Hollyn Chase’s Swedish Book Club Luncheon for Beartown

I feel privileged to belong to a very special book club. Over twenty-three years we have learned a lot about each other by sharing our opinions about books.  We have become truly book-bound. After that many years, one develops a sense about what each of the members will think about the book we are reading that month. And yet, they still manage to surprise and delight me. Some people are more quiet and circumspect by nature, some hold back quite deliberately as a matter of decorum. Me? I have a tendency to blurt out whatever I think. I try not to; I endeavor not to offend; I fear I’m not always successful. But they haven’t kicked me out yet, so I presume they forgive me.

Because of this, once a year when it is my turn to host the book club luncheon, I tend to over-compensate. Our book for October was Beartown by Fredrik Backman, a novel I truly enjoyed. And with one or two quibbles, so did my book club.

But they can write their own reviews, here is mine:

Like thousands of other people, I loved A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Accordingly, I immediately read/listened-to his next two books, and thought, hmm .  . . this seems a little formulaic. It seemed to me that Backman found literary success by creating the lovable curmudgeon, Ove, and then rested on his laurels by playing the quirky character card in his next two books. My Grandmother Says to Tell You She’s Sorry and Britt Marie Was Here were both good, but not great. Hence, when Beartown was published this year, I knew I’d give it a chance, but I wasn’t optimistic. I knew it involved a hockey-obsessed small town in northern Sweden and I have difficulty relating to any sport. Most I find boring, some I actively loathe. (Guilty secret: I used to prop a large, open purse on my lap at my son’s little league games so I could discretely (?) read from a paperback.)

So, who could have predicted that my favorite book of the year would be about hockey? But, of course, it’s also about people—what motivates them, what matters to them, what unites them, and what divides them. Or, as Backman says: “Why does anyone care about hockey? Because it tells stories.” (This was an epiphany to me; I may need to pay attention the next time I’m at a UPrep football game.) The slow heartbreak of a community in a cycle of decline is relatable to most of us. Then imagine the pressure on a team of high school athletes when their winning a national tournament could turn the economy of that entire town around. Actually, you don’t need to imagine it: you need to read this profound, insightful and deeply humane saga about friendship, parenthood, love and making hard choices.

I enjoyed the audio version from the library. It’s very well narrated by Marin Ireland and is 13 hours long. But I liked it so much, I bought the hardback version to give to my 14-year-old granddaughter (after my daughter listened to it and gave me the go-ahead.) This is not a Young Adult book, but I believe it should be read by young adults. It is an appropriate book to spark a meaningful discussion of values; I think the topic is both timely and necessary. A cautionary note: the subject matter is dark and the reverberations from a shocking act of violence are harrowing. And there are no pat answers. Instead, Backman builds a complex, multi-layered narrative that deals with the issues and resonates with candor and wisdom.

Beartown, an international best seller, was published in the UK under the title, The Scandal and the sequel, Us Against You is due out in 2018.

If you read Beartown—and I heartily recommend that you do—you will find very little reference to food, or for that matter Swedish Culture. If I had not known that Backman was Swedish, I might have thought the book was set in Canada, or even upstate Minnesota. Still, I settled on serving a Swedish Smorgasbord complete with pickled beets and herring—two foods I despise. For my own palate, and aesthetic reasons, I decided to make a Smorgastarta (Sandwich Cake).

Swedish Smorgasbord complete with pickled beets and herring and Smorgastarta.

My version of Smorgastarta (Swedish Sandwich Cake) filled with cucumbers, radishes, lox, and eggs and frosted with whipped and seasoned cream cheese.

I really kind of winged it, but if you’d like to try your hand at it, here is my recipe:

Swedish sandwich cake
(Smorgastarta)

If you Google Swedish Sandwich Cake you will get an array of gorgeous photos along with a few recipes and a couple of how-to videos. After perusing several and doing a trial run that was not terribly successful, I developed the following recipe. Please feel free to change it in any way you like. My understanding is that Sandwich Cake was all the rage in Sweden in the Sixties—and the more garishly decorated, the better. It is meant to be indulgent, but my initial attempt involving shrimp salad and egg salad (both mayo-laden) and then frosted in cream cheese was way too rich for me. Some recipes call for cold cuts instead of smoked salmon, but I think the real secret is plenty of fresh veggies (celery, cucumbers, radishes, onions, etc., but not tomatoes—too watery) for crunch.

Ingredients:

2 round loaves of hearty bread (whole wheat, rye or sourdough) crust removed and sliced horizontally (I managed to get 4 crust-less slices, each about an inch-or-so thick.) I ordered my round loaves from Harvest Bread.
Thinly sliced radishes, cucumbers, celery, and sweet red onions
Chopped green onions, capers, sliced green olives, fresh dill, parsley
6 hard-boiled eggs, thinly sliced
Smoked salmon—I bought the Kirkland Wild Alaskan Smoked Sockeye Salmon
Shrimp—for filling or for decorating the top

“Frosting”

Whip together:

3  8-ounce packages of cream cheese at room temperature
1 12-ounce container of crème fraiche
1 t each, onion powder, garlic powder, white pepper, salt
2 T of fresh lemon juice

Start by protecting your plate with pieces of parchment paper so the end result is neat and pretty. Put your first layer of bread on the plate and frost it thinly with the cream cheese mixture. Then add a layer of Smoked Salmon and cover that with cucumbers. Spread more “frosting” on the underside of another slice and place it on top. Repeat adding layers of eggs, veggies, more salmon, etc.

Frost the entire “cake” and cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate 2 to 24 hours.  I decorated the top about a half hour before serving.  I tried my hand at radish roses and tulip tomatoes and carrot daisies. I was not very good at it, but it ending up looking pretty festive anyway.  I love that it can be made in advance and that it doubles as a buffet centerpiece. It served 9 women with a bit left over.

The table-scape was fairly simple. I used the Beartown colors—green for the forest, white for snow, brown for bears. And I learned one can find almost anything on the Internet: tiny bears to glue on the napkin rings—check. Lilliputian hockey players—check.  Miniature hockey sticks—check.  Plus, I already had my collection of wooden trees and several Orient and Flume bears. I was going to needle-felt a sculpted bear for each place-setting, but after spending over two hours on the first one, I decided that perhaps one would suffice.

I chose a green/white/brown color scheme to honor the colors of the Beartown hockey team. The trees are from my collection.

It was a lovely lunch with equally lovely women. And now it’s over and I don’t have to do it again until next year.

Hollyn Chase
Since her retirement, Hollyn Chase has served as VP of operations at Chez Chase--she also cooks and vacuums. Darling Jack, her husband of forty-two years, gets to be President; they agree that this is because he works much harder than she does. Being the VP is not all glitz and glamour, she does many mundane things. But she does them happily since she discovered that listening to audiobooks makes the boring bearable. Because her mind is always occupied, she's stopped plotting to overthrow the government. Her children, who rarely agree on anything, are both happy about this. Besides her addiction to fiction, she's fairly normal and sometimes even nice.
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16 Responses

  1. Carol says:

    Loved the article…

  2. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    I loved Beartown. Thanks for an engaging piece.

  3. I just finished (and enjoyed) A Man Called Ove — I’ll put Beartown on my reading list. Your table looks lovely – thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. Ginny says:

    I loved the mirror scape. My mother use to make them all the time for friends when they were ill to cheer them up. That was before WWII. This is the first mirror scape I can remember seeing in many years. Thanks for the view as it brought back many good memories of my mother.

  5. Beverly Stafford says:

    Had never heard of a sandwich cake, but it sounds yummy. Since there are just two of us, I might just make a couple of sandwiches with all those good things you put into/onto your cake. Thanks for the review, recipe, and photos.

  6. Carrie says:

    I really enjoyed A Man Called Ove and Britt Marie Was Here, written well and are stories about people. Right now I am reading the third book in a series of three, Ken Folletts A Column Of Fire.
    (Photos show a pretty elaborate luncheon. :))

  7. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    I enjoyed “A Man Called Ove,” I’m currently plowing through Anne Proulx’s “Barkskins”—a damned good historical novel, if you like those. I think I’ll put “Beartown” in the queue.

    I’ll admit that Hal’s recommendation weighs a lot in that decision. The review was great, too, but I kept getting distracted by the pictures of food. I’d never heard of Smorgastarta, and now I want it for dinner.

    • Beverly Stafford says:

      When I’m in a really great mood and need something to depress me, I reach for an Annie Proulx book.

      • hollynchase says:

        Haha! So true. Although I admire Annie Proulx, I wouldn’t call her novels uplifting. I loved The Shipping News, but I did indeed have to “plow” through Barkskins.

  8. Kathy Oppenheim says:

    What a tremendous amount of work but beautifully presented. Beartown was well written but an emotional challenge to read. Thanks for recommending it.

  9. Linda says:

    I loved “Beartown” as much as I love my friend, Hollyn. The Swedish luncheon sounds like it was fabulous. Wish I could have been there.

  10. Lori says:

    Excellent article on Beartown and I love your book club. How fun it must be to meet for a themed lunch and discuss books!

  11. Linnea PERRINE says:

    Hollyn,
    As always, you have a way with words. Being one of the lucky ladies who has enjoyed a long time membership in our very special book club, I am telling you, we will never kick you out. You add life, vitality and wisdom to our group (as does every member In their own unique way).
    Your luncheon was one of a kind. As everyone can see, it was a treat to the eyes as well as the taste buds. Your endeavor and creativity is always enjoyed and appreciated.
    You will be a hard act to follow. Thanks for such a lovely afternoon.

  12. Suzanne says:

    Hollyn, your presentation looks fabulous! I must admit I was privileged to taste your first Swedish cake and even though it was not as visually exciting as the second, it was delicious! Thanks so much for your hospitality and lovely company, I enjoyed my time with you and Jack.
    I look forward to seeing you again and enjoying another tasty treat! Yum!

  13. Vicki Sharp says:

    I always enjoy Hollyn’s articles and this one is exceptional complete with photo’s. Her sense of humor is delightful.

  14. Kathy says:

    Hollyn has a way of writing her reviews with such insight, alacrity and humor that I find myself looking forward to her column more than reading or listening to the book! Thank you for sharing your recipe and beautiful photos as well.

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