A college student in Seattle, WA confronts food in its many forms - in restaurants, the quick bites in between classes and work, and, perhaps most importantly, she confronts the great puzzle of how to feed herself now that her mother doesn't make dinner...

Monday, June 9, 2008

Potatis Korv - a knowledge lost

Image courtesy of: wertsgw.com

Potatis Korv. Now there’s a word you don’t hear every day. Actually, until I had to look it up, I didn’t even know how to spell it. I thought it was Patati Skorf. I’d never seen the words written down because, like all good Swedes, my Nana didn’t have an actual recipe. No, she knew the main ingredients, and knew when it looked and tasted right. That was all she needed.

When I was very young, my Nana would occasionally go to the trouble to make Potatis Korv, or Swedish Pork Sausage. I was so young that I don’t really remember it that well. I remember watching her mix the pork, potatoes, and onions together. But the image of her stuffing the pork casings escapes me – perhaps my psyche has shielded me from that memory. By the time I had grown older, so had Nana, and she no longer had the energy to make Potatis Korv. She bought the sausage at the Scandinavian market and brought it home, boiled it, and ate it. I remember eating this sausage and disliking it, especially the grisly texture. Nana insulted the sausage, saying that it wasn’t as good as her homemade, but ate it with gusto nonetheless.

Potatis Korv is a potato sausage associated with a traditional Swedish Christmas. For Swedes, the most important day of the holiday season is Christmas Eve, and this is the day that the big meal is eaten and the presents are unwrapped. Instead of a multiple-course sit-down dinner, as is the custom in many European countries, the Swedish lay a Smörgasbörd, a giant spread of many dishes so that all the family and guests may serve themselves. Just as a ham and figgy pudding are central to the English tradition, so is Potatis Korv essential to the Christmas Smörgasbörd.

But, as a fellow blogger put it: “It smells. It's ugly. And like lutefisk, it has a reputation that can't be overcome” (Tieck). So I guess that would make Korv more akin to fruitcake than figgy pudding. There are not many people out there who truly love the stuff, but it’s tradition, so it makes its way onto the menu year after year. It seems to be the older members of the family who make the decision as to what is served on the Smörgasbörd, and they are somehow motivated to make Potatis Korv. In her article, Around the Tuscan Table, Carole M. Counihan interviews elderly Tuscans about their food preferences, and finds that their taste is dependant on habit and acculturation, among other things. “Today I remember the foods that we used to eat then and I eat them willingly. That means I must have eaten them willingly as a child, because if not, I wouldn’t eat them again happily” (24). Swedes of the older generations, much like Counihan’s subject, were accustomed to eating certain foods in the “old country” as children. Because these foods are not associated with negative memories, and indeed may represent happy normalcy, they are cooked and eaten again in adulthood.

It is likely that most late-generation Swedes (like myself) dislike Potatis Korv because it is so unlike any of the foods we have grown up with in America (and, indeed, in modern-day Sweden). The most remarkable difference between this food and the ones we are accustomed to is the ingredients – specifically, the fact that we know what all of the ingredients are. I’ll happily eat deli pepperoni all day long. While it is made from many stranger things than what is in Potatis Korv, it is presented in a friendly red and green plastic package with a stay-fresh zipper, and its burnt-red color is bright and uniform. I am so far separated from the manufacture of the pepperoni, let alone the origin of the ingredients (among which are sodium phosphate, pork fat, and bone meal) that I don’t bat an eye. But in seeing the creation of Potatis Korv, I am less inclined to eat it. Specifically, I am made very aware that the ground meat and potatoes are stuffed inside pork casing, which is the polite term for a pig’s intestine. It is much easier to imagine these ingredients as part of an articulated animal, and this is heightened by the fact that those around me helped to make the food I am to consume. The deindustrialized nature of Potatis Korv means that I am much closer to the origin of my food than I am when eating the pepperoni, rendering the potato sausage almost taboo.

But why exactly was Potato Sausage eaten at all in Sweden? And why did it come to be a dish representative of the Christmas season? Not much is known of the origin of Potatis Korv. However, some primary sources say that this particular sausage was born of the Swedish immigrants’ poverty. There wasn’t enough pork to make regular sausages, so diced potatoes were mixed with the meat “to stretch the meager food supply” (Tieck). No one seems to know why this food became iconic, but it came into being much the same way that Florentine food did – because it was cheap (Counihan, 25).

Though it is made with few ingredients, that doesn’t mean that Potatis Korv doesn’t vary from one family or region to another. Though the main ingredients are the same: pork, potatoes, onions, and pepper, some other ingredients are occasionally added, including beef, nutmeg, and allspice. Several bloggers report suspicions that misguided Norwegians are responsible for the rogue ingredients. However, even when the recipe is limited to the core constituents, there seems to be no agreement as to an exact ratio. In fact, my Nana didn’t even own a recipe. When we asked how much of something we needed, she would say, “oh, about this much.” The decision was entirely based on personal experience, trial, and error. Counihan observes, “though [one] claims an unchanging cultural identity, in fact Florentine cuisine and culture were inexorably changing… and pomarola was not always pomarola” (20). A similar process is taking place in the creation of different potato sausage recipes.

In researching Potatis Korv for this project, I have had to dig up a lot of memories, and non-memories, of my Nana. What I mean by non-memories, I guess, is regret. I never seemed to share my Nana’s enthusiasm for potato sausage, perhaps because I was too young. It is only now that I have realized that I want to know more about this special dish, and it is too late. I almost wish that she were a louder, more insistent person, that she had made us learn how to make Potatis Korv, and made us listen to the history behind it. But she was a quiet woman, and she became quieter as she got older. In the last couple of years of her life, I don’t know if Nana even had store-bought potato sausage. Perhaps she’d lost the taste for it. Or perhaps she’d given up on us – sensed we weren’t interested in learning, or that we would never be able to appreciate it. I don’t know whether to attribute it to having grown older, or perhaps to the fact that this class has opened my eyes, but I feel that I would now be able to set aside my reservations about Potatis Korv enough to try to make and enjoy it. I wish that I could have done so sooner so that I might have learned more about a recipe, a holiday celebration, a family tradition, and a cultural history.


RAKH said...

Thank you for your article. It brings up so many memories. My grandfather was a butcher in an area where there were a lot of Swedes in Kansas. I have never tasted potatiskorv like his since. They come close, but not quite there. Wish I had his recipe. Like your grandmother, it was in his head.
My mother wrote down the recipe for Rye bread at my insistence since I knew I wouldn't remember it. We still make it today on special occasions.

Emily said...

I'm a couple years late in commenting, but I also must thank you for posting this. I'm actually writing a blog about my Christmas tradition, which includes potatiskorv, well, we just call it potato sausage. Last year I found a place near where I live that actually makes it, so I now force my fiance to eat it with me on Christmas. I actually like it - as an adult. It's one of the few traditions that I feel the need to keep. I'm sure it started with my great grandfather, who was a Swedish Immigrant and I think it's about the only Swedish tradition my family kept.
Happy Holidays!

Wendy said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this... My father's church Jenny Lind Methodist made potatis korv and swedish rye bread regularly and sold out of it constantly. Especially the bread though which my mom used to make in a big giant pan ... producing about 10-20 loaves. To this day it is my favorite bread.. hot out of the oven with lots of butter. I have to admit though I just did not care for the korv ... ;)

VirginiaGentleman said...

We never made potatiskorv; we always used barley, which is what the Swedes would have had before Columbus and the introduction of the New World potato. Last year I made some potatiskorv for the first time because a friend from Chicago who was helping me had always had the potato kind, but I also made the usual barley korv for us. I started out helping my father over 50 years ago, and still use my mormormor's recipe, which I am including in a cookbook I am writing, along with many other Swedish dishes.

Anonymous said...

Potatiskorv is not a essential to the Christmas smörgåsbord. I have never even heard of anyone having it. And yes, I am Swedish.

Nice article never the less.

Anonymous said...

As a respond to the anonymous swede, i can say that is mostly eaten in the swedish region Värmland where i am from, and here it´s even called värmlandskorv as well as potatiskorv.
And it is a must have for Christmas dinner here in Värmland. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Potatiskorv

Beth Bronkema said...

3rd generation Swede and we have always always always had potato sausage and limpa and rice pudding for Christmas Eve or Christmas day. I helped when my parents made it, and now my daughter helps me. Kitchen innovations have made the process so much easier! My grandparents used a sausage horn and hand stuffed it! I have an awesome attachment for the Kitchenaid! Potatoes, onions, pork and beef, salt and pepper, and allspice. Natural casings. Kristen and I are always so amazed at how good it is.

Alice Anderson said...

My husband's family is Swedish and always made barley korv. We have done it ourselves in the past but now buy it frozen in Jamestown, NY and bring it home to Long Island. His parents had a large garden and made a sweet chili sauce to serve with it. I still make that every summer. 12 Tomatoes, 6 Red Peppers, 3 Onions, 3 cups sugar and 2 scant cups vinegar (and 1 Tbsp salt). Simmer all but peppers for 2-1/2 hours, add ground up peppers - cook 1/2 hour more. Drain, freeze in batches. It's wonderful and I can't find a similar recipe to get the details of preparation (peel or not? deseed?). My version is very time consuming (peeling, seeding the tomatoes) and maybe I'm fussing more than my mother-in-law did. We serve it with meatloaf too. Maybe in my retirement, we'll get back to using the sausage machine again.

Allison said...

I too come from thr Jamestown, N.Y., area, and am wondering if I'll be able to find korv (I hardly ever saw the potatis in front of it) now that I've transplanted to SW Missouri. Never participated in the making of it (at church every year, and sometimes mom would buy it at the store. It was a traditional meal every year at the church I went to growing up, as a good part of the congregation was Swedish, including my family :) ), but I'm going to start looking soon!

Rosa Schmidt said...

I love seeing this! So much Swedish family history is felt here. I wanted to share that our family always made potatis korv for Christmas Eve but my husband and I now make it for family reunions whenever they may fall. My grandparents recipe was equal parts ground beef, ground pork and ground potatoes. Often 3 pounds each with the addition of a ground onion or 2. Plus about 3 TBS allspice, 3 TBS salt and 1-2 tsp pepper.