I am absolutely shocked that a quick search of this site reveals that I have never mentioned nor alluded to Smorgasbord. Unless I’m searching the wrong word… which is just not possible. So here’s a brand spankin’ new food memory for y’all to devour.
Growing up, my amazing mother put a hot meal on the dinner table every single night, without fail, for at least the first 10 years of my life. I understand that a child’s view of the world may be skewed, so you’ll have to forgive me if some things are a bit blurry. I can tell you that we went out to eat occasionally, but usually for lunch; a family of five, we ate dinner together more often than not (“I’ll have dinner in my room” wasn’t an option).
Every night, dinner was on the table, family style. Bowls of rice at each seat, and platters of veggies, and some meat with veggie, maybe a sauce. Fish, meat, whatever. My mother made dinner from scratch, every night. Occasionally she’d try some new dish, but everything had an Asian slant to it (at least initially; as I got older, things changed, but that’s not part of this story).
I have to tell you that I cannot imagine the frustration she must’ve felt when her youngest (that’s me) would beg for McDonald’s. Or for spaghetti & meatballs, or for anything that I thought would make me more “normal” – a word that I eschew with great caution now. Feeding a total of five people every night – five people with largely varying palates – without complaint (if she complained, I didn’t hear it). It’s quite amazing, wouldn’t you agree?
Now, my family wasn’t rich. I wouldn’t say we were poor, either, but regardless, waste was not something we did. My mother, careful as she might have been, unlikely could predict accurately how much food we’d eat every night. So I’m sure some nights, there were leftovers, and others, not so much.
The funny thing is, I don’t remember eating leftovers. I don’t remember a night – in the early days of my memory, anyway – where my mom would put out bowls of rice and then a reheated version of whatever we’d had the night previous. No, that didn’t happen. And now that I think about it – for the purposes of sharing this memory – I presume my mother must’ve eaten whatever leftovers for lunch the next day, or possibly sent them to work with my father for lunch. (I didn’t frequently bring leftovers to school – possibly because I hated rice, and hated bringing it to school even more – though I remember eating spaghetti from a Thermos sometimes… No, I usually brought a sandwich.)
As I got older, I took to the habit of feeding myself on weekends. This is before parents signed their kids up for activity upon activity upon activity – I was left to my own devices to find my own amusement, and some weekends, this was watching reruns of movies on TV, or on videotape, with my brother. Other weekends, I’d curl up with a book and read till I went blind – seriously, my eyesight is terrible now, I wear contacts. One of my favorite things to do was to heat up a bowl of whatever leftovers I could find in the fridge, sit at the dining table and read while I spooned whatever it was into my mouth. Repeat. Mindless eating at its finest – which is bizarre since now I tend to sit and enjoy whatever I’m eating, and avoid reading specifically for the purpose of focusing on what I am ingesting.
There was one Saturday, long ago, let’s just say it was 1990 or 1991, that I walked into the kitchen around 4 or 4:30 – it was later in the day – and pulled open the fridge. My father must’ve been nearby or in the kitchen, because I asked him with some interest, “What’s for dinner?” I knew it was close enough to dinner time that me fixing a bowl of whatever would be frowned upon – my parents didn’t like me eating right before dinner because obviously, it ruined my appetite. But I could also see that there was nothing on the cutting board. My mother wasn’t in view, she was not prepping to make a meal. I don’t know where she was, actually.
My father looked at me and said, “Smorgasbord. It’s smorgasbord night.”
I don’t know where he learned the word*, but that was the moment I learned it. I wrinkled my nose up and asked, “What does that mean?”
“It means we’re giving your mother a break from cooking. There’s plenty of food in the fridge, just make yourself up whatever you want, that’s dinner tonight.”
“But what does smorgasbord mean?”
“It means a wide variety of food.”
Satisfied, I turned away and fixed myself up a plate of whatever.
In reality, the word is a little more specific and complex than that – definition and etymology here – but the basic principle is there. It became my favorite type of meal at home – my father would randomly declare a night ‘smorgasbord night’ and we’d eat whatever was in the fridge. As I got older, occasionally I would actually make myself simple meals (salad was a favorite of mine, or sandwiches, cans of soup, whatever) as opposed to eating leftovers, but it was all the same.
Now that I think about it – I wonder if my father hadn’t asked my mother the same question – what’s for dinner? – and if she’d told him there were too many leftovers in the fridge to justify making a new meal. Maybe she was tired, or had a headache, or wasn’t feeling too great. I don’t know. I’ve never asked her.
I just remember those random nights when he’d declare “smorgasbord!” and I’d get all excited to be left to my own devices as to choose what to eat for dinner.
I still practice the same principle at home occasionally – though I might not yell “SMORGASBORD NIGHT!” I definitely occasionally have too many leftovers in my fridge, so I pull out all the containers and make up a mish mash plate of food for myself. The above? chicken artichoke spinach casserole; sauteed kale; Swedish meatballs over mashed potatoes; blanched green beans; a chicken taco with spicy cilantro dressing, sour cream and fresh cilantro; roasted asparagus.
That was way too much food for me to eat comfortably. Oops.
Eh, but what’s smorgasbord without some excess?
*After a quick Google search, I see that my guess of this being 1990 or 1991 is extremely accurate. It’s incredibly likely that my father learned this word when Ikea opened in Elizabeth, NJ in 1990, and tossed the word at me to see how I’d react. He liked teaching me new words when he could.
Also, extremely blurry in my memory is my father occasionally writing menus – planning out the week’s meals – and occasionally slipping “Smorgasbord” on one of the days. I remember his slanting handwriting writing out the word… and underneath it, listing out our choices.
I really wish I could remember more about my childhood.
Do you remember your first Ikea experience*?
Funny how my post about Smorgasbord and Ikea includes me having made Swedish meatballs… ha!