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Essays

Bitter Avocado Toast

It is difficult to fully comprehend the importance of taste and smell until they are gone. Prior to the pandemic, few people thought about the impact of these senses on their daily lives. However, since over 86% of COVID-19 patients report at least some loss of taste and smell, their significance has become increasingly noticeable.

When I tested positive for COVID-19 back in January, I was honestly a bit surprised. I had been home for winter break for a couple of weeks, but had barely seen any of my friends or been anywhere other than the grocery store. Thankfully, the virus did not hit me too hard. Unfortunately, I lost both my sense of taste and smell, but it didn’t really hit me until after about a week later. What if I would never be able to taste my mom’s cooking or smell her perfume again?

 I vividly remember the moment when I realized what my life would be like if I didn’t regain these senses. I was making avocado toast one morning, and like every other 19-year-old college student in the U.S., I decided to add some of the holy Trader Joe’s “Everything but the Bagel” seasoning to it. I bit into the piece of toast, but instead of tasting the sweet and creamy avocado on the nutty bread topped with the salty seasoning, all I could make out was bitterness. I tried to replace the foul-tasting toast with a glass of water, but of course, that only made things worse. A couple of hours later, I decided to give food another go, and I cut up a red honeycrisp apple. To my surprise, the apple was even worse than the toast. 

As the anxious, pre-med hypochondriac that I am, I did the one thing that is completely forbidden in the pre-med world: I Googled my symptoms. I read article upon article about people who had yet to regain their smell, despite not having any other symptoms of the virus. It made me worried, of course, and I couldn’t stop myself from spiraling into a dark hole of anxiety. I began to imagine how different my mornings would become without being able to smell the wonderful aroma of coffee, and how devastating it would be to never be able to taste my favorite foods again. 

Photo Courtesy of Jessie Day.

Smell, and thus taste, are two of the most important senses for people. Since smell is so closely linked to memory, it plays a major role in people’s lives; however, the majority of today’s society does not take the time to reflect upon this phenomenon. The sense of smell allows individuals to better engage in their everyday lives. It provides them with opportunities to find comfort, and thus subconsciously supports both their mental and physical health as well. Taste, on the other hand, can be described as being a close cousin to smell. When people chew food, it touches their nasal epithelium, so almost everything that people say they can taste is actually only a smell. True taste is what is described as sweet, sour, bitter, umami, and salty—or bitter, in my case.

As miniscule as it sounds, not having the ability to smell anything was a problem that basically took over my life for the entire month of January. I was constantly worried that I would never be able to reminisce about memories from my childhood as a result. Although I would not wish this virus upon my greatest enemy, I am thankful for what I went through. As I try to see the silver lining of everything, I recognize that this experience helped me understand how wonderful it is to be able to use these senses as a way to think back to memorable experiences, people, and places. Smell and taste are unique in the way that in only a few seconds, they are able to bring back memories from times that would otherwise become forgotten.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Nora Cooks.

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Essays

A Special Ingredient

Like any other Swede who has moved out of Scandinavia, I have a special place in my heart reserved for Swedish food. Even though I have lived in Texas for the past seven years, I honestly do not think I have gone more than a week without either eating or making something Swedish. It not only brings me joy and a sense of security, but it helps me feel connected to everything and everyone back home.

During lockdown last March, I fell in love with baking. This was not so much because of the baked goods themselves, but more because of the joy it brought to my family. Baking provided me with the opportunity to connect with my brothers on a different level, which is something I was extremely thankful for since I would be going off to college in only a couple of months. I remember baking a cake with my youngest brother the weekend before leaving, cherishing every moment of our time together. 

As one can imagine, I had been completely deprived of baking after living in a 16-square-foot dorm room without a kitchen for three months. Since baking serves as a form of subconscious therapy for me, it was in the forefront of my mind when my plane landed at the airport the day before Thanksgiving. I was more than excited to try all the new recipes I had saved during fall semester.

Photo Courtesy of London Eats.

I wanted my first project to be something that everyone in my family would enjoy, so I decided to make a household favorite: my grandma’s famous drömmar, which translates into “dream cookies” in English. These crispy yet fluffy cookies are fragrant dollops of goodness, and I can guarantee that every Swede would say that they deserve a spot on their top five list of treats. Even though I grew up eating them at least every other week, I had never made them myself. Fortunately, the recipe did not ask for many ingredients; a simple mixture of sugar, butter, flour, vanilla sugar, and raising agent would do. The last ingredient in the recipe caught my eyes; it was something that I had never eaten nor heard of before. Surprised, and a little bit confused, I read it out loud to my mom: hjorthornssalt. In English this translates to “deer horn’s salt,” but it is not actually made out of deer antlers (anymore). Of course, the chemistry nerd in me decided to do some research. 

Photo Courtesy of Confectionary Tales.

As there used to be an abundance of deer roaming around northern Europe, people would pick up the antlers after they had been shed, and use them to make this type of salt. Nowadays hjorthornssalt is a synthetically made ammonium bicarbonate, and it can be found in a plethora of countries across Europe. Since I am such an avid baker, I was shocked to find out that it is actually a common raising agent in several Scandinavian recipes as well. I was a bit skeptical to use it at first due to its pungent smell. Nevertheless, I opened the bag, and a scent reminiscent of cat pee began to fill my nostrils. As the hjorthornssalt converted to gas, the dough turned into a porous texture and the cookies that covered the baking sheet began to look like miniature summer clouds. Thankfully, once the cookies were fully done, the odor was replaced by a wonderful smell of vanilla. The salt gave the cookies a texture that was different than anything I had tasted before. These Swedish delights were fluffy and light but still had a good crunch to them, and their buttery vanilla taste gave them a perfect ratio of sweet to savory. As the name implies, these cookies truly tasted like little dreams in my mouth.

I am currently back at college, so dreaming about these cookies will have to do for now. My next project is going to be mastering the skill of baking cinnamon rolls, but that’s a story for a different time, with a different special ingredient. 

Cover photo courtesy of The Culinary Jumble.

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Essays

The Forest’s Gold

Imagine taking the first steps into an ancient forest. You have just left the dirt road and entered into a kingdom filled with densely packed trees, occasional rock formations, and all sorts of animals and insects, many of which most people have never heard of. The sun has barely risen, and you can still see the morning dew on the grass beneath your feet. The air is thick from the scent of damp moss on the forest floor. The space feels shielded, like a safe haven on Earth. You take a deep breath and inhale all the goodness the forest has to offer, and it’s like your body immediately adjusts to the quiet and slow paced surroundings. As you continue deeper into the forest, it feels as though all your troubles magically disappear, and the only thing occupying your mind is the treasure you came for: the forest’s gold. 

After what feels like hours of walking, you see something yellow in the distance. Could that be it? No, just a couple of yellow leaves that do their best to mimic the forest’s gold. You suspect that someone might have already been here and taken the precious gold you came looking for. You are about to head back to your car when you fall over a tree stump. You land in a shrub of blueberries and decide to try some. They’re sour, not quite ready to be picked. Out of curiosity you look to the side, and there they are: yellow hats with lanky legs, partly hidden under soft green forest moss. The chanterelles are beautiful, golden yellow like the sun and soft to the touch. Thankfully the chanterelles grow in larger groups, so you quickly fill your basket until it’s almost too heavy to carry. 

image courtesy of The Spruce Eats

During the Texas autumn I sometimes long to be back in my favorite Swedish forest. Although it was often rainy, mushroom picking season was my favorite time of the year. My dad and I could be gone for hours on end, hiking in the deep green forest, carefully searching for the delicious golden mushrooms. My dad knew many secret spots that were great hunting grounds for chanterelles. For forest-loving Swedes, chanterelle spots are kept a secret; they’re not even disclosed to close friends and family. Thankfully my dad had found them when he was a young boy, so we always came back home with at least a half a basket of mushrooms. Covered in mosquito repellent and rain gear, we would try to search for what I referred to as the forest’s gold until our basket was filled to the brim. We could always spot some deer and forest rabbits, and if we were lucky, a moose or two would come across our path. We never saw a bear, but they were out there too. Everytime we came back from the forest, we would immediately begin cleaning our catch of forest chanterelles and other mushrooms we had picked. My dad told me how important it was that all the dirt came off, but we still had to be careful not to rub any of the skin away, as that would make it lose all of its hearty goodness. I remember it being quite a slow process, but the chanterelles’ lovely flavor made up for it. Their silky smooth texture and their peppery, but fruity, flavor was what made them so desirable. 

As we usually found several baskets full of chanterelles, we would parboil the mushrooms and let them cool off before freezing them for another time. However, we always saved the best specimens for immediate enjoyment. As we sautéed the fresh chanterelles with butter and salt, we heard our stomachs rumble. We were so excited about all the amazing food we would make during the coming year: chanterelle toast, chanterelle stew, steak with chanterelle sauce. The options were truly endless. I knew one thing for sure––no matter the occasion, you can never go wrong with chanterelles.

image courtesy of honest-food.net

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Essays

Fika Like a Swede

My cheeks were as pink as a rose in full bloom, and my hands were so cold that I could barely move them. It was already dark outside, and Grandpa had walked for one long mile in the knee-deep snow to pick me up from preschool. As he searched for the keys to the front door, I struggled to remove my snow-covered boots. As soon as the door sprung open, I crawled out of my blue winter overalls and ran as quickly as my tiny, size-four feet could carry me into the ‘70s-style kitchen where my grandma was preparing the daily afternoon fika. The house was filled with the wonderful smell of cinnamon, fresh cardamom and sugar. As I sat down at the wooden kitchen table and gulped down three glasses of homemade strawberry lemonade, I watched my grandpa sip his black coffee. I told my grandparents about the snowman my friends and I made earlier that day, and I made sure they could hear every minute detail of what I said. To me, a 3-year-old toddler who barely knew how to tie her own shoes, fika meant consuming as many cinnamon rolls and drinking as much lemonade as my stomach could tolerate in 30 minutes. To my grandparents, fika was a social opportunity filled with joy, love and laughter. It was three o’clock on a dark January afternoon in Uppsala, and I had yet to realize that today’s fika was something I should not have taken for granted.

***

As one of the largest coffee-consuming nations in the world, Sweden is known for fika: a social activity that has become an integral part of the Swedish culture. Serving as both a noun and a verb, fika is difficult to translate into English. In simple words, the concept is similar to a coffee break. People can fika at work, at home, at a cafe, or even at school. Ideally, fika should be homemade, but any kind of fika is always better than none at all. To me, a typical Swedish fika includes coffee, strawberry lemonade, and some type of sweet treat like fresh cinnamon rolls or Swedish Prinsesstårta; however, during the month of December, the only acceptable kind is hot chocolate paired with paper-thin gingerbread cookies and saffron buns. Although it does not matter with whom one enjoys fika, it has to be done in a group setting; by definition, it is impossible to fika alone. Fika is an essential part of daily life, and Swedes take the tradition for granted. 

The most common type of fika takes place at home or at a cafe along with friends and family. It serves as a time dedicated to catching up on the lives of loved ones. Moreover, though it is different, fika at work is not regarded as any less important. Believe it or not, a “fika break” is embedded into employment contracts at most Swedish companies, and one can actually be seen as quite antisocial if he or she chooses not to fika within the group. During this contracted break, coworkers share stories and ideas, as well as any dwelling questions or concerns. As my parents usually tell me, conversations during fika at work can range from topics like midlife crises to birthday party plans. It is not uncommon for coworkers to share homemade muffins or treats at their daily fika as well. Fika solidifies relationships and builds new friendships that would otherwise not have been created.

Without this social, sweet coffee break, there would be no spontaneous family gatherings, fewer meaningful conversations with coworkers or friends, and less exchanges of new ideas and opinions at school or work. I have come to the realization that it is difficult to know how big of an impact something as uncomplicated as fika has on one’s life before it is gone.

When my family and I moved to the United States in January of 2014, I had a tough time building friendships with my new classmates. I felt as though I did not fit in with the American stereotype, which made it hard for me to feel a sense of belonging. With few people I could turn to, I had to navigate the complex environment of middle school by myself. Nevertheless, each afternoon when I came home, the daily fika would be waiting for me at the table, ready to be devoured. The Swedish buns and cookies were sometimes made by my grandma. Growing up on a farm, she would help my great-grandma, Astrid, bake the weekly batch. Astrid often spoke about the importance of fika for solidifying relationships within the local congregation and neighboring farms. Thus, already as a young girl, my grandma knew the importance of a good fika. She kept the baking tradition going, and following our relocation to Texas, a few batches of “Swedish Dream Cookies” would arrive at our doorstep every now and then. When my family and I finally all sat down around the kitchen table after school, I felt that sense of security and belonging I had been lacking throughout the day. As my nerves calmed down, I began to feel less out of place, and my body was sometimes even filled with a little bit of hope and confidence.

Now in college, I am farther away from my family than I have ever been, so I make sure to prioritize my fika break. Most afternoons I can be found sitting down at a bench somewhere on campus with my iced latte and iPhone talking to my family over FaceTime. Sometimes I even go out of my way to purchase a subpar red velvet cupcake at the dining hall, or if I am feeling fancy, a Boston Kreme doughnut from Dunkin’ Doughnuts on Commonwealth Avenue. During this 30 minute fika break we find answers to our problems, exchange opinions, reflect on our past and plan out our future. With all the stress that comes with being a freshman on the pre-medical track, a fika break is just what I need. Of course, my roommates still do not fully understand this Swedish phenomenon, and the fact that they do not like coffee does not seem to help either. Hopefully by the end of the semester, I will have taught them enough about Swedish traditions for them to acknowledge the benefits of a good fika. 

As far as I am concerned, fika has helped me be comfortable in my ever-changing environments. Moving away from the country I call home, to a state where pickup trucks and longhorns seem to be the only two things that matter, to a city of academia where its people call themselves “wicked smart,” fika has been the only familiar thing that has continuously stayed by my side. Everytime I feel stressed, I think back to that cold, wonderful afternoon in my grandparents’ vintage kitchen. I reflect on the memories I made during my endless fika breaks, and on how wonderful it is to take part in such an extraordinary tradition. As silly as it seems, fika enables me to view my problems from a new perspective. It provides me with an opportunity to discover what really matters: staying in touch with those I love. Even though I believe setting goals for myself is a fundamental part of living a fulfilling life, I know that I am never too busy to have some Swedish fika.

Cover photo courtesy of Eventland.