As the crow, or a giant commercial airliner, flies, it's thousands of miles between Jokkmokk, Sweden, and Posey Lake in Michigan. I don't know how to figure it, even on the Internet. But I do know my friends came a long way to see America one more time and to visit friends and relatives.
It's amazing how the great distance between our countries and cultures narrowed in a short time over food, conversation, and reminiscing.
Anders and Kerstin Bengtsson - who live in northern Sweden where it's cold and dark some of the time, but beautiful all of the time - love their country. But America is definitely in second place in their worldwide travels and given an opportunity Anders is quick on his feet to tell why.
He particularly praises our constitution. "It's a foundation. Thank God for American democracy. The United States has saved Europe twice in the last century. You are a super power that has taken over the world in culture, entertainment, and food. Your TV shows are everywhere."
With all of the global attention the United States receives comes responsibility, Anders believes.
"You have a responsibility you may not even think of," he said. "When people around the world see TV they think Americans live like that. Take Dallas as an example. You must tell the world that Americans are honest, hard-working people, not at all like the TV shows."
We had a stimulating visit here as we did several years ago in Jokkmokk, which is in Lapland on Sweden's northern edge. While it was a relief that our weather was perfect for sitting on the porch and taking a boat ride and that the gardens are showing promise of adulthood, it would be nice if the Bengtssons would visit in the fall.
Then Anders could go deer hunting. A former school superintendent who has his own company, Common Sense Education, he is a big game hunter, and never plans to travel during the fall season. He bags mostly large moose that are dressed out and go into the larder, and all year the meat goes onto the table in various ways of preparation.
One of my favorite culinary travel memories is the shore picnic with Anders and Kerstin about 100 miles from Jokkmokk, at the foot of a glacier. Anders built a roaring wood fire and topped it with an iron skillet. Kerstin added the cured moose meat that resembled jerky to the skillet and we ate it with "forks" we whittled from twigs. I brought the hand-carved forks home and had them framed.
Since my visit Kerstin has retired from teaching domestic science, but much like female retirees in America she keeps very busy with rug weaving and berry picking hobbies and the grandchildren. She climbs far into the mountains and forests to pick cloudberries, lingonberries, and blueberries and doesn't declare it a completed season until she has picked at least 40 gallons to turn into juice and jam.
Unfortunately the berries are in bear territory in the mountains. She totes a radio in a sack and keeps it playing while she is picking. Anders checks on her location often to be sure there are no bear tracks. "We are competing with them for the berries," he explains.
So what do you serve Swedish guests? I pondered before deciding not to try to be a Swedish cook with Swedish pancakes and meatballs and just do my own thing with the exception of Wasa (vasa). That's thick Swedish rye cracker bread that must be healthful because it has little flavor personality. It's in American supermarkets. It was their first experience eating gazpacho and flour tortillas roll-ups, filled with smoked salmon and spinach.
You have to have potatoes for Swedes. On my visit, hosts in private homes dug the potatoes in the backyard garden a few hours before dinner, and there is a difference between fresh and produce department potatoes. Chow mein noodles added to a chopped lettuce salad provoked Kerstin's question: what are these? Chicken always works and apple pie a la mode is about as American as our constitution.
Over dinner I was compelled to ask, What is the name of that dreadful fish you served?
The name is surstromming. It is headless herring, not gutted, lightly salted and set to ferment in the spring. The fermentation period ends on Aug. 18, which is party time in northern Sweden. Friends and family gather for surstromming that is eaten with boiled potatoes, chopped onion, beer, and vodka.
Let me tell you how bad this stuff smells. Any leftovers are immediately flushed down the toilet to avoid smelling up the house. If you are ever offered this choice delicacy, just say "no, thank you."