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  • Writer's pictureLinda Gruenberg

Crisp bread and other Swedish Staples

Crisp bread is the most Scandinavian food I know—that and smoked salmon. But crisp bread takes the cake. For one thing, it’s always on the table. A meal cannot go by without crisp bread, but if that is ALL you ate, then you apparently haven’t even eaten. I remember my Swede, Kennet, complaining to me once, saying, “I’m starving; we haven’t eaten all DAY.”

I answered, “But remember? We had crisp bread at Lili-Kajsa’s?”

“That wasn’t FOOD!” he protested.

So crisp bread is the one thing you can’t live without, yet doesn’t count if that’s all you get. What could fit the definition of “staple” more than that?

That brings us back to the salmon. Try smoked sliced salmon on a piece of buttered crisp bread—wow! Good. And you don’t get it only on special occasions. We get salmon a few times a week: cold, smoked, sliced, salted, hot, marinated, baked, you name it.

The American grocery items that are missing here in Lapland aren’t particularly important when it comes down to it, but I have missed them, especially at first. Vanilla, for instance, is hard to come by. I’m talking about regular liquid vanilla in a bottle, imitation or real, the kind hobos used to get drunk on. Instead you can find “vanilla twigs” (is there a bean in there?) or “vanilla powder.” The powder is vanilla-flavored powdered sugar. The twigs come in small plastic packages and look like—well, twigs—and are expensive. Apparently, you soak them in rum and make your own liquid vanilla? I have yet to try.

I once said casually to Kennet that it’s interesting you can’t get boxed cake mixes in Sweden, and he immediately protested. “Of course you can!” he exclaimed.

“But why haven’t I ever seen it in a store?” I asked.

“Because you don’t know where to look!” he assured me.

Had I been overlooking a whole aisle in the grocery store?

So the next time we went to ICA, he tried to prove he was right and I was wrong. We looked in the baking supplies aisle. We searched in the canned goods aisle and the aisle with boxes of pasta, and the aisle that was nothing but various brands, shapes, sizes and degrees-of-crisp crispbread. We searched and finally had to ask the store manager.

“Yes, of course we have box cake mixes,” he answered cheerily.

Kennet gave me that I-won-you-lost look.

The store manager led us back to the baked goods aisle and pointed triumphantly to the two boxes on the bottom shelf next to the flour. “See?” he said. I could choose between brownie mix or carrot cake, both the same brand and apparently the last two remaining—and they’d been there awhile.

I gave Kennet that I-won-you-lost look.

What about Betty Crocker vs Duncan Hines vs Pillsbury vs Ghirardelli vs Krusteaz vs Cadbury vs Jiffy? What about Super Moist vs Moist Deluxe vs Moist Supreme vs Funfetti vs Confetti vs Super Chocolate Fudge, Devils Food, Red Velvet, Dark Chocolate, German Chocolate, Swiss Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, Lemon Supreme, Butter Recipe Yellow, Butter Recipe Golden, Country Carrot, French Vanilla, Classic White, and Classic Yellow? We haven’t even gotten to organic or Gluten Free, small brands like Blue Bird or Greens or the all-important generic. For all practical purposes, Swedes don’t bother with boxed mixes, but maybe that’s because their concept of cake is completely different. Cake in Sweden is thin layers separated by jelly, cream or fruit or all of the above, alternating. I have never met a cake here that is nothing but, well, cake, with frosting on top. The person who introduces it and brings the myriad of choices to the grocery store could get rich (—or not. Maybe there’s a reason those two remaining boxes at ICA had been there awhile?).

Speaking of Swedish staples, we haven’t even gotten to moose, reindeer, pickled herring or Arctic Char, caviar, cloudberries or lingonberries—staples (or luxuries) Swedes couldn’t live without. But I better leave something for next time.

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