- By Addie Broyles American-Statesman Staff
Even though more than 160,000 Texans claim Swedish descent, their German and Czech counterparts have done a better job at keeping their culture in the public eye, particularly when it comes to food.
Barbecue and kolaches are an easier sell than lutefisk, but when I got an invite to a midsummer smorgasbord at Ikea last month and immediately thought about meatballs, I realized how little I knew about the food of my ancestors.
First, a little history about Swedes in Texas. We have Swante Swenson, the state’s first Swede and, later, one of its largest landholders, to thank for helping create what became known as the “Swedish pipeline,” a system of bringing thousands of Swedes to Texas for jobs in the mid- to late 1800s.
In fact, so many immigrants came from a small town in southern Sweden called Barkeryd that in 1975, Gov. Dolph Briscoe proclaimed its residents as honorary citizens of Texas.
You can’t go far in Central Texas without finding a relic of these Swedish founders, most often preserved in the names of towns, roads or, most notably, the airport. (A fact to keep in mind next time you fly out of the Austin airport: John August Earl Bergstrom, born in Austin to Swedish parents in 1907, was the first Austinite killed in World War II.)
But despite a long, rich history, places that celebrate Swedish foodways are hard to find. Timothy’s Scandinavian Treats in Austin and European Bistro in Pflugerville have closed in recent years, and though you can get Swedish pancakes at the Original Pancake House on West Parmer Lane, I haven’t been able to pinpoint a single Swedish restaurant in the Lone Star State.
That is, unless you count the cafe at Ikea in Round Rock, which I discovered is something of a cultural hub for Swedes and Swedophiles.
My own trail back to Sweden leads to Gotland, the island in the Baltic Sea that my great-great grandfather, Gustav Anders, left in 1876. He landed in Springfield, Miss., an area of the country that most of that side of my family still calls home.
I’ve written before about the bread knife and rolling pin that came over when Gustav’s wife, Carolina, came over 10 years after he did, but even though this wonderful story has survived all these years, the truly Swedish food customs did not.
We didn’t eat Swedish pancakes or lutefisk, even though my grandmother speaks fondly of them, and we didn’t celebrate midsummer, the longest day of the year and one of the biggest holidays in Sweden.
For more than 60 years, the Elgin Swedish Association has hosted a midsummer celebration, which this year featured a chicken fried steak dinner, but what a surprise it was to find native Swedes, Americans of Swedish descent and plenty of folks who were just interested in smoked salmon and cold ham enjoying a traditional smörgåsbord late last month at Ikea, which opened off Interstate 35 north of Round Rock in 2006.
If you’ve ever been to this hard-to-miss giant store, you’ve probably strolled through the grocery area near the checkout lines, where you’ll find hundreds of products, from elderflower and lingonberry syrups to cured and smoked salmon, fish roe spread and, of course, meatballs.
But Ikea’s midsummer feast happens in the cafe, the restaurant inside the store helmed by chef Jason Bomer, a West Texas native of German and Native American descent.
Bomer, who left Nordstrom’s famously upscale cafe to take over the kitchen at Ikea earlier this year, has had to learn a lot about Swedish food and culture in his new job, especially in preparation for the four traditional feasts that the store hosts each year: two at Christmas and Easter, one at midsummer and a crayfish boil in August.
“We try to take the Swedish and Americanize it,” he says, “but a lot of Swedes come in to get a taste of home.”
Bomer says that he has regulars who come to the cafe just for the meatballs or to meet up for coffee, but most of the dishes in the smorgasbord feast were items you couldn’t buy on the regular menu.
A whole poached salmon greeted guests at the buffet, followed by platters of prinskorv (the Swedish version of Vienna sausage, Bomer says), hard-boiled eggs with various accouterments, boiled dill and rosemary potatoes, and three kinds of cured and smoked salmon with corresponding sauces, and tables full of rhubarb pies, almond cake, cookies and dome-shaped prinsesstårta, also called princess cake.
Not surprisingly, most diners passed over the pickled herring, but Bomer’s cheesy potato gratin with just a hint of herring tasted like a Thanksgiving favorite with a twist.
Right next to the soda foundation, where diners filled glass after glass with an effervescent and perfectly sweet lingonberry soda, musicians from the Annoying Instrument Orchestra played traditional and nontraditional tunes.
Among the dozens of customers who came for the first of three seatings was Sweden native Bertil Fredstrom, who moved to Texas for a two-year stint at IBM more than a decade ago and decided to stick around. (Fredstrom left the tech world to become a full-time magician, and he now runs Fantastic Magic Camp.)
Fredstrom has been known to come to Ikea just to pick up rye crispbread or strong Swedish coffee (“We’re the biggest coffee drinkers in the world,” he says) but he also tries to come to the special events, too.
Ikea doesn’t serve the flavored vodkas that he’d usually enjoy at midsummer in his homeland, but Fredstrom says the meatballs and salmon are spot on.
“The only thing is: We’re never indoors for midsummer,” he says.
So, with all the shared Swedish heritage in Texas, why aren’t there more restaurants or bakeries in the state? Fredstrom’s best guess is that Texas Swedes prepare heritage dishes at home with family or friends but that the cuisine is too limited to support standalone establishments.
“I look forward to midsummer, but I really look forward to the crayfish party,” Fredstrom says of the event next month. Unlike Cajun crawfish boils, the Swedes boil crayfish in salted water with dill and then serve them cold at a feast called Kräftskiva, Fredstrom explains. (See box with details.)
At the table next to Fredstrom was Deborah Mathison, a Cedar Park resident whose mother is from Sweden and whose father’s family is also Swedish.
Mathison grew up inundated with Scandinavian culture, particularly when her family lived in a Swedish neighborhood in Chicago called Andersonville, where they could buy lutefisk at Erickson’s Delicatessen, a shop that is still selling the famously smelly fish and other traditional foods today.
She says she remembers her grandmother making lutefisk at home by burying whitefish in potash and then leaching the lye from the fish, a task performed outside because of the terrible odor.
“Even the cats and dogs didn’t want it,” she says. “I can still remember to this day how strong that smell was.” Despite the smell, she has learned to love to eat it.
“At Christmas, every good Swedish child has to eat a small square of lutefisk or else they couldn’t open their presents,” Mathison says.
Mathison went to midsummer in Sweden with her mother 13 years ago, and she says that even though the bread was harder and the sausages colder, the Ikea smorgasbord was “excellent approximation of the real thing.”
Also enjoying the event were Dawn and Hakan Riggestad, who were celebrating their 31st anniversary.
Their sweet story starts 32 years ago when Hakan Riggestad, who was born and raised in Sweden, was an exchange student living with Dawn Riggestad’s family in Pennsylvania and didn’t have a car. She had already left home for college, but they met when she came home for a visit.
She started coming back on the weekends to show Hakan Riggestad around, and by the time he went back to Sweden at the end of summer, they were in love. Dawn Riggestad bought a one-way ticket to Sweden around Christmas, and they married at the following midsummer.
They eventually moved back to the United States and to Austin, but now they come to Ikea’s midsummer feast to celebrate their anniversary every year.
“It’s cheaper than a trip to Sweden,” she says.