The World of Food: Smorgasbord

By Julia Maish |

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A traditional Swedish smörgåsbord

A fair is a veritable schmorgasbord, orgasbord, orgasbord” – Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)

Merriam-Webster defines smorgasbord as “an often large heterogeneous mixture.”

The term, as it relates to food, comes from the Swedish smörgås (open sandwich) + bord (table). Its origins, as described by Kitchn, “are found in the upper class of 14th century Sweden where a small spread of bread, butter, and cheese was offered before mealtime. The smorgasbord grew to include meats, both hot and cold, and at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm it officially became the main meal instead of an appetizer. Its components generally include “herring, salmon, sliced meats, cheeses, boiled vegetables, and breads, while sweets range from fresh berries to pastries to porridge and jams.”

In the early days, this array of food was often accompanied by a brännvinsbord, or “table of spirits.” Guests were offered a selection of clear aquavits/liquors in a variety of flavors – popular were caraway seed, anise, lemon, and others. In the current day, a shot of vodka is standard, especially at the start of a holiday meal. In Finland, schnapps is served, but only with herring.

Finland, by the way, popularized the “coffee buffet,” or what we in the U.S. would call the dessert table. If you were well-to-do, you were expected to provide at least “seven sorts” of pastries, cakes, and/or cookies, along with coffee and tea. (This was likely the Finnish incarnation of British afternoon tea.)

A Swedish smörgåsbord at Albany Park's Tre Kronor

Naturally, the concept of smorgasbord is not limited to Sweden and Finland. Many other countries have their own version of this buffet meal. In Denmark, it is known as koldt bordkoldtbord is its name in Norway; and Icelanders partake of kalt borð or hlaðborð. And in Russia, the equivalent is an appetizer selection, zakuska table.

Where do Chicagoans find a good smorgasbord? Well, Tre Kronor in Albany Park offers an annual holiday spread that often includes lutefisk (aged/salted stockfish treated with lye). And in light of the fact that the Chicago is reputed to be home to the largest Polish population outside of Warsaw, it’s only natural that fans of pierogi, blintzes, dumplings, and potato pancakes will find plentiful Polish smorgasbord restaurants throughout the city. And, of course, there is Valois in Hyde Park, which prides itself on comfort food in the setting of a classic cafeteria. Its motto, fittingly, is “See Your Food.”

Whatever your heritage, and wherever you discover one, smorgasbord instantly conjures up the image of a sumptuous buffet offered in a spirit of warmth and hospitality. And you’d better show up hungry!