Monday, June 19, 2017

Breakfast: Swedish-style

I'd heard about the significance of Swedish hotel breakfasts, but until I experienced the phenomenon there was no way to understand (or appreciate) its massive importance. Imagine waking up in your small but modern hotel room, stumbling bleary-eyed to the dining room, and meeting the largest smörgåsbord your greedy little tummy has ever dreamed about:
Rows and rows of fresh, robust breads with soft balls of spreadable butter and more preserves than you know the names of in Swedish. Next to the bread is an entire table of cold cuts, pates, cured and smoked salmons, pickled herrings, crispbreads, quick pickled cucumbers, lingon, pickles, fresh vegetables, and at least three Swedish cheeses. Move on to the yogurts and filmjölk, nuts, dried fruit, more preserves, honey, granola, tropical fruit, fresh fruit, and syrups. American breakfast is also represented, as well as English, with scrambled and softboiled eggs, bacon, baked beans, sausage, priskorv, and Swedish pancakes. Pastries piled high include cardamom bread and cinnamon rolls, croissants, cookies, and more butter, preserves, and desserts. You might find bagels and cream cheese, and fruit juices. And coffee. Lots and lots of hot fresh coffee. Strong enough to wake your taste buds, and gentle enough that even I can stand two cups before my day begins. Too strong for you? Add a little milk and get over yourself.

Find a seat at a solo table, or eat with new friends at one of the communal spots. Be sure to grab a clean plate if you dare go for seconds.

Not staying in a hotel? Look for a decent coffee shop as soon as you rise, and return there every morning. The owners will get to know you and offer free slices of cool crisp melons. You will dream about cafe lattes served in bowls as big as your head and topped with petite meringues. Eat your way through the bakery items, and never leave a sandwich loaf or a salmon paj behind.

Always relax over your breakfast. Appreciate your coffee, your surroundings, and your blessings. Coffee isn't to-go, coffee is to-stay.

Finally, when the sad day arrives and you must say goodbye to Sweden, be sure to take an early SAS flight out, and drown your sorrows with the nicest little boxed breakfast you'll ever have: coffee or tea, a warm bun or crispbread from the passed basket (so civilized!), cold cuts, cream cheese, butter, vegetable,yogurt, granola, marmalade, and juice.

My theory, following two weeks of blissful Swedish-style eating, is that it isn't just social democracy that makes Nordic people the happiest on earth, it is their amazing breakfasts.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The permanency of place: Sweden

Sweden owns her permanency. She owns a solid, sturdy cultural significance that is apparent in her ancient buildings, cobblestone streets, and meatballs. There is a cadence to Swedish life; a rhythm of walking and communing, and frequent breaks for coffee and buns. Swedes stroll to the beat without effort while those of us less accustomed to wearing heels on hilly brick roads stumble occasionally from the unfamiliarity of it all.

I felt a calming joy as I breathed in the air of Gamlastan for the first time. It smelled of waffles and cream gravy, with a hint of cigarettes and beer. It smelled like an adventure.

The words from an old Aerosmith song kept swimming in my head, "Don't want to close my eyes,
I don't want to fall asleep, 'Cause I'd miss you baby, And I don't want to miss a thing…" 

So I sucked the marrow out of Sweden. I danced to ABBA, I pet dogs, I gazed at the archipelago waters, I pushed my nose deep into the blooming flowers, I pressed my hands against the stone buildings, and I spoke terrible Swedish to anyone willing to listen.

When I was a kid my Grandpa Johnson gave me a little brown music box that played a few bars to "Fly Me To The Moon." The ballerina that once graced the music roller is long gone, and the outside of the box is covered in weird stickers from the 70s. But the song still plays, plink plink plink, and whenever I hear the melody I feel my grandpa's presence. In recent years I've heard "Fly Me To The Moon" playing in random public places immediately following several significant life events. It is eerie and wonderful, and whenever this happens I know my grandpa is watching over me.

One morning in Uppsala we leisured over breakfast discussing our plans for the day. (If you've never had a Swedish hotel breakfast you need to get that on your "must do" list immediately. It is a smörgåsbord of delightful dishes, from beautiful breads and pastries to pickled herring and smoked salmon, from pates and cold cuts to bacon and eggs. There is yogurt and fruit and vegetables and every manner of preserves, toppings, butters, etc. It is a feast that never ends, and you wash it all down with a good strong cup of coffee.) And right then, right there in the middle of Sweden in the middle of our amazing trip, "Fly Me To The Moon" came over the sound system. I nearly cried into my coffee.

I felt Sweden's importance in my life. I felt my grandpa and all those who came before us, whose feet left Sweden more than one hundred years ago. She still owns us, and I am ok with that.

More to come as I soak it all in.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

When you leave cats behind

I am off on an adventure, and leaving T to tend the cats. When it comes to Oskar and Orson, T is the go-to guy for feedings, cleanup, and playtime. I am more of the scheduler and overseer. I've left a large board with reminders to T for the little things he might forget, but he probably wont even notice it. We both know I am a little neurotic when it comes to my two little guys.

When I return, there will be stale water and Oskar will have forgotten to eat a few meals. But neither cat will be any worse for wear, and likely won't even realize I've been gone. Cats and dogs love the ones they're with. Thankfully most husbands don't operate on that model!

I'll return in a few weeks. Meanwhile you can view my adventures on Instagram at nordicfoodgeek.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The return of grill season

Before I met T, every season was grilling season. It didn't matter if it was 75 and sunny or 30 below with three feet of snow on the ground: nothing came between me and my grill.

Since settling into this so-called adult life of marriage, work, and high maintenance-cat parenting, we began saving the grill for not-too-busy nights when exhaustion doesn't pull us to the couch and Netflix binging. On those glorious nights when we do grill, life feels exactly the way it is meant to be.

I noticed a year or two ago that my grilled feasts were beginning to take on a predictable pattern. Grill night became taco or pizza night, with little variance. I'm like a kid who demands ice cream for dinner every night, only there is no one to tell me "No!" Because gosh, I love tacos and pizza! The names might not change, but the stuff you put in or on them can be unique and completely not boring. It just takes a little creativity, and a love of the medium.

T has been off mammals for two years now. All winter I've been adding mushrooms to our meals, and I am ready to shake things up a bit. With a little help from Monterey Bay Aquarium (download the app or print out the pocket guide), I've been reaching for a lot more fish. Grilled fish tacos are the taste of summer.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Biggest Loser: sleepless setbacks

Last year at his annual exam, Orson received rave reviews for his slender waist and feline-proportioned features. This year, we all received a gentle scolding. Obsessed as he is with food and eating, Orson begged his way into a slight weight gain and now faces another round of food deprivation as prescribed by our stern vet.

Orson is a determined guy. He's gotten into the habit of forcefully, violently waking T several times each night demanding a second dinner, early breakfast, second breakfast, etc. Orson can be very persuasive, and nothing we do soothes his nighttime appeals. He wails and whines, he jumps up and down on T, he bites T's ears or plays with the string on his pajamas. He uses T's body as leverage and pushes me with his sturdy legs (and I wake up just about to fall to the floor). Eventually, Orson bullies his way into second dinner, early breakfast, second breakfast, etc.
When we shut the bedroom door Orson throws his body against it. If you've ever thrown a 17 pound bowling ball against a wooden door, you know the sound it makes. THUMP. THUMP. When he tires of that he stands on his back legs and jiggles the door handle with his front paws. WIGGLE WIGGLE JIGGLE. But Orson's favorite way to get back into our bedroom is to slide his paw underneath the door and "boing" the door stopper. Over and over and over and over again. A strong cat can get quite a sound to emit from the stopper.

We've created all sorts of deterrents, stuffing rugs and papers and shoes under the door. Sometimes our inventiveness works and we spend a blissful few nights without being harassed. More often than not Orson figures out a way around the obstacle and the thumping and jiggling and boinging begin again. And again. And again.

As a result of his persistence and our need for sleep, Orson gained a pound this year. We aren't exactly back at the drawing board, but we are looking for ways to ease Orson's hunger and our sleeplessness.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bus bias

If you spend anytime on public transit in the Twin Cities, you know that every route has its own fragrance. The Green Line has a powdered carpet cleaner odor infused with booze, the 21 smells of cigarettes and cotton candy, the 223 of  Chipotle, while the 5 is all-weed all-booze all-the-time. Bus stops are also distinguishable by their perfume. The stop at 8th and Nicollet in downtown Minneapolis reeks of urine. The stop on Rice and Little Canada Road includes whiffs of fried burgers and cinnamon donuts.

If you spend anytime on public transit in the Twin Cities, you've seen a few illegal activities happening either on route or at a stop. There are drug deals, drunks, and violence. I am often approached by other riders who ask for cigarettes, a transfer, and spare change. We all become the personality of Metro Transit.

At the mall where I transfer from one bus to another, I've experienced an uptick of kids asking me for money and men asking for dates. I've learned to steel myself for the 20 minute wait between buses, knowing that most days I'm going to get hassled when all I really want is to mind my own business and get home.

A few weeks ago I was enjoying a warm sunny day outside of the mall, waiting for my bus. A man with his phone was taking pictures of the restaurants that line the sidewalk. He had a thick accent, and asked me "Take photo?"

I am forever lost in the belief that I am still 19 years old and good looking, so of course I assumed the man wanted to take a photo of me. "No thanks," I answered brightly.

"No, I mean, for me. Will you take a photo for me?" he asked again.

I smiled blankly and looked down at my book.

A moment later the man approached another bus stopper, and the bus stop guy gladly (and kindly) took a photo of the man in front of an opening-soon restaurant where he had recently been hired.

There are many times every day that I feel like a jerk, but that may have been my jerkiest moment of the year. I am so filled with bias, so jaded from my public transit experiences, that I cannot gaze upon reality without my bus stop-filtered glasses. Here I am, supporter of immigrants and loud voice of liberal leanings, and I couldn't even be decent toward an immigrant stranger celebrating his new job.

Last week I attended a sort of theatrical conversation in Minneapolis called "Odd Socks." The evening's topic was Appetites and Bias: Jessica Nordell spoke about gender bias (describing her experiences writing as J.D. rather than Jessica) and Beth Dooley spoke about agricultural bias (and the unintended repercussions of innovative attempts to feed the world). The two themes wove perfectly into my leftover feelings of jerkiness and bus bias.

The smells of transit and the personalities of our collective ridership are just part of the experience. It's only recently that I've put my guard up so high especially at the mall bus stop. I've always felt comfortable mingling with strangers on the bus. Sure, there have been a few interactions that made me nervous, but I have plenty of uncomfortable interactions with strangers, friends, and family alike and usually not while I am on public transit. What on earth is feeding this irrational sense of self-protection and jerkiness?

I wonder if there is a 12 step program for bias. Is the first step like in AA where you admit you have a problem? Maybe the second step is learning to check yourself as you experience the inner dialogue of prejudice. I'm working on it.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Reflections on repose

I've worked hard to make a home that not only makes me feel safe and at peace, but that (I hope) provides the same to my roommates (T, Oskar, and Orson).

We spend a lot of time together on the dilapidated couch snuggling beneath soft warm quilts; watching TV, reading, and writing. Orson likes to watch cat videos with T, either on T's phone or a laptop. Oskar likes to knead his nails into my skin as I brush the snarls out of his long fur. It works for everyone. Our home life is relatively calm and easy.

We also spend a lot of time in our (newly painted) periwinkle bedroom with its butter ceiling and collection of ceramic cats lining the dresser. Sleeping is my favorite. While a lot of successful people I admire claim to sleep a maximum of five hours each night (Rachel Ray, Martha Stewart, etc.) I am an eight to nine hours a night gal. I love the bliss of clean sheets and the hum of a fan. I love the intimacy of T and the boys sleeping next to me, their breathing and purrs lull me regardless of how little space Oskar leaves for me on my pillow, regardless of how hard Orson tries to push me out of bed with his sturdy legs. We slumber together and dream our dreams, and there is such peace.

Lately I've been enduring a lot of nightmares. I'm told this is pretty common right now, a brain's response to the horror of current events. Last night's dozing included visions of neglected and abused animals, a serial killer and rapist, a house fire, and a crooked cop. All in one dream! In the end I managed to catch a ride on a rhinoceros that happened to be hanging out in my backyard and we trampled the bad guys, rescued the pets, and put out the fire. If only it was that easy in waking life to put the nefarious out of commission.

Waking from a nightmare is always weird. There is the panic and adrenaline that remains from the dream and a muddled sense of "Huh?" Sometimes the bad guys lurk in the shadows, like smelly leftovers. I reach for a furry cat,  for T, and for the peace that we build together. Then, back to sleep, hoping for a better dream the next time I find one.