What we used to eat as kids
This is going to be a different kind of post. Maybe a strange one to break the silence with, but I’ve been on so many buses lately, staying entertained by what comes out of that tiny computer that fits so well in your hand, and this will be something inspired by that.
There are many other things I want to tell you as well – about mist in the mountains and thick, black, mashed beans and people who leave everything to cross a crazy desert into a foreign country just to earn and survive and pass something besides love on to their kids, and about others who stay and fight other fights – but that’s for next time, and the next one after that.
This time, food.
The main thing that’s kept me happy on these buses is the Chowhound forum, with its endless threads on life-important topics like how Pakistani identity manifests through cooking, the impact on Persian food of Persian poetry, and how to differentiate an Authentic Chinese restaurant from an obvious fake. Suddenly, a thread called Putting food on the table – how did your mom do it? had me remember all these (often) weird and (sometimes) wonderful things that we used to eat in my family when I was a kid.
So, here’s your very special culinary feature from 1990s rural Sweden – beware, but please keep reading!
I have to start with this dish mum always made when we had people over for dinner. Can’t remember if it had a name, but it was kassler, a kind of smoked pork that no one eats anymore (I hope?) and canned asparagus, covered with a layer of cream and Heinz chili sauce, then baked in the oven and served with Uncle B’s (the only kind of rice you could find in Swedish supermarkets at that time). I remember we used to love the pink gravy, which tasted sweet and fluffy and almost entirely disguised the tinny flavor of the asparagus and the salty meat. To my ears now, the dish makes absolutely no sense, but it felt very exotic at the time.
For dessert, we often had something out of another can. A green one, called FRUIT COCKTAIL – a hint that it contained something both kids and grownups would enjoy. I think we kinda did, as long as we wouldn’t end up with one of those odd cherries that looked so red and sweet, yet tasted horrible. We used to eat the cocktail just like that, served with cream, whipped and soft and perfect.
The next thing that comes to mind is certainly not party food, but a totally unsophisticated, yet very beloved, snack we used to eat, my brother Daniel, my sister Julia and I.
I have no idea who taught us to make it, but I’m sure it was neither mum nor dad. Maybe it was the result of one of our many experiments with that new and crazy machine called a microwave which had just come into our lives at that time.
Anyways, the invention (if that’s what it was) turned out to become something we would eat at least once a day for the foreseable future (in particular my sister, who easily could’ve survived on these “varma mackor”). What we’d do was to break large chunks of this flat, white bread called hönökaka, an imitation of the bread fishermen off the island of Hönö used to survive on at sea. We’d spread a layer of butter on top, then cover it with cheese. Don’t think good quality cheese here – think super mild, rather rubbery, with very little taste. Finally, we’d microwave the entire thing for two or three minutes, until it was all bread and melted cheese and butter, bubbling away on the plate. Sometimes we’d leave mackorna in there too long, and parts would be burned and hard and inedible. But we soon learned to make them to perfection.
Mum and dad would never eat those things, but they let us kids persist (thanks both of you for always letting us do that, by the way).
My dad had other things he loved, and many of which he still eats today. I remember how he used to cut centimeter-thick chunks of cheese so strong it crumbled as soon as he put the knife into it, or how he’d spoon little mountains of baked mackerel with tomato sauce on his sandwich (and mine – we shared that love) in the mornings.
He would also buy this creamy potato salad from the local deli, which had capers and more mayo than actual potatos inside. The store closed at five in the evenings at that time, and kept closed on Sundays (but on the other hand, there were no less than three grocery stores in our village of 2000 people at that time – now, hardly one survives). I think they still make their potato salad the same way.
But cheese and mackerel aside, on top of my dad’s list was (and always will be) seafood. Crayfish, lobster, curious-looking crabs.
We knew as kids that, come August and September, you could never be sure about your privacy in the bathroom. At any given point in time, you would go in there, only to discover that the tub was occupied by a colony of crawling brothers and sisters, all waiting to get killed in the kitchen. Sometimes we’d knew they were in there – if we’d gone with him in the morning, before daybreak, to the nearby river where he went out in his boat for what had been caught that night – sometimes not; we’d learn from the slow, scratching sounds behind the shower curtain.
My dad loved vegetables (still does) – if either of these three: pickled beets, pickled onions, or pickled cucumbers. He sometimes looks at me (the vegetarian) with a smile, as he scoops up sweet beets on his plate. “See, veggies!”
The pickled cucumbers, it was mum who made them. Perfect, crispy, sweet-n-sour ones (that sounds very East Asian but sweet matched with sour is equally important to traditional Swedish cooking) that we all couldn’t stop eating.
Nowadays, when pickling is the new favorite pastime of those who’ve tired of entertaining their sourdoughs and (yes!) hand-making sausages, everyone in Sweden seems to use the English term, but when I was a kid we knew nothing of pickled cucumbers, only “inlagda”. I remember mum always wanted to add chopped parsley at the end, but we kids often managed to talk her out of it and leave the cucumbers free from suspicious-looking green things. If she wasn’t making them for a party, that is, as a 1990s dish was not a dish without parsley on top.
I remember what people didn’t like as well. Myself I always hated soft drinks (although I did try as a kid, on the rare occasions we’d have them – at parties mostly, in 33 centiliter bottles, with thin straws in neon colors); the idea of fizzy, strange-tasting water just always seemed like an obviously bad one. I also hated proven delicious things (avocado and citrus and fresh herbs), and ate with great appetite what’s barely food (cheap hot dogs and something soggy in a bag they say you should put in a toaster), but I would never acknowledge that today.
My brother was, and still is, the person who eats and likes everything. Not in the sense of blindly scooping things into his mouth – quite the opposite, he’s a real foodie and handles the pepper shaker (black pepper mostly, I’m always arguing that white pepper is a useless culinary invention, but he keeps maintaining it fills a purpose sometimes – I’m not convinced) like Janis Joplin did her guitar. He can also find, identify and prepare I think more mushrooms than most people know the name of – often when there’s a new message on my phone, it’s a picture of his kitchen table, buried under a mountain of mushrooms.
Nowadays, my sister loves mushrooms as well – but that’s a completely different story from when we were kids. Back then, she had a total of maybe …five (maximum ten!) dishes that she would eat. Apart from them, no thanks. And somehow – probably because she was (is) the most adorable and kindhearted and altogether peaceloving person – she managed to get them on her plate almost everywhere we went. Her list included things like pasta, pancakes, cheese sandwiches and meatballs with gravy – food that was easy to find (phew!), but I know many a cans of her favorite bolognese were packed and brought along to our childhood family holidays.
Lucky her as well, because she had the perfect partner in crime: our slightly older, much cooler (and, just like Julia, very sweet) cousin Peter. He too would eat very few things that were not an Italian invention or an American take on an Italian invention. They soon discovered, during our family get-togethers, that two voices asking for “ketchup, yes, on everything” spoke louder than one.
Either way, mormor, grandma (because it was to her kitchen they went with their plates), would never have said no. She wasn’t that kind of person. She answered all our questions with a smile.
She lived with grandpa in a yellow house with a big garden about half an hour’s drive from us. My food memories from their place are almost as many as those from our house in Floby – Daniel and Julia and I used to stay with them a lot.
Grandma would sometimes ask me, now as a grownup, “Jenny, remember when you used to call me on the phone and say, ‘This and that happened, I don’t want to be here any more, can I come and live with you and grandpa’?”. I never did, of course, but I would often go and stay with them for days. Grandma would let me sit next to her when she was working; she had a small sewing machine next to her big one that I would use, and a trunk full with leftover textiles and yarn. I’d go with her to have coffee with her friends, or make small trips to the nearby city.
The food habits of her and grandpa were clearly more old-fashioned than ours, and had Daniel and Julia and me exchange looks across the table. Their bread was weird and went hard but still seemed to last forever, salt and spices were kept in tiny drawers and tasted different and old. They liked to drink their coffee from the plate, with a piece of sugar in between the teeth.
And they loved sandwiches! I would loose track of the number of times we’d sit down at the table to have sandwiches. Grandpa at his designated seat (we entertained the idea of trying to steal it from him sometimes, but never dared to); grandma constantly moving around the kitchen, always about to prepare something or put something else away or get another thing for someone.
It was also around that kitchen table the three of us learned something about filmjölk: you could scoop spoonfuls of sugar on top of it, which made it crunchy and speedy and much more interesting than the homemade jam or sliced bananas we’d get at home.
Grandma and grandpa are both in another place now, I’m sure each with a cup of coffee and sandwiches.
Writing and remembering all of this, I cannot help but feel amazed at how things have changed. The 1990s were great (hey, they gave us rap and grunge and MTV and the internet!) but moving on is good.
Today, no one in my family would ever think of cooking up a conspiracy like that of mr Heinz and whoever thought of putting something fresh in a can. Julia makes colorful dishes, with dried mango from India and cheese from Bulgaria (and she’s now the one who introduces vegetables and herbs to other eaters). Daniel tries to find to time to cook everything he finds in the woods, with mum as his perfect sidekick. I bring bags of food each time I come home from Lebanon: olive oil and string cheese and spices from the mountains. Dad, granted, still loves what he always loved – but happily embraces the new as well (as in another kind of strong, equally crumbly and mature, cheese).