Culture on a Plate: Smorgasbord’s Great American Rise and Fall

Smörgäsbord, a type of Scandinavian meal originating in Sweden, serves multiple hot and cold dishes of great variety. It became popular at the 1939 New York World’s Fair Swedish Pavillon’s Three Crown’s Restaurant. Americans loved it so much they deleted those pesky marks over the o and a vowels and made it their own. Although the meal is based on a tradition that dates back to the 12th century in Sweden, for Americans it was a first taste that took off with a vengence and eventually evolved into the all-American all-you-can-eat-buffet.

A Swedish Word: smögäsbord

The Swedish word smögäsbord consists of the words smögäs (sandwich, usually open-faced) and bord (table). Smögäs in turn consists of the words smör (butter) and gäs (literally goose, later referred to the small pieces of butter that formed and floated to the surface of cream while it was being churned). The small butter pieces were the right size to be placed and flattened on bread, so smögäs  came to mean buttered bread. The Swedish phrase att bre (da) smögäsar (to spread butter on open-faced sandwiches) has been used since, at least, the 16th century.

In Scandinavia when long dark days of winter came, people thought of getting together and eating. Some Norsemen would throw open their homes and invite guests to bring whatever food they had on hand. In the beginning, the feast was simple and hence the name of Smorgasbord, which literally means “bread and butter table.” As time went on, ladies of the house outdid themselves until tables were packed with a solid array of delicious edibles. Good food and good friends mixed with good appetite and an array of attractive dishes.

In English and also in Scandinavian languages, the word smögäsbord loosely refers to any buffet with an assortment of dishes. It has also come to refer to an abundant selection, such as a smorgasbord of titles in a bookstore or a smorgasbord of articles on sideofculture.com.

A traditional Swedish smorgasbord consists of both hot and cold dishes in a very specific order. Bread, butter and cheese are always part of the meal. One begins with the cold fish dishes and continues with additional cold dishes and then with hot dishes. Dessert may or may not be included. 

Julbord: Yule or Christmas Table

A special smorgasbord is the julbord (literally the Yule or Christmas table). Here there is a traditional buffet-style meal in five to seven courses. Glögg (mulled spiced wine) is a common beverage as is the seasonal soft drink called julmust that is always sold at Ikea during the holiday season. It is traditional for many Swedish and Norwegian workplaces to hold an annual Julbord between November and January. 

What is amazing is the hold that the Swedish smorgasbord took over the entire country in the 1940s-1960s. Looking at the different images on postcards, we can see that these restaurants were popular from the East to the West Coast and all states in between.

One beloved local restaurant was the San-Dar, a long-time favorite in Bellville, Ohio.  Begun as a local hangout in 1947, it morphed into the San-Dar. “San” stands for Sandra and the “Dar” for Darrell, the two children of owners Dorothy and Eugene Banks, whose name became synonymous with the 1954 name change for the growing restaurant. Later in 1981, son Darrell took over the restaurant and operated it until its closure in 1994. Why its demise? Like everything else, a popular trend waned. In the1990s, less-known ethnic cuisines became increasingly popular and healthy eating became a subject of concern. Today, one has to search high and low for a true Smorgasbord restaurant. The fad is over.

The language of hospitality and good food, however, is easily understood the world over, even if turns out to be an American eat-all-you-can buffet where all dishes are laid out on a table or series of tables, and diners serve themselves. The concept of “vær så god”—be so kind, dig in, enjoy— somehow never goes out of style. It’s as American as apple pie.

Side Dish

The Julbord Christmas Smorgasbord at Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant & Butik is the ultimate feast in Door County, Sister Bay, Wisconsin. At this Swedish family-owned restaurant, where you find goats grazing on the sod roof in summer, one weekend a year, you can sample the multi-course meal, immersing your senses in traditional Scandinavian fare, including Swedish meatballs with lingonberries. Call 920-854-2626 to make a reservation. Look for this year’s dates on aljohnsons.com

By Cynthia Elyce Rubin

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