Straight-up Scandinavia: Understanding the smörgåsbord

Smorgasbord is a word commonly used in the English language. The Merriam Webster Dictionary describes it as “a luncheon or supper buffet offering a variety of foods and dishes (as hors d’oeuvres, hot and cold meats, smoked and pickled fish, cheeses, salads, and relishes).” You can even use the word to describe a random mixture of things. But let’s take a look at its real meaning.

In Swedish the word is spelled smörgåsbord and breaks down into two parts: smörgås and bord. Smörgås of course means “sandwich” and bord means “table.” Scandinavians are big on open faced sandwiches and it is no surprise that one of their contributions to the global culinary vocabulary has to do with exactly that. This means that a true Scandinavian smorgasbord will always have a good selection of bread, butter and cheese, the beginnings of an excellent open faced sandwich. The first smorgasbord in America was seen at the 1939 World’s Fair held in New York, when Sweden’s delegation served up a traditional buffet as part of the exhibition. The American’s loved it so much they got rid of the pesky dots and rings over the “o” and “a” and americanized the word into its current state.

Although American lovers of Nordic culture like to use the word liberally, Scandinavians rarely use the word smorgasbord to refer to their buffets, and it is certainly not a staple of everyday life. Instead, the fancy buffet normally consisting of various fish like herring and salmon, even surströmming, cold meats and pates is saved for large gatherings, festive parties and special occasions. The most common variant on the theme is the julbord, the standard Christmas buffet which is served everywhere from family dinners to classy restaurants during the holiday season.