Today is Midsummer! The summer solstice is a big deal in Scandinavian countries, and I grew up celebrating it with my local Swedish Society. We'd have a big potluck, replete with Scandinavian goodies, in a local park, raise a giant maypole, and then sing and dance Swedish songs around it. My florist parents and I would do all the decorations for the maypole - a local guy would bring a huge harvest of poplar and cottonwood branches to serve as the greenery, and my dad would wire it all onto feet and feet of garland. The morning of, we'd wire leftover fresh flowers onto the garland and then deck the maypole, which had to have been at least 20 feet tall. Then it would get raised up at the park and everything felt festive! The picnic would be held in a big covered park pavilion, and we'd often have live music or visiting Scandinavian bands, but the food was the main attraction.
Midsummer has long roots in Scandinavia. Celebrated since pagan Viking times, the festival emphasized the importance of the sun and fire. Sankthansaften - or St. John's Eve - is the night before midsummer, and in Norway is often celebrated with huge bonfires, including the one in Ålesund, Norway, which features the largest bonfire in the world! In Sweden, where midsommar is the biggest deal in all of the Nordic countries, the maypole is generally the center of midsummer celebrations. Salmon, shrimp, herring, sour cream, dill, cucumbers, strawberries, almond-flavored desserts, and whipped cream feature prominently in most Midsummer menus, along with copious amounts of aquavit (which, sadly, I could not find in my local liquor stores). Spring fish runs, woodland strawberries, and early vegetables like new potatoes all reflect the arrival of the summer season in Scandinavia, which is later than in most of Europe. Midsummer also heralds the season of midnight sun. As the longest day of the year for the Northern hemisphere, the summer solstice near the Arctic circle means just a few hours of twilight, and no actual nighttime, for weeks. Here in the northern United States, it just means the sun sets a little later than normal.
Ever since my mom died, I've been feeling the need to reconnect with my Scandinavian roots. There are far fewer of us out East than back home, so I decided to introduce my friends to a real Scandinavian party. The midsummer porch picnic was born and now I want to do one every year!
Scandinavian Midsummer Menu
I wanted the menu to be relatively straightforward and easy to prepare. I had a few extras on my list, but didn't quite get there due to time constraints (as per usual). I did the desserts ahead of time, but everything else was prepared the morning of. I was running behind, so the sandwiches were assembled with help from the guests!
Here's the full menu:
Fresh Pea Spread
Creamed Pickled Herring*
Wasa Rye Crackers*
Dilled Potato Salad
Scandinavian Cucumber Salad
Open Faced Sandwiches:
Salmon Cucumber Salad on White
Dill Havarti and Summer Sausage with Cucumber on Rye
Ham and Jarlsberg on Pumpernickel with Lingonberry Jam
Ski Queen Brunost on Rye with Strawberry Jam
Sandbakkels Small and Large with Jam and Whipped Cream
Midsummer Rice Pudding with Raspberry Sauce
Rommegrot Ice Cream
Rhubarb Gin & Tonics
*you can buy these things - no need to make yourself!
I'll be posting one recipe a day for the next several days, so keep your eyes peeled. No need to bookmark your favorites, I'll link them all back to this menu.
We are lucky enough that our little house has a very large screen porch, and one larger than our living room! This is always the perfect place for summer parties, although the fireplace is no longer useable. The uneven stone floor makes for some interesting seating and table arrangements sometimes, but it's worth it for the space to spread out all at tables together.
I got to use some of my vintage dishes, including newly acquired Block Optic green Depression glass, some little pink depression glass dessert plates, and my favorite lace-edged milk glass plates for those who were too nervous to eat off of the green uranium glass.
Rice pudding with raspberry sauce, a pitcher of rhubarb gin and tonic, and sandbakkels large and small with strawberry, blackberry, and homemade (not by me) raspberry-rose wine jam and topped with homemade whipped cream. The blue pitcher just out of sight in the upper right hand corner contained the elderflower punch.
Although the party was a smash success (the first guest arrived at 2 pm - the last left at 10:30 pm), and we did get our bonfire outdoors, we were having too much fun to make the flower crowns I had planned! And the unseasonably chilly weather (a high of just 63 F after the previous day's high of 90 F was a bit of a shock) did put the kibosh on some of our plans. But we still had a great time.
I tried pickled herring for the first time. It was my Swedish grandpa's favorite, but although it was nowhere near as bad as I feared as a child, the creamy sweet-and-sour flavor was not my favorite. I sent the jar home with a friend who fell in love. The pickled beets went home with another friend who loves them, and the last bits of the extremely good creamy cucumber salad went home with another friend's kids, who couldn't stop eating it. The rhubarb gin turned out divine, and everyone was curiously addicted to the elderflower punch. The extra creamy rice pudding with raspberries was my take on the Swedish rice pudding the society made by the gallons for the big Scandinavian festival I grew up attending every year. The raspberry sauce topping is a must. But the runaway surprise hit of the afternoon was the brunost with strawberry jam. To a person the 15+ people who attended loved it. That was the only platter of sandwiches to be totally gone by the end of the evening.
In all, a delightful party, despite the weather, and one I'm definitely going to repeat. Next year I'll make sure to have the flower crown activity ready to go, I'll decorate more with some Scandinavian flags and a mini maypole or two (I don't think I could swing a giant one), and aquavit is definitely going on the menu for next year. And I will try to take more photos!
If you'd like to try your hand at your own midsummer party, feel free to steal liberally from the menu above. Just don't forget to make things festive with flowers, candles, pretty table linens and dishes, and, if you can swing it, a real fire!
Glad midsommar, alle!
Learn more about Scandinavian midsummer traditions.
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Sarah Wassberg Johnson has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany and studies early 20th century food history.