done up in gaudy colors meant to please me, know that your waxy hues turn my stomach. Your shallow beauty hides but tasteless pulp. And what is with all this lettuce? Why is there so much of it? I sit in sneering contempt of the vegetable section of every grocery store I have seen in Sweden. Puffy peppers, hard tomatoes, dispirited rucola -- you have been weighed, and found wanting.

Pardon my vituperative, but there's nothing whinier than a hungry vegetarian. Ah well, it is an unusual choice I have made and I don't expect the world to cater to it, but it would be refreshing to be served something other than cheese sandwiches. "Aha," I hear you saying, "he expects to be served." I am happy to cook for myself, but the trouble is that for the past two months I haven't had a flat of my own due to an apartment shortage here in Stockholm. My friends have been wonderfully generous with making sure I have a place to stay, but going "home" at the end of a day to see all of my stuff packed in boxes with a blanket in the middle that is my bed, that's just depressing. I avoid it as much as possible, so I eat out. A lot. Which means, as I said, cheese sandwiches. Or worse.

...they fed him with grass like oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven...
- Daniel 5:21 (1)

OK, so I'm spoiled. You probably knew that already, but I need these little reminders every so often. So many simple things have become an integral part of my tastes. For instance, when I first met mustard greens upon moving to North Carolina, I hated them. This noble vegetable had been boiled into abject submission, insulted with vinegar and disgraced with fatback. Then I ate raw Asian mustard greens at the Carrboro Farmer's Market and I was hooked. This market is a collection of vendors of things wonderful and majestic -- watermelons, blueberries, swiss chard, fresh goat cheese, mustard greens. An astronomic gastronomic tonic. This is the benefit of living in an agriculture-friendly climate - everything from apples to zucchini is grown locally.

Or maybe even in your own backyard. Once I laid on my back in my garden and ate a tomato straight off the vine, without picking it. I know now I've had the freshest tomato I can ever have. I'm spoiled. Lying there in the tomato patch, sweat rolling across my forehead, the unforgettable smell of tomato plants - a childhood memory - roiling through my nostrils, bees getting drunk on delicate oregano blossoms, the balsam exploding at my feet...I could have died just then and not noticed, so close was I to Nirvana.

This, then, is the promise of America: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to eat freely(2). And eat we do.

What do you eat? Partly because I am a vegetarian I pay more attention to food than the average person does. Sometimes my interest is born of the same morbid curiosity that leads to gawking at traffic accidents. There are hot dogs here, for instance, in an astounding quantity and variety. You have the plain korv, the grilled korv, the chorizo, the super korv, and the so-called French Hot Dog which my French friends find disgraceful. 7-Eleven advertises a hot dog capped with mounds of white goop that looks like it came out of the business end of a seagull. And then there's the mashed potato and shredded cucumber scoops packed in a pita surrounding two hotdogs that look like a double-barrelled shotgun poking out of a duck blind. I wish I had a digital camera; pictures would speak far louder than my words can.

Hötorgshallen is good for upper class gawking. Its gourmet shops are the only place I can find my beloved black beans, and even mustard greens once in a while. It is also a vegetarian nightmare because of the collection of meat vendors, truly a bazaar of the grotesque. The animal carcass collection reminds me that Sweden might be famous for ABBA, socialized health care and safe automobiles, but Swedes descend from bloodthirsty Vikings with appalling table manners.

If you explore weird food to its logical extreme, you eventually find surströmming. Surströmming is a Scandinavian delicacy, herring that has been lightly salted and then abandonded to the natural and odiferous process of bacterial decay(3). Once left to ferment for several months, it raises the interesting vegetarian question of "At what point of spoilage does meat become a vegetable?" But my exploration has taken me out of the realm of the average -- only some of the Swedes I know have tasted it, and it certainly isn't common. Every culture has its food proclivities to answer to. Did any of you Philadelphians out there had Scrapple(4) for breakfast this morning?

My point is not to ridicule anyone's food. I am just observing how much I eat, how much I have eaten and how much I have taken for granted. What do you eat? Are you eating right now?

As I write, it is 11:30 on a Sunday morning. In the USA I could get breakfast. I could get it even if you take into account the time difference between here and there. Breakfast here is traditionally eaten at home, and by cruel irony often features cheese sandwiches. I was born and raised in the Land of Diners; I have eaten, slept, swept, wept, cooked, washed dishes and waited tables in them. Diners, where every American can pursue his or her God-given right to eat scrambled eggs, bacon and pancakes with syrup at any ridiculous hour of the day or night, mouths yawning to eat freely. Along Route 202 between Pennsylvania and New Jersey there is a diner every couple of miles and once I took a road trip to photograph them all.

Pretzels. This close to Germany and pretzels are almost impossible to find. The pretzels that I can buy, do you know where they're imported from? Lancaster, Pennsylvania, practically next door to where I grew up. Also diner country.

I want Mexican food from a place where the cook speaks Spanish. The Mexican food situation here is so desperate that when I made burritos for my friends, at least one told me it was the first time he's ever had black beans. So now these poor Swedes are running around thinking that my Polish-American black beans and rice somehow relate to the food in Oaxaca.

Here, the cooks mostly speak Swedish. Herman's Trädgårdscafé is proof positive that it is possible to be simultaneously vegetarian, delicious and Swedish. And in the supermarket here, the yogurt kicks ass. Low fat, why bother? I go for the fattest I can find, cross referenced against my tongue's demands for flavor. Strawberry, honey, vanilla, pear, even rhubarb. Knäckebröd, or crisp bread, at first glance looks like something monks would eat if they thought they have not been austere enough. But it turns out to be as varied as the yogurt and possibly as addicting as mustard greens. And the herring is good. Yeah, OK, I admit it. I was on a ship in the middle of the Baltic which limited my restaurant options. I was hungry and I ate it. I felt bad about it and it tasted terrific. There are godis shops all over selling treats straight out of Willy Wonka's imagination. Swedes have raised candy consumption to an art form. (Pass on the salt licorice if anyone offers it to you, though.)

After reading what I wrote before about language(5), my Swedish friend David reminded me of the good part of living in a new culture. "Meet your new friends!" he said of Swedish idioms like "stands proud as a fir" and "smirks like a wolf". My stomach is making new friends too, with the yogurt, with knäckebröd with peanut butter on it.

What are you eating? Because I'm hungry.

 

Footnotes

1. There is considerable debate over the actual translation of this verse, with some scholars preferring the translation "cheese sandwiches" over "grass". [back]

2. With apologies to Emma Lazarus. Please read the inspiring original of New Colossus. [back]

3. An explanation of how to enjoy surströmming. [back]

4. Warning: This description of Scrapple may prove distressing to some, especially former and present Scrapple eaters. We know who we are. Sometimes the truth is not easy to swallow. [back]

5. Språk. [back]