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Party Like The Swedes On Summer Solstice

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 14, 2011

Adopting someone else’s holidays can be an uphill battle. You can smile politely and appreciate from a distance, but deep down you’re struggling to understand unfamiliar songs, customs and family traditions. Deep down, it’s hard to make a new holiday really feel like your own. Unless that holiday is midsommar.

Midsommar, the Swedish term for the summer solstice, is a pretty easy holiday to love — perhaps because it’s more of a party than a holiday. This year, it falls on June 21. Swedes, like many in Europe, have celebrated the longest day of the year since pagan times. And with good reason: In a northern land where the sun barely rises during the dark, snowy winter, summer is a time to celebrate the golden outdoors. It’s a time to sing and dance (ideally around a flower-studded maypole or frighteningly large bonfire), eat the best of the summer crops, and toss back shots of bracingly strong alcohol.

Here in Portland, Ore., we know what it’s like to suffer through endless winter (true, ours is gray and soggy versus dark and snowy, but the oh-where-did-the-sun-go sentiment is the same). So when my boyfriend suggested we draw upon his Swedish heritage and host a midsommar party, I was game (and it seemed only fair, given the number of epically large seders and latkesplash parties I’d forced him to co-host). I was surprised and delighted to discover how easy it is to have an American midsommar, and how much fun. Plus, what other holiday gives you an excuse to wear a flower crown when you’ve grown beyond flower-girl age?

Swedish midsommar essentially comes down to three things: friends, food and schnapps. New potatoes and strawberries are just coming to harvest at midsommar, and a Swedish party wouldn’t be complete without them. Usually the berries are served fairly unadorned, save for some lightly sweetened whipped cream. New potatoes are showcased in a similarly pared-down fashion, usually with just a touch of butter and dill (the only fresh herb Scandinavia seems to embrace). Herring, pickled in a simple vinegar or mustard sauce, is also required (although we have gone to the trouble of grilling West Coast sardines for our American celebrations, usually we just pick up a few jars of herring at Ikea for those who are brave enough to try it). Piles of brown bread or crispbread make a perfect landing pad for heaps of dilled shrimp salad, or thin slices of strong cheese. And then there’s the schnapps.

No true Swedish midsommar celebration is complete without aquavit (and lots of it). Like gin, this distilled liquor is flavored with a varying blend of spices, from cardamom to fennel to dill, with each distillery (or kitchen) coming up with its own signature combination. But whatever the individual breakdown, the flavor of caraway is usually front and center — which can be a lot to handle in a beverage. Swedes throw back shot after shot of the stuff during midsommar (newbies are advised to only drink half the shot in order to make it through the long evening), but American palates are seldom up to the task.

We first bought a bottle of aquavit years ago to ring in a Swedish-style Christmas (yes, they drink it then as well), and still had half the bottle when summer rolled around — which led to the development of our signature midsommar drink: the Scandipolitan. Swap aquavit for the vodka in your standard Cosmo, and then replace the cranberry cocktail with the much-more-thematic lingonberry juice. Even after we found a Portland-made aquavit that is tasty enough to drink straight, the Scandopolitan still has a solid place on the midsommar table.

Unlike the Swedes, we mainland Americans still have a sunset on midsommar, though we try to combat it with a large backyard fire. We encourage friends to bring a European beverage of their own choosing, and try to rouse the backyard in song (with limited success). It all creates a lovely, warm summer feeling — enough to keep spirits sunny through whatever dark days lie ahead. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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