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.