Tight on the heels of the recent Swedish hamburger-beef outrage, a series of articles about the health risks of the traditional julbord, the Christmas dinner, appeared in the Swedish press. We were informed that this large assortment of ham, meatballs, revived dried fish, pickled herring, smoked goods of various sorts, rice pudding and other mostly preserved foods (what else was there to eat in the middle of the winter in Old Sweden…) is a breeding ground for all kinds of greedy bugs, especially when displayed buffet-style and kept alive by replenishing what’s empty (as opposed to replacing the dishes that have been standing out longest). Such warnings can be helpful. Some of the restaurants might get more cautious, and some of the guests will perhaps stay away from that ominous bowl of sagging Ris à la Malta (which once long ago was called riz à l’amande), and other julbord items that may have had a lukewarm feast of their own in an unobserved corner.
The surviving food journalists are now beginning to post Christmas Dinner recaps. I am reading a half-page leader by Swedish Television journalist Elisabeth Höglund, Borås Tidning of 29 December 2007, page two. Under the header “I am being cheated on the food every Christmas” we read that poor Elisabeth had a pitiful Christmas dinner, although she and her guy Bosse prepared everything at home. But the jar of pickled herring in onions (löksill) contained “a few solitary bits of fish that swam about in a revolting slow-flowing mix made from vinegar, onion, and a few unidentifiable vegetables, a mix that only could look this way because it has had a much too long life.” One third of the total weight of the potatoes had to be discarded. The ham was the “most revolting Christmas ham we ever had”, and not even the cats wanted to eat it. Meat bits for a stew contained too much water (“After I fried the bits in the skillet, I had to pour away 300g of water. The pork thus contained 37% water! Expensive water, isn’t it?”), and eight out of 20 onions were dry or mouldy.
This is no parody. Even though the picture that accompanies the article shows a smiling face, Elisabeth Höglund is dead serious. How is this possible? Of course a malicious löksill hater would say that the description above is correct for Swedish herring with onions in general. This is of course nonsense. There are two main large brands that provide löksill of a consistent quality (a bit too sweet for my taste, and too full of preservatives, but not at all bad). There is the possibility to buy freshly pickled herring at the fish stand; depending on the situation, this can be anything between really good and excellent. There are myriads of grandma’s favorite recipes available for those who want to pickle their own herring; and for those who don’t trust their own skills when measuring the vinegar and the salt (we’re talking about life-saving skills), there is pre-salted herring to help them through the difficult steps of such a recipe. Apart from that, several low-price herring-preserve-brands do exist – I learned to avoid these after a week of living in Sweden. The fact that Elisabeth and Bosse pick substandard herring “every Christmas” (she even mentions its déjà vu effect) is proof for one of the most cherished modern nutrition myths: bad food impairs your memory.
Now the potatoes. “Those who buy loose-weight potatoes can put the bad ones aside and only pay for the edible ones. The stores have acknowledged this. Their counter-move was to put the potatoes in closed paper bags.” The sleek devils. What will our, the consumer’s, next move be? Buy pasta? No matter, where I live, I still have to wait for the first move. In the meantime, I happily hand-pick my potatoes as always. One wonders, to what store Elisabeth goes every Christmas.
Then the ham. Christmas ham is a sad affair for the pigs and a logistic nightmare for the shop owners. During the entire autumn, everybody eats old minced meat, and suddenly Sweden wants salted ham all at the same day. These hams come in a lot of varieties: pre-cooked, frozen and thawed, salted but not yet cooked, etc. A ham’s package label almost invariably displays a whole list of non-hammy ingredients like sugar, preservatives and taste enhancers. Of course they contain nitrates, like other salted meat and sausages. Elisabeth writes “the ham was raw and not pre-cooked. Thus we were hoping to get a ham that was dry and fine at the inside, not loose, pumped full with water and gelatine, and rubber-like, such as the pre-cooked hams usually are.” I will make this short. The only way to avoid a possible ham sham is to buy a fresh piece of ham, to pack it for a few days in salt and herbs, and to cook it in one or another way or to freeze it until needed. Otherwise, one is bound to run into one or another kind of trouble, yes, every Christmas. Nobody knows what the ham factory adds to those millions of pre-salted, pre-packed, all-fresh-on-December-24-hams, no matter whether they are pre-cooked or not. Water? Possibly. But gelatine? “When Bosse cut away the rind to feed it to the birds he found that it stuck to his fingers…because of all the glue and gelatine that must have been injected into the rind.” I will not even talk about why it is silly to cut away the rind before putting a ham into the oven. But what is pork rind? Right: fat, and highly glutinous connecting tissues: hide glue, as it were. The only way to avoid its stickiness is to buy an avocado instead.
Finally the matter of water in stew meat. I acknowledge that the meat’s tendency to start boiling when it should be browning can be a true problem. But Swedish meat normally behaves quite well: I use a big skillet for browning and take care that the pieces don’t crowd in the pan. Perhaps Elisabeth buys her meat in Germany or Holland, where this problem is more common. Or not: ‘the pork contained 37% of water’! That’s one dry heap’o pork, I’d say – I really can’t see how that wouldn’t brown properly. I guarantee that I myself am containing much more water per weight unit than that. In fact, I wouldn’t have reviewed an article by someone who measures water in grams at all, were it not for two things worth mentioning:
1) The complaint about the onions is correct. They come in closed nets, and invariably, a fifth or so is too old to eat.
2) This article shows what’s wrong with purchasing food. It is not the stores that lure us into buying their wilted mangoes, mildewy figs, brown bananas, straw-artichokes, wriggling Gorgonzola (I’m not kidding) and recycled meat, it is the customers who leave their reading glasses at home, are clueless about what is reasonable to demand, unwilling to inform themselves properly and unable to tell a fresh item from a thoroughly rotten one, who encourage the shops to put stuff on their shelves that should never have entered their storage area in the first place. If nobody bought potatoes in paper bags, nobody would bother offering them for sale.