Last weekend, I had the privilege of attending a bona fide Julefrokost, a traditional Danish Christmas Lunch, hosted by Under the Table’s very own Mette Hornung Rankin, designer extraordinaire and honest to goodness Dane, and her husband Darin, an honorary Dane.
A week later, I have finally recovered from my pickled herring and Aquavit-induced daze enough to share this magnificent holiday tradition with you. So much more than a mere meal, a Julefrokost is a unique sort of food marathon, one that I’m not entirely sure can be replicated. Most home cooks have attempted at one point or another to recreate a raucous Italian family dinner or a French wine country dining experience, but the Danish Christmas Lunch–this is something unique. Frankly, I’m not ever planning to try. I’m just going to be really nice to Mette all year long, sort of like she’s Santa, and hope she invites me every December.
A Julefrokost is a feast of epic proportions. It’s expected to last six hours or more, so guests must be interesting, or at least entertaining, especially when intoxicated. Picky eaters and mean drunks are not ideal invitees.
The courses are innumerable and filling, the sandwiches come with more rules and regulations for assembly than a home gym, the ice-cold Aquavit burbles forth unceasingly in your glass like a mountain spring. You put butter and remoulade on everything, the pickled herring bowl is always full, frequent toasting is just good manners, an empty Schnapps glass is not, marzipan is given its due, and extra points are gifted for being able to weave paper stars midway through the meal.
You’ll have to forgive my clumsy attempts to adequately photodocument this Scandinavian banquet. I blame the Aalborg.
I will start with the invite, which Mette designed herself, cutting out each little compartment. When opened, they revealed the invitation piece by piece, in both Danish and English. Remarkable.
I am ashamed to say that we were 45 minutes late to the Julefrokost. This is my fault, because instead of making the dill mustard sauce for my assigned dish (gravlax) the night before like a sensible person, I waited until the last minute, and then an interview I had went longer than expected, and there I was in my boyfriend’s kitchen on the east side at 12:42 frantically whisking dijon and dill and screaming for the cider vinegar like a mad food surgeon. I lost a good five minutes fumbling through the cupboards for a piece of Tupperware and another three trying to find my scarf. I looked at the clock–1:04. Mette lives in the Northeast. I calculated our arrival. This was not happy math. It’s bad enough to be almost an hour late to a regular dinner party, but to be that late to a Danish party, well…needless to say, I was flustered.
All the Tupperware lids had run off somewhere, probably having a tryst with the vinegar, so I wrapped the container in Saran Wrap and threw everything in the car, then made a mad dash for Northeast Portland. Now at the 35 minutes late mark, I still had to stop at the Concordia New Seasons for bread. I grabbed for my purse and yanked it up, promptly knocking the mustard sauce halfway across the car, where half of it oozed happily under the front seat.
Abandoning my boyfriend as he sat there howling something about never getting the smell of mustard and vinegar out of the carpet, I sprinted for the front door of New Seasons. where sure enough, I got in line behind The Lady Whose Check Won’t Go Through. The other lines were twice as long, my bread and paper towels were already on the conveyor belt, all I could do was count to 10. Like a hundred times. I also added some nearby unicorn bandaids to the pile as a peace offering to Mette, who likes to draw unicorns crying sometimes. I fidgeted and the lady behind me asked “Are you late to something too?” I told her I was now upwards of 40 minutes late to a Danish Christmas Lunch and she nodded understandingly. “I was two and a half hours late to a dinner party last week,” she said. “It was in Dublin, though.” I didn’t really know what to say to that. ”I’ve learned just not to sweat it,” she told me.
Which was a nice philosophy, that is, if your Danish friend, who believes in prompt promptness, weren’t waiting to drown you in pickled herring. Anyway I finally got back out to the car, where my boyfriend had wiped up most of the mustard sauce using napkins he got from the BBQ joint by New Seasons, and my scarf. We arrived at Mette & Darin’s, a whopping 48 minutes late. I smiled peaceably and handed her the bandaids. She was gracious about my lateness.
Lucy, as is her nature, told me not to sweat it. Then she asked me to get her a beer.
After I’d gotten a good dunking in the pickled herring, I surveyed the table. It looked gorgeous. There were name tags, checkered cloth napkins, tea lights, menus, recipe and activity booklets, and even pine cones.
The beer advent calendar was lined up.
The Danish flag, aka Dannebrog, flew proudly on the table. In Denmark, Mette told me, Danes always hang a flag outside their house when they have a party. Also, in case you didn’t know this, the Danish flag is the oldest flag that’s still being used.
A tall, frosty bottle of Aalborg Akvavit was on the table. Produced in the town of Aalborg, Denmark, this is the real deal. Mette found it at Beaumont Liquor Store at NE Killingsworth & 33rd.
Just down the table was a bottle of Portland’s own House Spirits’ Distillery’s Krogstad Aquavit. Judging from the second to the last sentence in the inscription on the back, House Spirits knows the Scandinavians well.
“The Scandinavians are an adventurous people with a long history of setting out for new lands across vast oceans. From this traveling spirit, grew one of their strongest traditions. Whenever sailors returned home they were greeted with a glass of Aquavit. In this bottle we bring together adventure, family, friends, tradition and a taste of history. Enjoy it with friends after a long journey or, as the Scandinavians do, anytime. It is our way of welcoming you home.”
Then there was the menu, printed in pleasing shades of soft blue-green, in both English and Danish, a formidable and fearsome document detailing six hours worth of good Scandinavian eating.
Mette called the group to order and explained the rules. Like, don’t get up from the table, except to get more beer or go to the bathroom. Only toast if you have a full glass. Toast often. Put butter on everything. Okay, maybe not everything.
The first course is made up entirely of sandwiches. The sandwiches are open-faced, and are assembled on the little board placed next to your plate. You take a thin slice of dense rye bread, place it on your board, smear it liberally with Danish butter, then build your sandwich using whatever culinary morsels you’re provided with. Then you must transfer your beautiful sandwich from your board to your plate, and eat it with a knife and fork. I missed a few steps, and Mette noticed.
For the first round, Mette passed around bowls of pickled herring and mackerel with tomato sauce. There was also a bowl of curry sauce made with creme fraiche, egg, apple and onion, and real Danish remoulade in a tube, both of which which you could put atop the fish if you pleased. Aquavit glasses were refilled. A toast was made, with a hearty rallying cry of ”Skål!”
Round two of the sandwiches involved mounding little bay shrimps on the rye bread with wedges of hard-boiled egg and of course, butter and remoulade. Aquavit glasses were refilled. A toast was made.
Platters of breaded tilapia were passed around, and that too became a sandwich. Aquavit glasses were refilled. A toast was made.
Next up, the gravlax, which I made. I was very proud of it and shall provide you with the recipe below. And, despite having dropped half the accompanying dill mustard sauce on the floor of my car, there seemed to be plenty to go around. Aquavit glasses were refilled. A toast was made.
Finally, Mette brought out platters of carefully plated roast beef, salami, and sliced fresh vegetables. By now I was starting to get alarmed, because Course 1 did not seem to be ending. This was however, the swan song. And yes, Aquavit glasses were refilled and a toast was made.
At this point, Arlie announced that he had seen an elephant in his beer. It was passed around to table, to exclamations of recognition and awe.
Following this discovery, or perhaps because of it, Mette allowed everyone a break. She led a small group in a traditional arts and crafts activity–creating paper stars.
Everyone prepped for the next course in different ways. Arlie played with a genuine Danish slinky to burn calories.
Lucy guarded the leftover roast beef.
Jeff took a nap.
In the kitchen, Jonathan sauteed asparagus for Course 2 while Darin consulted.
When Course 2 was set on the table, I wasn’t sure I could eat another bite. But when someone brings out a bowl of meatballs, what’s a girl to do? Savory pork and beef Danish meatballs, dill-laced potato salad, and sauteed asparagus made the rounds.
By now I’d wised up. My portions were conservative. There were two courses to go!
My glass was empty.
Mette was displeased!
Aquavit glasses were refilled. A toast was made. After another short breather and some deep table discussion about mobile slaughterhouses, alternate uses for Viagra, and the Pink Glove Dance, the cheese course was served.
I’d been eyeing the dessert table since dinner started, and it’s time had now come.
Katie and Brian had made tantalizing little chocolate-covered marizpan bites and crisp buttery sugar cookies, served with mugs of hot tea and coffee.
The clock struck 7pm. Everyone was tired.
Mette was happy. It was a Julefrokost to remember.
AN INTERVIEW WITH JULEFROKOST HOSTESS METTE HORNUNG RANKIN
Bonjour IM with Mette Hornung Rankin 3:14 PM
Jen: can i interview you about the julefrokost?
Jen: ok, thanks. Mette, what is the significance of a julefrokost?
Mette: I’m not sure if there is any historical meaning, but basically it’s a time to get together and eat lots of Danish food. Usually Danes get really drunk while they’re at it.
Jen: (long pause as is sidetracked by coworker) oh sorry James Westby was at my desk, telling me about his lunch at Nel Centro. back on track! Hmm, so rampant drinking is involved. Is this why when one googles Julefrokost, one sees tons of pictures of boozy fair-haired men without their shirts on?
Mette: probably. the danes like to have a good time.
Jen: nobody took their shirt off at your party. what’s up with that? well, except lucy.
Mette: she has no shame. and you guys were a bunch of liquor imbibing wimps.
my recycling bin wasn’t even half full!
Jen: frankly, I’m embarrassed. tell me about your best julefrokost experience ever. you don’t have to be nice and say 2009.
Mette: i would have to say julefrokost 2000, which was when I went to Gymnasium (Danish High School). I hosted all of my classmates at my aunt and uncles house and we partied until 4 in the morning.
Jen: you are so crazy! i had no idea.
Mette: actually, they all told me it was the tamest julefrokost they had ever been to. one girl brought the traditional dessert, ris ala mande, but it was on the back of her bike and accidentally fell off while she was riding to my place. there is 1 whole almond in the dessert, and whoever gets it wins a prize, but we never found it. we think it was lost.
Jen: WAIT A MINUTE? THERE WAS NO RIS ALA MANDE LAST WEEKEND! NO ALMOND! NO PRIZE!
Mette: well, i was trying to break you guys in easy. by the 3rd course you were slowing down. you never would have made it. i usually get the almond every year. it makes my sister so mad.
Jen: I wish I was Danish.
Jen: The first course is very fish heavy. What do you do if someone doesn’t like fish?
Mette: um, that doesn’t usually happen in Danmark. this was the first time I’ve encountered it. i guess they go hungry. or wait for course 3, where we eat frikadeller
Mette: DANISH MEATBALLS!!!! they are sooooo good
Jen: those were great!! way better than Ikea.
Mette: um, yeah
Jen: what’s your favorite part of the meal?
Mette: well, my personal favorites are the makral i tomat, the fiskefilet with remoulade, and frikadeller
Jen: me too.
Mette: you’re just agreeing because you can’t type in danish
Mette: øø åå ææ
Jen: cut it out! is it true that following the julefrokost, you had so much pickled herring left over that you brought it to work for lunch for a week and stunk up the whole office and even the hallway?
Mette: I couldn’t smell it at all!
Jen: i could
Mette: it was nothing compared to my house, that’s for sure!
Jen: of all the dishes that people brought to the jujela froogela, which one was the best? Like, I would have to say, the gravlax.
Mette: well, aside from the mustard sauce incident, the gravlax was pretty good. but katie did an impeccable job with the marzipan bites
Jen: yes that was unfortunate. the mustard sauce I mean.
Mette: how does your car smell?
Jen: rather poorly, thanks for asking
Mette: julefrokost seems to be smelly business
Jen: Assuredly, i will never forget it. i think about it every morning on my way to work, and every evening on my way home from work. well, anything else you would like to say about this momentous occasion?
Mette: next time we will have to sing some Danish drinking songs to get you in the mood. Julefrokost 2010!
Jen: oh boy, i better start practicing. well, thanks again. it was a rollicking good time. I think I’ll go take a nap under my desk now, just thinking about it. If any sort of authority figure approaches, please toss something my way in warning. Anything but pickled herring.
Mette: sweet dreams
Mette Hornung Rankin has left this chat