Forget the all-night boozing, the spicy jambalaya and the gaudy-colored king cake. And definitely forget the scantily clad debauchery that is Mardi Gras.
Like the set-up of a Garrison Keillor joke, I'm here to tell you about Lutherans and their sweet February buns. Welcome to Fat Tuesday Nordic-style.
Known as semlor in Sweden and fastelavens boller in Norway, these cardamom-scented rounds of yeasted dough are filled with a thick ring of whipped cream and topped with a flurry of confectioner's sugar. Often, bakers blend a spoonful of almond paste with milk to tuck a super sweet surprise under the filling.
Anna Brones, co-author of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break, jokes that for Swedes, "that's a lot of decadence." Denmark and Iceland sometimes take the extravagance even further by draping the buns in chocolate glaze.
"Scandinavia is not known for overdoing it," says Brones. And that's perhaps due to a culture heavily influenced by a religion that's known for its asceticism. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland may be culturally secular, but 70 to 80 percent of the population in the region identifies as Lutheran — even if they only set foot in church for baptisms and Christmas.
Mardi Gras, on the other hand, is a Catholic holiday (though we rarely acknowledge the religious roots anymore). The all-night debauchery and gluttony still observed in New Orleans, and during the carnival in Rio and Trinidad, are descended from the Catholic cultures of France and Spain. The idea is to get all the wickedness of your system before 40 days of self-deprivation, or Lent, undertaken in the spirit of Christ's suffering.
But the Protestant Reformation, which swept across Northern Europe some 500 years ago, killed off most of the traditions that made Catholic Mardi Gras so much fun. As they stripped the church of ornate decoration, reformers railed against the feast-and-famine cycle of extremes. Instead, these new Protestants advocated the moderation that has come to characterize Norway as much as Minnesota, where so many 19th-century Scandinavian immigrants settled in the U.S.
But the holiday wasn't lost entirely; instead, it was modified. In Iceland, the Catholic self-flagellation of Flengingardagur (Spanking Day) became the pleasure of Bolludagur (Bun Day) – essentially a kind of Fat Monday. Icelandic food writer Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir explains that the whipping changed from a religious rite to a bit of a joke, "a kind of sport to try to catch people in bed or still asleep and spank them." Victims only escaped by paying in cream filled buns.
Modern day Icelandic children have turned the spanking into beating their parents with homemade wands on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. In exchange they receive one bun for each beating. On that day alone, the nation's bakeries sell over a million buns to a nation of 300,000 people, writes Rögnvaldardóttir in Icelandic Food and Cookery. Add to that tally the countless pastries made at home and you begin to pity the poor parents of Reykjavik.
The U.S. is experiencing its own kind of Nordic Fat Tuesday reformation as these buns become an increasingly popular way to celebrate the holiday in cities like New York, and communities with Scandinavian roots.
It doesn't hurt that "the Nordic food trend is booming," says Nina Brondmo, owner of Brooklyn's Bakeri, where Norwegian fastelavens boller will be served for the first time on Shrove Tuesday this year.
FIKA, a chain of upscale Swedish cafes, opened in New York City in 2006 and now feeds Nordic-philes semlor at its 13 stores across Manhattan in the weeks running up to Lent. "The interest [in semlor] is huge," reports Lena Khoury, FIKA's director of strategy and communications.
Brones says she thinks the appeal is part of the larger movement toward fresh, seasonal and uncomplicated food in the U.S. "Scandinavian food is not fancy cooking by any means," she says. Instead, it relies on doing a lot with a little — like the flour, yeast, cardamom and cream that are transformed into the ideal bite for the pastry modernist.
And then there's the "Ikeafication" of America. As the straight lines and slim curves of the north edge out overstuffed sofas in living rooms across the country, so too do simple semlor compete against the hodgepodge of jambalaya and the ostentatious king cake.
The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis serves the dual mission of celebrating Swedish-American heritage and connecting America to the Nordic region. Last year there was so much enthusiasm for the semlor served in the Institute's Fika Café that they decided to start selling them three weeks earlier. Laura Cederberg with the institute points out that "although semlor have long been part of the Swedish experience, they weren't necessarily part of the Swedish-American experience."
Luckily, now they are.
Anne Bramley is an American expat in the U.K. and the author of Eat Feed Autumn Winter and creator of the Eat Feed podcast.