This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
An incomplete list of my favorites- I set the timer on 30 minutes to sift through my photos (makes me realize why I take them- Schwa, Ruxbin, Blackbird's dinner menu are absent because I didn't take any) and here is what I picked.
@home: lingonberry(frozen w/ no sugar/crap added from Erickson's Delicatessen & Fish), seaweed (Seasnax), reindeer pate (Smoking Goose Meatery), and buckwheat pancake (buckwheat from Chicago winter Greenmarket, soured in sour cream for a day, mixed with egg, cooked in butter)
@home: chestnut flour (Chicago greenmarket)-battered smelt with sambel oelek aioli
@Hotel Lloyd in Amsterdam: a dinner of caraway gouda, fresh lettuce, pomme frites, mint tea, and sweetbreads
also their cheesy/beefy/quark coffee delicious breakfast
@Dahlgren's in Stockholm PERFECTLY cooked local lamb on earthy rye
@Frantzen/Lindeberg in Stockholm: raw beef tartare from an older dairy cow with SO much flavor, smoked eel, creamy bleak roe
@Publican in Chicago cooked by Chris Cosentino of Incanto in SF: noodles made with pig skin
Pork belly egg buns with sardine katsuobushi from my friends Nick and Shannon
@One Sister (now Elizabeth): oyster, mushrooms, meringues
Pork belly with sour cherries and herbs, cooked with "ancient roman" spice blend (cumin, coriander, black pepper, fish sauce, etc.)
@Next Sicily The most perfect tiny bit of handmade pasta with bottarga (fermented fish roe)
@Blackbird fluke with sea beans (soo deliciously oceanic) and lardo
Fantastic SE Asian food at SM Underground here in Chicago. Didn't get great pics, but the chicken curry wrapped in banana leaves was amazing.
Almost everything I ate at Vera (I eat their often since it's next to my office)- like this perfect spicy blood sausage hidden under these eggs, the skewers of tongue and octopus, and the divine uni deviled eggs
Seafood sausage at Saigon Sisters: I was skeptical, but it was just the right amount of fishy balanced with perfect curry spices and kaffir lime leaves
Another Asian-style sausage was this bone marrow sausage that used squid as a casing at Embeya. Every part was perfectly cooked, a feat considering that squid seems to overcook easily.
The absolutely perfect gravlax wrapped in turnip at Elizabeth. Salmon tasted completely balanced with the herbal notes.
Warabi Mochi at Next. I'd always wanted to try this mochi, made with earthy brown bracken starch. It was a little pillow of pleasure. I also loved the matcha. The sweetfish/ayu on the menu were also a revelation- their flesh really was sweet in just the right way.
Fish and custard? Who but Doctor Who would have ever thought this could work, but it did at Elizabeth, where I was served a Loup De Mer (Branzino) dish with just the right amount of terrestic custardy sunchoke and apple cider vinegar
The crispy duck heart hash at Au Cheval is the dish that made me like breakfast again, even though Au Cheval isn't open for that meal except on weekends. The crispy potatoes, creamy cheese, fatty gravy with bits of mineralistic duck heart, flecks of chives, and crowned with a perfectly cooked egg, yolk just waiting to be popped so it can join the fatty party.
No really, this is a bowl of new potatoes covered in autumn leaves at the Publican book release dinner for Faviken. But the potatoes are perfectly cooked and the summer butter you dip them in reminds you that simple foods can be absolutely perfect.
Everything I ate in Montreal was incredible, but I'll never forget this duck fat poutine at Au Pied Du Couchon
The silky beef tartare served by Thurk
More pork skin noodles, this time in a "Pad Thai" at the Trencherman's brunch that was actually more like a ramen down to the savory salty broth
Sweet potato with torched marshmallow ice cream from Jeni's was as good as it sounded...except better in every way. Better than the real thing. Grass-fed milk too and no weird gums or anything like that.
Senza's (the GOOD gluten-free restaurant) playful itty bitty cup of chicory "coffee" and flourless dark chocolate brownie with tiny marshmallows served at the end of the meal
The lardcore grits and cornbread at Carriage House, as well as the pimento cheese...I never had good memories of that stuff, but they make it with good ingredients and it is TASTY
My own simple lard-pastry buckwheat mini-mincemeat pies meat with real suet and some roadkill deer someone gave me
The boyfriend's perfect chicken ballantine stuffed with pork sausage, mushrooms, walnuts and arugula :)
Well, time's up, sure I missed a lot, but the whole point is that I ate well this year. If I can eat this well next year...life will be good.
It's amazing for me to think that it was 2008, the year when I lived in Sweden, when Magnus Nilsson was getting his little restaurant in the North of Sweden off the ground. That so much has changed since then, not just for me, but for the entire idea of Swedish food.
Perhaps it is because Swedish is a small country, that a relatively small food movement can have an impact the way it has there. Back when I moved there, traditional Swedish food was considered an austere thing fit only for pensioners eating brown bland things while staring off into the dark Nordic rain. As Jonathan Gold, a food critic I otherwise respect very much, said in a recent interview:
JG: Look at Europe, for example. You have the land of plenty—in the low country, plenty of meat and cheese—it’s the cuisine of abundance, and it’s boring. Guys like [René] Redzepi are making huge inroads in Nordic cuisine, but the cuisine of southern Sweden is, like, giant portions of meat and gluey gravy eaten in complete silence in ten minutes.
But how wrong! And unfair!
First, Sweden has a long tough history, one of poverty and famine. In my archeology seminar there, we saw the remains of peasant houses, built before the potato arrived there, with huge cellars for turnips and rutabagas. The people's bones were gnarled from malnutrition, their whole lives surrounded by nutritious game that they were forbidden to kill, as it belonged to the king. Many traditional Swedish foods are just scrap meat extended with scraps of bread bread or potato starch. Many traditional sausages, and the famous meatballs, are often more bread than meat.
But there are gems in Swedish cuisine, though most often they have not been available to the average visitor. Husmanskost, the traditional Swedish food, is hard to find in a restaurant. There isn't much of a culture of eating out, it is something special, and until recently, nice restaurants were completely dominated by French and other foreign styles of cooking. To a visitor, the experience of Swedish cuisine, which is characterized by foraging and cooking at home, was largely very remote. IKEA's food, which while satisfying on a long shopping trip, is a bland caricature made with industrial crud livened up with a dash of real lingonberries adulterated with sugar. It hasn't done much to enlighten.
And then there is the fact that a lot of it relies on ingredients that are not going to show up in Ikea anytime soon.
In retrospect, it was only a matter of time. Swedish dairy is the best I've ever tasted, and yes, I've been to Switzerland. Herbicides are forbidden in woods, so foraging for plants like mushrooms and berries is widespread. It is legal to serve hunted meat in restaurants. And the flavors that have been alienating to many foreigners in the past, the funky fermented ones, are now fairly trendy.
When I lived there, there was already another movement afoot, which was the low-carb high fat (LCHF) diet, popularized by doctors like Annika Dahlqvist. Even within a year, "old fashioned" high-fat foods were becoming easier and easier to find, a rebellion against the reign of the insipid virtueless canola oil which had wormed itself into all manner of foods.
Living in Sweden was my chance to do something I'd always wanted, but never had the guts to do, which is to walk around forests and eat things growing there. In America this is considered insane, particularly when it comes to mushrooms. Mere children in Sweden forage for mushrooms, but the idea of me harvesting them as an adult woman who has taken mycology classes at university makes some of my more urban relatives a little upset. I was at a park earlier this year with a friend and I reached into a tree as we walked by and grabbed a handful of mulberries.
"You are really going to eat those?" my friend said.
"Yeah, they are mulberries" I replied
"Are you really sure? I mean they could be ANYTHING!!!"
"Um, yeah, I think I'll be OK"
The comments on Reader's excellent article on Chicago Chef Iliana Regan, who is perhaps the person most similar to Magnus here are pretty telling, with many commenters dismayed at the idea that people would serve foraged food in a restaurant, even incorrectly stating that foraged food is illegal to serve.
Reminds me of this essay on poisonous plants
Of course, it isn’t true, but the fear of wild plants runs very deep in Western civilization. While it certainly is true that people can poison themselves with wild vegetation, the fear that we attribute to plants is monstrously out of proportion with the actual danger they pose. Like many profound and unexamined fears, this one breeds irrationality, causing many people to suspend all logic and refuse to participate in rational discourse...
Our culture is spellbound and beguiled by the story of someone mistaking a poisonous plant for an edible one and dying from the error. It is a magnetic motif with a suite of admonitions that we find economically and socially useful: don’t stray too far from the beaten path; what civilization has given you is better than you realize; Nature cannot be trusted; be normal and live a predictable life of routine. These messages are compelling when a torturous death is presented as the cost of disregarding them.
Of course there are some wild edibles that are a bit dangerous since they resemble a few poisonous plants, but mulberries are not one of them in Illinois. With attitudes like this it is amazing the human species existed for most of its history eating wild plants every single day. I've had similar experiences discussing butchery. It if were really rocket science, we wouldn't exist. Butchering small game and deer is not difficult.
Not only that, in America, landscapers plant sterile fruit trees so we can enjoy the blossoms without all the "inconvenience" of fruit. In the Autumn in Uppsala, an apple or a plum was a convenient snack found in nearly every roadway or park. And since herbicides are forbidden in forests and there is a "right to roam," wild foods are accessible to all.
My roommates thought I was strange because I really was very interested in the very old foods. To be honest, not all of them are good. The liver pate I had is only good if you stack butter on it an inch deep. It seems to be mainly flour anyway. Many of the cheeses are a bit boring. Mucous-like fermented milk known långfil might still be a hard sell even among fermented food lovers, though I find it a bit fun to eat. I'm not really crazy about falukorv, the ubiquitous fairly flavorless cheap sausage. Falukorv comes from the legacy of poverty and industrialization, in general the best, the foods that make up the Scandinavia's terroir, are from a time much longer ago, that I fell in love with when I read Sigrid Undset's novels about the Middle Age farms nestled within forests and mountains.
“It’s good when you don’t dare do something that doesn’t seem right,” said Fru Aashild with a little laugh. “But it’s not so good if you think something isn’t right because you don’t dare do it.”- Kristin Lavransdatter
Magnus' work is considered by many to be modernist, and in its plating perhaps it is and the perfectionism is very classically French, but it is profoundly conservative at its core, hearkening back to those times. When I met him during his book tour at Publican here in Chicago, it was as it he had walked right out of the pages of Undset's Kristin Lavransdattar. The core ingredients would have been recognizable to the people in those books and even to the people living in Sweden before the advent of agriculture and later, Christianity. It is fitting that he starts his first chapter with a Norse legend.
Much has been written about Noma, but Noma really is a modernist restaurant, utilizing the region's terroir to great affect, but creating very globalized concoctions. To contrast, many of the techniques and recipes in Faviken, Magnus' new cookbook, would be familiar to his great grandparents. For example, messmor, a caramelized fatty spread made from whey, or calvdans (Calf's dance), an extremely rich creme brulee of sorts made with colostrum, the first milk of a cow after birthing a calf. These are old country foods. Or even really his great^24 grandparents. For all the papers on starch granules on Neanderthal teeth, who is actually bothering to gather these foods? Wild legumes for example, how many of you have even thought of these? It's not like agricultural foods came from nowhere, there is strong evidence their ancestors were utilized in the wild seasonally in small amounts long before the first farmers. Magnus uses them in several recipes, precious morsels, hard to gather, paired with things like raw or lightly steamed sea creatures.
There is a tendency to think of those people in that long ago past as being utilitarian creatures, only thinking of the basics of food, reproduction, and shelter. Forgetting that these peoples stretched across the world, thousands of tribes we will never know. As striking as the diversity is between different foraging people now, that is but a small fraction of what was then. It has become clear that their paintings and sculptures and possibly texture arts were finely honed and painstaking, requiring much devotion to craft. It's hard to imagine food was immune from this. Bits of yarrow and chamomile found on Neanderthal teeth, were they medicine as speculated by the archeologists or could they have been flavorings? If gathering food was so much of your life, how could flavor be something you could not consider? Could not turn into an art? These are chefs we will never know. Some puritans consider the art of food a decadence, but the delights we now enjoy on that front, are a product of millions of years of evolution, they are not trivial at all.
Magnus is a hunter, and his restaurant features his game. Having worked in local food infrastructure for some time now, I think he also personifies the kind of chef that a farmer would love to work with, the one who doesn't just write out his menus a month in advice and call the farmer looking for 30 grass-fed tenderloins, which of course is an impossible order for a small farmer to fill, and ends up buying his items labeled "grass-fed' from unspecific farms from some food service distributor. I find a lot of these restaurants end up emphasizing toppings on burgers more than the actual meat itself, which is often fairly mediocre in flavor.
Magnus cut ties from his food distributor and does his own butchery, buying whole animals from small farms he works closely with because he recognizes that each animal has its own what I would call micro-terroir, it's life story written into every sinew, bone, and streak of fat. I remember when my family bought our herd, some folks told me that a lot of the cows I owned were useless as meat because they were older than a year. Thankfully we started working with a more knowledgeable meat processor, AKA someone who actually likes meat for meat, like Magnus appreciating the grassy, the gamey, the earthy. The pictures of meat in Faviken look like blood oranges, a depth of ruby red that comes from an animal that has roamed the pastures and forests of Northern Sweden. Magnus explains in his book that he prefers older dairy cows because of their deeper more complex flavor which he enhances through dry aging. According to him, this meat has real marbling caused by the use of the muscles as the cow ages, interspersing it with fat, whereas corn-finished young cattle marbling "is just blubber."
Faviken is unfortunately quite remote and I didn't make it there when I last was in Sweden earlier this year, but I did eat at Frantzen/Lindeberg, which is certainly influenced by Faviken's style. One of the dishes I had was a tartare made with meat from a 7-year-old dairy cow named Stina, topped with tallow. It was a dish I certainly won't forget. I was reading a discussion online today about buying grass-fed meat from Target and using it to make tartare. It was labeled comes from "farms." Which farms? Which cows? Which butcher ground the beef? When was it ground? When I eat raw meat, these are things I like to know. These are things that affect my trust, as well as the flavor, especially given the drought this season, which causing some farmers to cull cattle that would normally be sent to a feedlot and fattened on corn. What I've learned is that cattle lines that have been breed for feedlot finishing are not the same cattle that finish well on grass, if they are finished at all. I wasn't aware until my family opened our farm that a grass-fed cow should be finished for optimal flavor and texture as well. I learned this the hard way, after one bull that we didn't finish ended up being maddeningly inconsistent in terms of flavors. Once we started finishing, the meat had better flavor in general and was more consistent.
It is a bit strange for Magnus to have a cookbook, given how tied his work is to the very specific part of Sweden where he lives and works. But I see the Faviken Cookbook as more more a style guide to Rektún mat- "real food" in all its glorious anachronistic devotion to specific farms, specific lands, specific trees, specific places. It is easy to dismiss this as being just the style of food for a fancy restaurants, but few restaurants achieve this style to any meaningful extent, yet I met many people of varying backgrounds that manage to eat this way for every day and for every meal. Maybe not in the intricate manner of some of the recipes in the book, but in the overall approach to sourcing and appreciating food.
Dry-aged grass-fed tartare using McEwen Farms beef with fresh sourdough and brown butter from Thurk, a pop-up restaurant I've been hosting
Louise McCready Hart: Your philosophy about food is called Rektún mat.
Magnus Nilsson: It means real food. It is something my grandfather used to say when I grew up and it has so much meaning to me.
LMH: In the US, different organizations talk about real food as in not processed, not manipulated.
MN: It's food from the surroundings, from the farm and the earth.
LMH: I like your idea for a drivers' license equivalent for meat-eaters for which the test would be raising and getting to know the animal before killing and eating it.
MN: I think that would make a huge difference.
That's always been my own aim when buying food, to really know and understand where it comes from and cultivate a relationship and knowledge in every step. And why I started Meatshare, for example, to be able to do that in a way that is actually often more affordable than buying green-washed products from a supermarket that are divorced from context. The more I buy this way, the more passionate I become about it and it's one of the reasons I've avoided turning the concept into a "startup" where I would be forced to cut corners, instead of growing slowly and learning carefully as I go. Reminds me of this blog post from a farmer:
In the past year, we have been contacted by nubile entrepreneurs who have launched websites to connect farm products to customers. Except for one or two who are owned or managed by people who understand food and farming, most of the sites are run by twenty-something foodies who don’t know the difference between a rib or riblet and have never heard of rillette, confit or other meat goodies. And they are clueless about seasonality of food, inventory control, shipping and distribution. The only thing they have going for them is decent marketing and a snazzy website. I decline their offers to sell our products because we prefer to sell directly to consumers at the farmers markets and our farm store. We want to shake the hand of the person who cooks and eats our food. We enjoy face to face discussions about recipes, cuts of meat and sharing educational tidbits such as getting the tenderloin from the pig or loin chops but not both unless it is a mutant pig...While we applaud entrepreneurs, we think that food site managers need some education. They need to learn meat cuts, the seasons in which meat is available. Ideally they need to spend some time on the farm docking lamb tails, castrating rams and dealing with livestock mauled by coyotes and neighbor dogs. Perhaps then they’ve earned the credentials to sell my leg of lamb. If they pick it up at the farmers market and ship it themselves of course!
Unfortunately, I haven't encountered many meat-related startups that don't cut corners. I can't completely blame them though. You are working within a system created by monopolies and government regulations that makes it very difficult not to if you want to generate a fast-growing nationwide business. Sometimes I wonder if there is room to care about much of anything, much less the life and death matters at the core of this, in such a system? During this election season, I mused on what it really might mean to be a conservative, to want to conserve the good in the old ways as you move forward, and how little of that I see in those politicians that call themselves conservatives, besides that which is very shallow and easy, or even profitable, for those who live for that profit to follow.
The skinny waterfalls, footpaths
wandering out of heaven, strike
the cliffside, leap, and shudder off.
Somewhere behind me
a small fire goes on flaring in the rain, in the desolate ashes.
No matter, now, whom it was built for,
it keeps its flames,
everyone who might shay into its radiance,
a tree, a lost animal, the stones,
because in the dying world it was set burning.- from Lastness by Galway Kinnell
In contrast, I can work with really small farmers and hopefully come up with methods that work on that scale. It's interesting to compare Faviken to some of the farm/restaurant collaborations I've seen here. Unfortunately, most use poultry currently in a way that is modern and I feel is unsustainable for a farm that wants to be truly self-sufficient. First, they must rely on commercial hatcheries, which many feel, quite rightly, are a source of cruelty, because they do not breed their own line of chickens. Secondly, the breed they use is the Cornish Cross, which is a type of chicken that can't really free range because it is so deformed since it has been bred for that large insipid breast meat that has unfortunately become so popular. Contrast that with the chickens Magnus uses, slow-growing dual-use hardy Brahma.
Modern poultry farming is, with very few exceptions (at least in Scandinavia), a sad state of affairs with the fast-growing unhealthy birds deprived of the opportunity to pursue even some of their most basic instincts. Most of the animals, which are merely a tool for production of cheap meat, are no more than a few weeks old when they are slaughtered, having never set foot outside the coop in which they grew up. For some time after that experience, I didn't serve chicken or any other farmed poultry. At least not until I met Mr Duck, our poultry supplier. He is a man to whom I am very grateful for changing my views on poultry farming. For the last couple of years we have been developing our own breeding program, one that came about because of Mr Duck's sound philosophy of keeping poultry, and the fact that we couldn't find the quality we wanted any other way. Healthy, slow-growing birds, which live a happy life with plenty of outside space, good food and someone to care for them properly will produce better meat than most of what is served in restaurants...Our hens are fed a mixture of different cereals (mostly crushed barley) and kitchen scraps. They are never given anything to eat that would not be fit to serve a human. Commercial bird feed is strictly banned, as are cereals not native to our part of the world, such as soybeans and corn. We apply a very careful selective breeding program so that the birds stay the way we want them, generation after generation. Any bird that does not fully share the characteristics of our breeding stock immediately becomes part of a different stock. - Magnus
I think this book is rather useful for farmers who want to really do things in a traditional self-sufficient manner. I have it next to my set of other farming books, which includes that which inspires, as well as practical tomes. It is next to my Wendell Berry book of poetry and other volumes of farm poetry that serve to remind me and inspire me;
Like a man, the farm is headed
for the woods. the wild
is already veined in it
everywhere, its thriving.
To love these things one did not
intend to is to be a friend
to the beginning and the end.
- Wendell Berry, Work Song
I also hope it influences chefs. Even some really innovative chefs I know have set menus. And I see way too many "sustainable" restaurants that have just one set menu item, such as the now-ubiquitous natural/grass-fed burger place that typically sources from very large middleman and covers up the low-quality with all manner of elaborate toppings. They ask for products that fit their menus, rather than asking what the land and the season provides and shaping their menus for that, as Magnus and his chef friend, Sean Brock, of South Carolina. If Sean Brock came out with a cookbook, I'd definitely also have to add it to this shelf, as he has been so instrumental in bringing back old Southern foodways.
Brock and his chef de cuisine, Travis Grimes, rewrite the menu at Husk every day, based on whatever arrives in the kitchen that morning. The food comes to the table in cast-iron pans and on carved wooden platters, the savory dishes paired with acidic sides: raw oysters and pickled ramps, rattlesnake beans with buttermilk sauce, sorghum-fried green tomatoes with goat cheese and wild peaches. "It's just a sea of plates all the time," Brock said. This is how Sunday dinner was eaten at his grandmother's house. You took a bite of biscuit, a bite of banana pepper, a bite of creamed corn, each taste enhancing the next, each ingredient given its proper attention.- True Grit, The New Yorker
An editorial in the Times today lamented that those who might be interested otherwise in "art" have devoted their energies to food, explaining "meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things." That is difficult for me to swallow, having felt upon this journey here, sorrow, anger, sadness, a deeper connection with something I felt was missing from my life for a long time, since I was a young girl in yellow boots clambering upon miles of creek land and pine forests in Georgia, some of which now is gone.
I remember once I found a bird, a woodpecker dying upon the brown pine needles, perhaps of age, or of accident. I didn't want it to die, so I brought it home in a box, hoping the next day my family could take it to the nature center. But in the morning it was gone. We buried it in a red clay ground, as we dug the soil clamored with black beetles and little pink worms, waiting there for their meals. I don't think things like this happen on the concrete playgrounds where later, as a young college student, I took my young charges to "play" beset with rules. They eat the food of death, which is all food, but do not think about death in their sterile playpens.
I remembered the bird when I was in Budapest, and by some enormous luck there was an El Greco exhibition there, paintings of radiant gloom and pathos, as if every story he portrayed was in an underground grotto only lit by pale cloudlight. The wings of angels like the wings of the birds I had known, that bird, and others I would know. Of living and dead commingled. Not all flavors I like are those of joy or delight. My favorite tea, after all, a puer'h of ancient leaves, so polarizing in its flavors of the leaves on the forest floor after many rains. There are other puer'h teas I own that taste like the bottom of the ocean. I think it makes people uncomfortable in the way that occurs when someone leaves the head or the feet on a bird served to eat. It functions as a Memento mori, all things that live must also die. For me, all these things are intertwined.
Et in Arcadia ego- even in the idyllic world, death is there
It's also, I think, easy for those who are older to miss the facts of the days, that things are not going very well for "the lost generation" and many who would have otherwise been painters, writers, or musicians out of necessity are working in food. It is only natural that they would want to transform it into art. There is also an apocalyptic mood, a sense that the world is in decline, that is fostered in my own life by a general atmosphere of decay both in the city and in the place I grew up, where infrastructure is crumbling and housing prices have declined precipitously. I think that makes young people want to learn things that might come in need if the decline continues- butchery, hunting, growing your own food, basic survival skills if the world goes to hell.
When I was young I wandered the back fences where the honeysuckle grew. I've been many places, but never had a dessert as sweet as that I found when I pulled out the stamens. Each flower a different fragrant floral dust of sugar upon my tongue. I remembered that reading this book, I remembered fondly those days that will never be again.
The quartet also bears the subtitle 'Under the Ancient Maple Tree'. Hovhaness remarked about this quartet: There grew a "Marvelous tree on my uncle's farm in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, where I had many happy times. From under its branches were spectacular views in every direction. Later, lightning struck the tree and destroyed it. This piece is my memorial to that beautiful tree."
Something very strange happened to me recently. It was almost as I if was reenacting 2008. It's hard to believe it's been that long, that it's 2012 now and it's been nearly 4 years ago since I hopped on that plane to Stockholm, Sweden. I remember that day very well because that morning I woke up with my eyes all red and very obviously infected. What bad luck. Can you get an eye infection from crying? Because I admit I had been crying. He was going to Hong Kong and I was going to Sweden and he said there was no way we could continue our relationship over those distances. I rushed to the doctor to get antibiotic eye drops and got on that plane. In the distorted half-dreamlike world of my first jetlag and trying to get my legs in a strange country, thankfully heartbreak passes quickly.
Months later he would ask me to come back with him, but I had fallen in love again and I couldn't accept. I had fallen in love with Sweden and I wasn't going back to the dreary plains of Central Illinois. Not for anyone in the entire world.
I lived in a big red house and had a big room. It was a room of my own, which was a huge luxury to me coming from the standard American college dorms. It had big windows so I could so easily track the dramatic death and re-birth of the sun that occurs in such northern latitudes. The kitchen was quite big and there was plenty of room for everything I wanted. It was in that kitchen that I really learned how to cook.
The month I moved there, August, is perhaps the best month to be there. The sun is still lively and sets late, the temperature ideal, and the woods and gardens full of bright juicy berries and apples. I would fill my bicycle basket with every type of apple you could possibly imagine from the Apple Genetics Garden, some tiny and bright red, others that looked average, but had pale pink flesh. And I would bike home through the woods, home to make an apple crisp or some other delicious home-baked treat.
one of the pictures I took in my first days in Sweden
Later I would also live in Stockholm with someone I loved, in one of the tallest buildings in the entire city, where I could watch over it, red, pale pink, and muted yellow. I thought for a time that I would give up my country and my language to live forever in Sweden with him.
When that dissolved, for a long time afterwards I would have intermittent regrets. Particularly when things weren't going so well. Our time together gained a mythical romantic veneer. It wasn't even about him anymore, it became about this entire country, this beautiful perfect life there I wanted back. Except it never existed. Looking through my photo albums, perhaps I predicted that this would happen. There is one photo of Vaksala Torg in Uppsala, taken in February. The muggy sky casts its gloom over a pile of dirty snow. Distant people passing by are looking at the ground. Why would I take such a picture? I remembered then that I had taken it remind myself how much I hated it there at that moment. That I was lonely, unhappy, alienated, and bored then, just as I would be many times after I left.
But it was never that which I thought about when I took the daily journey in the subway, feeling like I was buried between concrete walls. It was the woods, the gardens, the red houses, the Fyris river, Lake Mälaren, and the magnitude and depth of winter there- dark, fresh pure snowfall, with candles in the windows of nearly every house.
But the fact that I knew this wasn't the whole reality of life there was perhaps at the core of why I didn't go back, why I put it off for years. But this year my sister decided to study in Uppsala too, so I wanted to visit her.
On the plane I hoped to sleep, but the man next to me was a giant and kept poking me with his elbow every time he moved. I watched the 2002 version of Solaris, in which people are pulled in and tormented by old memories made flesh by some incomprehensible extraterrestrial life form.
Perhaps it was perfect that I didn't think about the dates of my trip very well and I ended up in Uppsala for Valborg, the quasi-pagan May Day celebration turned drinking binge that engulfs the city for days. I was less than enthusiastic about this, having experienced my first real hangover only a few weeks earlier. I thought I was some kind of immune mutant, but I was wrong. I am still amazed that there are people who tolerate having such a headache every weekend. I was more enthusiastic about fika, the national coffee/pastry past time. Something hilarious has happened on the Wikipedia article for fika:
In contemporary Sweden, where a significant percentage of the population is on LCHF (Low Carb High Fat) or similar carbohydrate restricted diet, you may nowadays be better of staying away from the sweet things altogether; a cheese tray may be preferred, and the traditional "seven kinds of cookies" would probably be perceived with suspicion or almost as offensive.
I certainly didn't notice that and enjoyed my terrible murky sludge-like coffee and Kanelbuller, a cinnamon roll that's actually not too sweet, but wasn't as good as I remembered.
A "fika" at Ofvandahls
I do think LCHF has had an influence on the country though because quite-excellent high-fat dairy products are available everywhere, a far cry from my recent trip to Florida where I had to go to several grocery stores to get anything decent. I stocked my sister's fridge with my beloved gammaldags mjölk (old-fashioned milk), which can be as high as 4.5% fat. It's like drinking ice cream. But better. It tastes fresh and creamy and like spring grasses. I've been many places, even Switzerland where I drank raw milk, but no milk is better than that.
However, sitting there in the cafe, I realized that it wasn't as fun as I remembered. Neither was drinking champagne at 9 AM while sitting out by the river waiting for the so-called Valborg raft race. The rafts are quite amusing, there was a Dr. Who one with the weeping angels and at least two Nintendo rafts. However, it was not a race by any means. The rafts lined up, as well as they could being made of foam and piloted by drunken people, and queued to go down the falls. Divers were standing by for the inevitable raft collapses.
I visited my old home. It looked the same, but it wasn't home anymore. I could see silhouettes of strange people inside. It reminded me of the time I went back to my childhood home. It felt strange to see someone else's cars and decorations all over it. Now, as in then, I choose not to linger. There was nothing left for me there. Everyone I knew was gone. What can you do in such a place, but stand awkwardly? It's less useful for remembering than a photograph. I didn't want to take any now. I didn't want any pictures of this place that wasn't home anymore.
Back when it was home
I also spent some time at my old student nation, Kalmar, which is certainly much nicer than the places where most students in the US hang out. You can join which ever of the thirteen nations you want to and each has a pub, a cafe, a restaurant, a small amount of housing and often hosts balls, fancy dinners (called gasques), clubs, and sometimes plays/concerts/other arts events. They are run a little like the infamous Park Slope Co-op in NYC though, which is that you have volunteers doing everything. Want to be a chef? Just sign up for this list and now you are tonight's chef. Same for baker, waitress, bartending, and just about any type of staffing job. I was a waitress for a brief time, but I was a terrible waitress to say the least. That's how it is when things are run by volunteers. They work OK and are sometimes awesome... sometimes.
Other times it is nice to eat go somewhere and eat something made by an actual chef. Which is exactly what we ate in Stockholm. Back when I lived there, these we places I looked into from the outside, dreaming of the day when I might go to them. So the Stockholm that we went to was a new one to me.
After a morning filled with drinking increasingly bad coffee and eating pastries (I was well-stocked with Pearls IC, gluten-ease, and super enzymes). we went to Dahlgren's Matbaren for lunch. We sat the bar so we could talk with the people who worked there and see the kitchen, where it looked like they were breaking down a lamb and making delicious looking sauces from scratch. We had some incredible bright-yellow butter on home-made Knäckebröd. The fried sole I had was perfect, surrounded by crisp early spring vegetables that I dipped in a lemony dill aioli. My sister's lamb on rye was even better though. The lamb was cooked absolutely perfectly and had a wonderful balance of fat and succulent savory meat.
Our waitress, Jessica, was from Australia and we talked about how different Swedish lamb tastes compared to earthier grassier lamb from her home country. Our meal was filling, almost too filling, and we made the mistake of ordering a plum sorbet, not knowing that we would be presented with a basket of buttery perfect madeleines and peanut-chocolate fudge.
Later we wandered through Skansen, a historical park of sorts where we witnessed some pony and jug-bashing ritual we didn't understand and gaped at various otters and bears. Later that night I took my sister Frantzén/Lindeberg for her birthday, one of Stockholm's Michelin-starred restaurants. I had wanted to try New Nordic cuisine for some time. Of course I tried to go to Noma, but as far as I know, 10,000 other people were also on the waiting list.
Unfortunately, when we started the meal I was still quite full from lunch, which augured poorly for my performance as a gastronome. The meal there also started out uncharacteristically heavy. Even the amuse bouches were a two-punch of onion and liver. Either way, I started feeling kind of overwhelmed by the richness of the dishes. The oyster with cream didn't help much. When a chunk of bone marrow came out, unadorned with anything that would cut the overwhelming fattiness, and in fact covered in caviar. It seemed like everything in the restaurant so far was drenched in it. It reminded me of this one time I thought I got such a good deal on ikura and I ordered more than I could handle, forcing all my friends and my then-boyfriend to endure it in every dish to the point where everyone was annoyed by it. First world problems. But it seems quite common in Sweden, where they sell caviar in a tube so you can squeeze it onto everything, though I can't say it's good caviar and is unfortunately adulterated with a variety of other junk including rapeseed oil.
Then there was a memorable tartare, which they seared with a blow torch next to the table and then dressed with tallow that they said was from an 11-year old dairy cow named Stina (!?), as well as smoked eel and more caviar.
Beef tartare with strong flavored tallow from an older dairy cow + eel + bleak roe + smoked eel
The cow thing took us into "Portlandia" territory, reminding me it is very strange to be in a country where nearly all the young would be classified as hipsters by most Americans and where I feel quite unstylish and clunky. However, none of them were there dining at the restaurant with us. The crowd there was decidedly older. I understand the price deters many young people, but in Chicago you do find twenty-somethings at restaurants like Next. Perhaps this was a testament to youth unemployment or to the fact that Sweden doesn't have much of a "dining out" culture. Indeed, nearly all my old Swedish friends I reconnected with did not have jobs, despite being older than me. The music the restaurant played seemed like it was for young people that just weren't there.
Land of Feeling by Here We Go Magic: A song from the restaurant I've become quite addicted to
Another song from the playlist: Beach House- Norway, a favorite of mine
The tartare was delicious and I knew it, but I couldn't finish it. This never happens to me. I was worried. Then they brought out bread. It was sourdough that had been fermented for three days. With rich hand-churned fresh butter. God, it was incredible, but I knew that if I had more than a sliver, I would not be able to finish the meal. There was also a salad that contained every possible local in-season vegetable you could possibly dream of, a dazzling array of morels, cow-parsley, celeriac, salsify and thirty-seven other ingredients, drizzled with butter. Amazing, but over-stimulating in every way possible, though less so than this really ridiculous lamb dish I had at Alinea recently.
But then I was refreshed by a dish that was possibly that greatest that I have ever tasted, though it was not the most photogenic. Turbot baked slowly for 4 hours with white asparagus and a sauce of pine, lemongrass, and mint. The fish was like silk and it melted in my mouth like white chocolate. As did the asparagus, adorned like a snowy Christmas tree with the flavors of forests. It was absolutely perfect. I used to not appreciate fish much, but these days I think I have been converted. It prepared me for a dish of chicken with something ominously delicious called "chicken butter" which seemed like a mixture of chicken fat and butter. I've also never had cock's comb before and I was pleasantly surprised that it just tasted mainly like fat.
Later the sous-chef, Jim Löfdahl, took us inside the kitchen, which was surprisingly tiny. The music made sense then. It was the music for the people who worked there, chefs, sous-chefs, and cooks all young and handsome. Jim told us that the band Miike Snow, who are fans of the restaurant, put together their playlist for the night.
The next day we flew to Amsterdam on a whim. I don't really know why. To visit my friend Rosanne and to not linger too much in Sweden perhaps? We stayed at a very self-consciously hipster hotel called Lloyd Hotel. It's not just a hotel, it's a "cultural embassy." It really was even more strange than I imagined. The "lobby" for example is a series of lofts. One of them had a "forest" of words with a blood-stained carpet. Another on top of that was filled with strange patchwork chairs, but mostly with a rug that looked like the swamp thing, though on the last day we noticed that loft had been furnished with a large strange dining table with places set up for thirty. Climbing up though the lofts, I started to get vertigo and worry a little. Our room was at the top. I only really care about food, so I had chosen the "1 star" room. The hotel has rooms of every star value and it's up to you to chose your poison. Our room reminded me of the time when I was little and I thought the house was going to be robbed, so I hid in the bathroom and I wondered if maybe I would have to live there forever. Also it was a bit like a mental institution, but thankfully the beds were very comfortable.
Dutch people are very tall and it seemed the designers there had purposefully designed everything in the hotel so I couldn't reach it. Luckily everything bad about the this room was made up for by the restaurant, which served me an epic meal of fried cheese, regular gouda cheese, crispy lettuce, fresh mint tea, pomme frites, and sweetbreads. I am very against hotel food, but this was very good. I also fell prey to the breakfast buffet. It's not easy to find good breakfast food in Amsterdam. My friend Rosanne said this was a meal people eat at home. But Lloyd Hotel had an admirable spread of good coffee, LOTS of delicious dutch cheeses, bloody red roast beef, fresh-squeezed orange juice and something delicious that I later learned was called full-fat quark. I had seen this before in Austria and had avoided it because the name reminded me of an unsavory Star Trek character. That was dumb. It was amazing- tangy and creamy, like icing.
Damn good hotel food
We saw some fancy paintings and some canals, of course. Ate some delicious Indonesian food, which is hard to find in the US. We had a dinner of steak and pomme frites with Rosanne at a restaurant called Pastis. We went to two breweries that made me wish I were in Belgium instead. I also became very picky about coffee all the sudden, which was bad since it led to the sudden realization that nearly all coffee in Scandinavia and The Netherlands is really really terrible. In the case of Sweden this is sad because Swedes have some of the highest coffee consumption in the world. No wonder they need chokladbollar, which are really just giant chocolate butter balls, (or cheese for the LCHC-conscious Swede) to enjoy their fika.
Back in Sweden I met my Swedish friend Jenny at Johan and Nystrom, which I found through reading staff tweets from Frantzen/Lindeberg (a good way to gage the local food/drink scene). It was certainly better than anything else I had drank during the trip.
It was time to re-visit old hangouts. Would they be as I remembered? First stop was Akkurat, which is almost certainly among the best pubs in Sweden and arguably among the best in the world, which is something since Sweden is not exactly known for beer, having had its craft brewery movement stifled by ridiculous regulations. One of the best Swedish craft breweries is Jämtlands. Akkurat was one of the few places with their beers on draft. It was easy to notice that these memorable beers with names like Heaven and Hell were no longer on tap.
Maybe their relationship soured, but that was OK, because while I was in NYC too soured- on excessively hoppy beer. And I started getting into wild beer before I took my year-long beer hiatus since I thought (perhaps erroneously) that beer was causing problems for me (I'm still not sure about this and I"m trying to see if I can get away with certain styles). If you like kombucha, you will like sour beer. And I REALLY like kombucha. And Akkurat, is turns out, has a huge cellar just for aging these "wild yeast" beers. Even I didn't want to buy a $50 bottle of beer, but a vagabond American beer aficionado at our table let us take some of his and I was quite content anyway with my Tilquin Gueze. After 1.5 beers, my terrible alcohol tolerance meant we were required to go to my old drunk-food spot, Soldatan Sveik, which plys a mixture of fatty Scandinavian and Czech home-cooking. I had raggmunk, which are potato pancakes with bacon and lingonberries.
It was all good, but I knew then I wouldn't miss it, at least with the aching I once had. Friends were gone, people had moved on. I saw Martha Wainwright in concert once in Uppsala and came to love this song, which to me is about the people that disappear from your life, perhaps the inevitable result of a world of transients.
I didn't belong there anymore. When I left before it was a waterworks at the airport again, leaving someone I loved behind that last security checkpoint. But this time, I walked through calmly, more concerned with duty-free than tears. Even Chicago, so new to me now, felt more like home. So many things had happened to me in the time since I was there. This was no Solaris, my mind was too changed to even conjure up a simulacrum of my past loves. I had new longings and none of them were in Stockholm. You can love someone and think it's forever, you can think you've found a home, but time takes its tolls on delusions. You just have to wait, and hope, and never stop looking. And also eat whatever the hell you want when you are vacationing in Europe :P
When I was 15 I moved from Georgia to Illinois. My father had gotten a job transfer. He promised that when we moved I could have a horse. I dreamed of snow, something so precious in the South that even the sight of flurries would render Marietta immobile. I would bully the girls next door and my sister not to disturb that light blankets that sometimes fell, but before noon they would have melted into the dull beige lawns. Once there was even a blizzard and everything shut down for days.
But blizzards are relative. I found the cold of Illinois all-permeating and paralyzing. Even heated blankets couldn't protect me from it. I shivered constantly and sometimes when I was doing homework I would find my nailbeds a sickly bruised blue. I stayed home from school often, I dreamed of going back home to Georgia. I wrote poetry about how someday I would like to someday be buried in the red clay there. I thought of that often. I was sick all the time, my lungs architectural structure made of just about as many medications as my doctor could prescribe: albuterol, advair, singular, ad nauseum.
Never could I imagine that I would learn to love a land dark and covered with snow. I wasn't going to study abroad because my health was so bad, but after I started eating better I found myself the will to go across the ocean.
I took this picture after trekking from my country home in Ultuna to central Uppsala. My heart was warmed by the beauty of the countryside and forests where I found my path. My body was warmed by a thick wool sweater and reindeer stew. I had learned to eat of the North and wear her bridal gown.
One thing that kept me warm were some fur cuffs I sewed on my coat. Polarfleece is nice, but there is nothing like the coats of animals who have evolved for eons in winters darker and deeper than ours.
But fur is a funny thing. "I hope that fur is vintage or faux" say many who see the fur poking ourside my mittens. No, faux fur is a mockery of the real thing. And while it might please them to know I obtained them as a side effect of tasty rabbits I ate, in the end does it matter? A strange morality around fur has entered into our culture. Partially it is a result of activism by groups like PETA, that target low-hanging fruits associated with the wealthy. People forget their logic is founded in the idea that animals have inalienable rights like ours, a logic that precludes meat-eating as well as mink. They instead make up their own moral code: that fur is OK if you ate the animal or if it's vintage. I certainly prefer to wear what I ate (incidentally, if you are buying a whole lamb you should definitely request getting the hide tanned), but it's strange they don't also ply their disapproval on other less-than-whole uses of animals.
So fur is bad? Because not using any part is bad? When was the last time you ate a liver? Oh, because it's a trivial reason to kill an animal? Well, who decides what is trivial?
I hesitate to label clothing as "paleo," but using animal fibers in my clothing has definitely made me love winter more. And when I wear them I often think that this is what allowed my ancestors to thrive in places far colder than Chicago.
From last year in sweden, when I bothered to take pictures of my food
Lemon curd with currants
Mango shrimp on the shore at "mermaid cafe" in Stockholm
Freshly harvested honey
The apple genetics garden had hundreds of varieties of apples free for the picking- plus berries. Some, like this crabapple, were hardly edible though.
I loved it there because you could really live the idyllic life with the conveniences of the city. I never had to drive, bike paths went everywhere. A high speed train took me to Stockholm in an hour. The winter sucked, but I think the summer more than made up for it. If I had my way in life, I'd live in Madrid in the winter and Stockholm in the summer.
Interested in seeing the blogs of Swedes eating paleo, I did a search for stenåldersmat, which roughly translates to Stone Age Food. A good word to know in case you have to explain your diet to a Swedish person for some strange reason.
Chicken meatballs, eggs, mango, avocado
I found this blog, the pictures are really lovely and even if you don't know Swedish, the meals look great. The title of the blog in English is Wellness with Stone Age Food.
Sweden is home to both Paleo diet researcher Staffan Lindeberg and low-carb maven Dr. Annika Dahlqvist. Annika is like the Swedish Dr. Eades and you can read her blog in weirdly translated English here. Incidentally, she has also used the diet to treat IBS.
Swedes discuss the paleo diet at www.paleodiet.nu
Sweden also has a large population of celiacs, so gluten-free (gluten-fri) is well understood by most restaurants and every grocery store has a wealth of gluten-free products. While soy and oat milks are popular, almond and other nut milks are unheard of.
This blog discusses the major obstacles to eating paleo in Sweden: godis (mixed candies, typically gummies and licorice), fried snacks, and the popularity of carby alcoholic drinks.
I looked in the mirror with dismay. Right on my left eyeball was a blood vessel that had swelled to the size of a small red lightening blot. I knew I had been spending too much time on the computer, working on server migrations and slogging though the process of learning PhP. The effects were written all over my poor eye.
I write this because this morning I read an article featuring Ray Mears, an expert on primitivist skills, chiding paleo dieters for "pigging out on meat and pretending to have hunted it." One of my goals in this site and in my actions as a co-organizer of the Eating Paleo in NYC meetup group is to get people beyond this. So many paleo dieters think of it as just a way to lose weight and end up eating a bunch of chicken breasts, steak, and coconut milk ice cream. They not only miss out on nutrients, but on the overall holistic benefits of thinking evolutionarily and rewilding not only the self, but the world around you. I want to exhort people to think harder about where their food comes from, how much is out there that we should be eating and we aren't even thinking about whether its sheeps eyes or wild nettles, and how they can be involved in actual hunting and gathering.