Friday, March 23, 2012



Edvard Erichsen, Hans-Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, Copenhagen Harbor, 1913

"Danish open sandwiches which are national attractions for both the eye and the palate rest upon oral tradition.  No text-book exists in the preparation of open sandwiches.  Pupils have learned from their mentors and thus traditions have been passed on.  How old is this open sandwich tradition?  Not much is known on this point, either.  Nor why in the North, and most especially in Denmark, this dish should have attained such an importance that it has become one of the main daily mealsMight it be something caused by our climate?  In the South the masses practically never butter their bread.  Up here in the North we need more fats, so we claim, but does that explain why bread + butter + a spread of some kind has become a staple food here?  It was not so in olden times.  Probably bread was just as important as now, but only in the homes of the wealthy classes butter, and even cheese or meat, was added.  Troels Lund explains that the eating of open sandwiches did not become general in Denmark before in about the year 1800.  Oddly enough, not a single cook-book from the nineteeth century contains any hint on open sandwiches.  Now, although we f. ex. take it for granted that a sandwich with boiled brisket of beef is bound almost servilely to shredded horseradish their union has not originated on any piece of paper, and still they are inseparable."

Asta Bang and Edith Rode, Open Sandwiches and Cold Lunches, An Introduction to Danish Culinary Art, Copenhagen, Jul. Gjellerups Forlag, 1953.

NOTE:  I’ve prepared this short post on Danish masterpiece smørrebrød cuisine because Jane is leaving for Denmark tomorrow on a Scandinavian tour with her handbells choir, the Baldwin BellesThey are a superb ensemble and if you are anywhere near Copenhagen next week, please let me know and I’ll arrange backstage entry and hangout time with international handbells groups’ nearest equivalent to the Rolling Stones, ca. 1963, at the Crawdaddy Club, Richmond.

Troels Frederik Lund (1840-1921), historiographer-royal to the king of Denmark and Comptroller of the Order of the Dannebrog

Asta Bang’s and Edith Rode’s book, my principal smørrebrød source material, seems to have been the original cookbook on the subject and it is also a little masterpiece, a wonder to hold in the hand and to consume in the mind, eye and aspiring imagination.  The information contained in the book  serves readers a fascinating slice of Danish history, in part derived from the writings of the important  nineteeth century historian Troels Frederik Lund (link), son of the brother-in-law of the Danish philosopher 
Søren Kierkegaard and a leading source of supposedly amusing, but mostly quite unfunny, bitter-seeming anecdotes about the great Dane.

Poster from the Schumann Circus

My own first smørrebrød experience dates from a childhood visit to Copenhagen with my parents.  Highlights (there were many) included a   Schumann Circus (one ring only -- very, very great!) performance, seeing Erik Bruhn dance with the Royal Danish Ballet (ditto; amazing how highest-level artistry of any kind can reach and affect the youngest mind and heart), visiting "home base" of the legendary  Danish silversmith Georg Jensen, magical time spent touring and taking rides at Tivoli Gardens, and finally, eating many varieties of these casual-looking but meticulously conceived and composed sandwiches.



Decades years passed before I finally tried them again, but when I did, it was also very special.  Down Willow Street from our second Brooklyn Heights apartment stood the Dansk Somandskirke (Danish Seamans’ Church), which every year staged a splendid, traditional Christmas fair.  (At other times and at regular intervals during the year, Willow Street and Columbia Heights residents were also treated to viewings of our neighbor, famed American novelist Norman Mailer, jogging along slowly in gray sweatclothes, shadow-boxing, complete with the requisite grunting, nose-rubbing, etc., just like you've seen it done in old Hollywood movies.  The whole nine yards, as they say.  Weirdsville Squared Times Infinity.) 

Erik Bruhn, Premier Danseur noble

Diane Arbus,  Erik Bruhn and Rudolph Nureyev, South Kensington, London, 1963

The Dansksomandskirke fair was like taking a little trip to Denmark (it also had elements of the church fête that begins Graham Greeene’s The Ministry of Fear where Arthur Rowe guesses the weight of the cake) and the smørrebrød assortment, strong Carlsberg beer, Danish desserts, homemade ornaments for sale, and especially the omnipresent Danish speech and laughter always delivered a joyful early Christmas present.

The church still holds the fair and I definitely intend to return this December with Jane in tow.  She can’t drink beer, but she does know the word ("øl) and she can order one for me along with any smørrebrød (and anything else) she desires. 

In the meantime, did you know that Danes consume 8.5 - 9 million slices of rye bread every single day?

The original caption read: “Brigitte Nielsen shopping for rye bread.”  I swear.

!!! Smørrebrød !!!

Dedicated to Jane Butler Roberts and the Baldwin Belles!


  1. Happy travels to Jane! I love the Scandinavian countries . . . So beautiful.

  2. I'll pass this along momentarily. We're very, very excited for her. As I've explained (tediously, repeatedly) to her, my own school trips often involved visiting the dairy farm to see how cows were milked. Don't get me wrong -- I liked that. But this is great. On tv performances; lights, camera, action, etc. Curtis

  3. Bon voyage, Jane! This is an EXTRAORDINARY school trip. A lucky girl! Would love to hear the Baldwin Belles anywhere, but especially in Copenhagen.

  4. With wishes for a safe journey. I know she'll have a fantastic time. Tell her to watch for Gernersgade somewhere in Copenhagen. I have a picture of Eck and our Dad taken in front of the street name (which was on a building).

  5. Smørrebrød and Erik Bruhn - wonderful!!

  6. Just noticed the Georg Jensen logos. When we visited Copenhagen, I was determined to come home with some Danish silver, but I couldn't find anything at Jensen's that I HAD to have. I did eventually find a beautiful long dark oxidized one-of-a-kind necklace at a small store. Also, our favorite meal was breakfast. Every morning, our hotel served guests family style. There were platters of dense breads, cheeses, meats, and vegetables and we assembled our own smørrebrød. We still remember them as some of (if not the best) breakfasts we've ever had. Jane will be feasting for sure.

  7. Thanks again, everyone. I've heard from Jane (small emails every day) and the trip sounds so fine. I would love to visit Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia again soon. Until then, I just content myself with books and pictures, including John Buchan's The Island of Sheep, which takes place on a Norwegian island. Curtis