Mad About Mad

Mar. 9 - [One of the things I've been hearing in my feedback is an insatiable curiosity about Danish life. So from time to time, on slow days like this—slow in the sense of my not having made a significant enough ass of myself to warrant writing about it—I'm just going to reach into the grab-bag of Danish culture and write a riff on whatever I get my hot little hands on first. Today that would be food.]

The Danish word for food is mad. It's also the word for meal. You can therefore enjoy a mad of delicious mad.

Mad is not pronounced to rhyme with glad or bad. In accordance with the curious Danish pronunciation scheme, it rhymes instead with gledth and bedth—but only if spoken without your touching your tongue to your teeth.

The Danes get a bad rap for their cuisine. Guidebooks overflowing with otherwise effluvious praise for Denmark go suddenly quiet on the subject of food. "Traditional Danish cuisine can be bland," they might say. Or, "Denmark is not known for its gastronomical accomplishments."

It's not entirely fair. Consider this your introductory course on Danish cuisine.

Danish gastronomy is built upon a foundation of two mighty pillars: the potato and the pig. The mortar that binds the edifice of the national cuisine together is gravy. Also important are the mackerel, the herring, and the intoxicating beverage.

Everything else is purely cosmetic. I am convinced that the average Dane could sustain him- or herself for years on a diet of pork, potatoes, gravy, herring, beer, and aqvavit. Many could probably sustain themselves for the rest of their lives on the last two items alone, and would do so happily if it weren't for the fact that such a diet would likely have a disquieting impact on the definition of "the rest of their lives."

The secondary foodstuffs of Danish cuisine, also vital to their well-being, are their breads, cheeses, sauces, and salads. Bread, cheese, and sauce will accompany any significant meal. In fact, it's safe to say it won't be called a meal without at least two of the three. The salads, which I really ought to call "salads," require a little further explanation, which I'll get to once I've gone through the other three.

The bread is excellent, as good as you'll get in Europe. From flutes and baguettes and country loaves down to a bewildering variety of rolls and buns, the Danes know their bread. The French may be more celebrated, but the Danes earn the edge, in my opinion, because of their unsurpassed mastery of rye breads. If you really can't abide Danish food, you can always fall back on bread.

The cheese is also very good, but tends toward the strong. If you're not fond of a cheese that can lift fifty times its own weight, be wary. If you do like strong cheese, don't brag about the fact until you've actually looked into the hermetically-sealed container in the back of the fridge. I was boastful once, myself, until I encountered a cheese so surly and cantankerous it not only abused me—it trashed the apartment, beat the cats, and was least seen swaggering down the street toward parts unknown.

The sauces are ubiquitous, but Danes are particular about which sauces may be applied to which foods. It is an exact science. I cannot be of more assistance here because I still haven't made sense of it all: I just watch the DMG and do what she does. (Unless we're alone, in which case I douse everything on my plate in sauce and put up with her snickers.)

Now, about those "salads." I'm not talking about anything as prosaic as tossed greens: I mean instead the Scandinavian "salads" (salater) that are sold in little deli containers of a few hundred grams. These can can then be spread onto rolls as the foundation of an open-faced sandwich (or mad), glopped on top of one's open-faced sandwich as a dressing, or simply dumped onto one's plate in a gelatinous lump as a side dish. The DMG is especially fond of peberbrød (horseradish) salad, italiensk salad (pasta, sauce, peas, and indeterminate little crunchy bits), kylling salad (chicken, cream, and indeterminate little crunchy bits), and a few others that escape me at the moment. There are many varieties of these salads, and you'll find row after row of them in the refrigerated section of every Danish grocery store. Some are cream-based, some pasta-based, still others oil-based. You'll probably like some and be repulsed by others. There's no way to know in advance which you'll like and which you won't; you just have to try them and find out on your own.

There are two I like. The horseradish salat is nice with a little roast beef, and there's a creamy salat with peas and other little veggies that livens up a chicken sandwich. (It's basically the Italiansk salat without the pasta.)

Another vital ingredient in Danish cuisine is the condiment. The Danes are right up there with the Japanese in terms of the importance they place on presentation. Their reputation for design precedes them, but their condimental genius is no less impressive for being the less remarked-upon. Typical condiments include regular and Italian parsley, kiwi slices, pineapple slices, ruffles and flourishes of exotic lettuces, sprigs of dill, and the like. Sometimes you can't even tell what your garnish is—some leafy thing, maybe, like a twirly sliver of palm frond. Is it edible, you wonder? Do not experiment on your own. Most condiments are not only edible, but make a very nice complement to the dish they're accompanying. Some, however, are not intended for the human digestive system.

Thus the major food groups. I will now touch briefly upon some of the other treasures of Danish cuisine.

There is, for example, the sausage, a food group unto itself, embracing everything from the tiny cocktail wiener right up to the—well, whatever that thing we had the other night is called. It was coiled in cellophane when we bought it, about eight feet long when we unrolled it, and tasted like something between Italian sausage and liver pate. Sausage is pølse in Danish, which is also (for obvious reasons) their word for "turd." The wordplay is endless. Sooner or later you will accidentally let fly a double-entendre about a sausage. Don't worry about it.

Of particular note are the Danish hot-dogs, sold from carts on the streets of every town. Danish hot-dogs come in a great variety—to the extent that the term "hot-dog" to them, spelled just like that, actually represents only one variety of a whole family of sausage-type foods. That variety will prove the most enigmatic to most Americans: when you order a "hot-dog," you'll be asked if you want it "with bread." If you say yes, you'll be given long, skinny dog fresh off the grill, a small brick of a bun, and the option of fried onion bits or bacon crunches—which, should you choose to accept them, will be unloaded on the wax paper alongside your dog. Danes will then squirt a little mustard or ketchup onto the wax paper, pick up the dog with their fingers, dab it first into the sauce of choice, then into the onion or bacon (the mustard and ketchup serving as an adhesive), then bring it to their mouth and bite in the dabbed end of the dog. From time to time they will put the dog down, pick up the roll, and eat it by means of the same process: dab of sauce, dab of crunchies, bite.

It's not that the Danes haven't thought of putting the dog into the bread. There's one variety, for example, which consists of a rounded bun with a hole pre-bored into it, into which the vendor will squirt about half a gallon of remoulade (a Danish sauce which you will not like) before jamming the dog into it. This coital concoction is referred to, for fairly obvious reasons, as the "French" hot-dog. Upside: there's no mess, no fuss, and it's easy to eat as you walk. Downside: remoulade.

There are also more recognizable forms of the hot-dog, including regular sausages on regular buns, topped with onions, pickles, and so on.

Despite the ubiquitous pølse vendors, the fast-food of choice in Copenhagen is obviously the pizza. There's a pizza joint on almost every block—usually next to a tanning salon. Most of them appear to be owned and operated by Turks, so I don't know if I should speak of "Danish" or "Turkish" pizza, but whatever you want to call them they're fantastic once you get over the peculiar toppings. The best way to get over them is to ignore them. Every pizza place has its own menu of 20-30 pizzas; you don't simply make up a combination of your favorite toppings and ask for a pizza with them on it: you'e supposed order one of their named combinations. I stopped playing that game a long time ago, and usually order the "margherita" (tomato sauce and cheese) with a-la-carte toppings like pepperoni and onion. It costs more, but it's the only way to go if you don't want to end up with mussels, shrimp, asparagus, or bernaise sauce on your pizza.

What makes the pizzas so nice here is their crusts, which are thick enough not to be like those nasty "thin-crust" crackers you sometimes get in the states, but not so thick that you feel like you're eating a sandwich. They've also mastered the sauce-to-cheese ratio to perfection. The only hazard, as I've mentioned, is in their toppings.

I'm looking at the menu from one of our local pizzerias, "Bentzon's Pizza & Grillbar." Here are some of the 31 varieties you can choose from (note that when they say "tomato," they actually mean tomato sauce):

The "Milano." Tomato, cheese, ham, mushroom, paprika, and onion.

The "Peperoni." Tomato, cheese, pepperoni—and pineapple.

The "Hawaii." Tomato, cheese, ham, pineapple—and shrimp.

The "UFO." (Baked-in.) Tomato, cheese, ham, mushroom, shrimp, and asparagus.

The "Mama Rosa." Tomato, cheese, ham, garlic, paprika—and mussels.

The "Carne." Tomato, cheese, meat strips, salad, and dressing. Not on the side. On the pizza.

The "Marinara." Tomato, cheese, tuna, mussels, shrimp.

I think I've gone on long enough for one bloggish. I hope you enjoyed it, and I hope you don't mind my leaving you with that final image of a cioppino pizza.


The blog is updated often.

And So On

On March 9, 1454, Amerigo Vespucci was born. He was an Italian explorer who made many voyages to the new world at about the same time as Columbus. The two continents of the new world were therefore named for him, and it wasn't until the seventeenth century (Greenwich time) that North and South Vespucci were renamed to the Americas.

The Moron's Index
Bean Counter: 16 weeks + 4 days
Days as a (Mostly) Non-Smoker: 23
Average Cost of a Small Pizza: 45 crowns ($7.50)
Average Cost of a Large Pizza: 90 crowns ($15.00)
Cost of a Large Dominos Pizza: 120 crowns ($20.00)
Number of Dominos Pizzas I've Consumed in Denmark: 1
Times I Intend to Repeat That Mistake: 0
Average Cost of a French Hot-Dog: 15 crowns ($2.50)

Dagens Ord (The Word of the Day)
Spise. To eat. As in, Vil du rigtig spise det Mama Rosa Pizza? ("You really want to eat that pizza with all the seafood on it?")

Today is also the birthday of Emmanuel Lewis (1971), Bobby Fischer (1943), Raul Julia (1940), Yuri Gagarin (1934), Irene Papas (1926), and Mickey Spillane (1918).

It's Baron Bliss Day in Belize, Labor Day in Australia (probably observed yesterday), and Provincial Anniversary in New Zealand.

Happy Tuesday!

© 2004, The Moron's Almanac™

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