We arrived at the home of my boyfriend's mother, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, just a few days before Christmas. Her two Swedish lapphunds, Sigge and Silop, barked incessantly when we stepped inside, uncertain of who these strangers were. After all, it had been five years since my boyfriend last visited and it was my first time there altogether. The sharp barking ceased once the rounds of hugs commenced.
His mother, Jeanette, lives in a large three-story house that was built on a hilltop in the early 1900s and overlooks a lake. In fact, it's so big that it was transformed into three apartments in which to house herself and her companion Hans, her daughter Pia and teenaged grandson Marcus, as well as Pia's grown daughter Veronica and her boyfriend Kasper, who have their own private dwelling in the attic with a puppy named Belder.
After such a long journey, we were hungry and eager for a hot meal. Everyone bustled around the table, setting out dishes, pulling up chairs, and pouring cold beer into glasses. A board of traditional Danish dark rye bread sat at the center, ready to be topped by an array of pickled herring, rullepølse (spiced rolled ham), and Gamle Ole, a distinctively pungent cheese. A large brick of softened butter was hurriedly passed around.
The chatter was done loudly and Danish, though, I didn't much mind. I was a fly on the wall, witnessing a Danish family's weeknight dinner. "Jessica!" Jeannette called out from the other side of the table, in her heavy accent, "I am happy you are here." As a foreigner, those magic words instantly made one feel warmly welcomed.
Hans, being Swedish himself, carried over his pièce de resistance: Janssen's Temptation, a rich Swedish casserole filled with lots of potatoes, cream, onions, and juniper-and-sugar-tinged pickled sprats. I personally can't resist any home-cooked dish that appears in a casserole dish, but found that–aside from my boyfriend, who requested that dish–none of the others partook. I tried offering some to Pia, who sat beside me, but she smiled and happily pointed to her plate of rye bread and cheese.
Hans peered at me over his glasses and sighed, "Danish people find the taste of 'Swedish anchovies' too strong." Then, he looked at the table and announced, "I have a second one in the oven called Jensen's Temptation," he joked, "which has less anchovies." (Jensen is the Danish version of the Swedish surname Janssen.) Everyone rolled their eyes and shook their heads at him.
"Do you really like this?" Veronica asked incredulously from across the table.
"I love it!" my boyfriend exclaimed, shoveling a forkful into his mouth.
"Well then, that can be your Christmas present!" she deadpanned as laughter erupted.
Hans passed me a shot glass filled with snaps, a Danish aquavit. Soon enough, everyone had one.
"Be careful with this," my boyfriend warned, "People have been known to completely lose it after two."
Jeannette held up her glass and roared, "Skål!"
"Skål!" we roared like a band of rowdy Vikings as we downed the shot. A fireball of alcohol raced down my throat.
It would not be the last I'd see of dark rye bread, cheese, potatoes, cream, butter, herring, pork, or snaps. Day after day, they'd all make their appearance. Don't get me wrong, it was some of the most memorable home-cooking I experienced, but I started to feel like a Christmas goose whose gullet was being filled to capacity.
After Day 4, I looked over at my boyfriend and wailed, "I don't think I can do this anymore! I just need clear broth and bitter green leaves!"
We were in bed, severely jet-lagged, watching The Americans on Netflix at 2 a.m. He had a made a habit of bringing midnight snacks into bed and I had made a habit out of indulging in them with him.
"Oh, stop it," he said, taking a bite of rye bread, slathered with whipped lard and topped with pickled herring. "It's the holidays."
"O.K. One bite."