Smørrebrød: Danish Sushi?

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 3:45 pm, Friday, April 19, 2013

Order a sandwich almost anywhere and you’ll get bread on the bottom, bread on top and something in between. Smørrebrød, the closest Denmark comes to a national dish, are always called “open-faced sandwiches” in English. But do they even count as sandwiches when (by worldwide sandwich standards) they stop only two-thirds of the way up? Lacking a top layer of bread, their “fillings” — anything from cod roe to corrugated beets, with a tendency toward the raw, the pickled and the cured — are exposed for all to see.


Smørrebrød starts with very thin slices of bread, usually the dense, dark, seedy, sour fiber-rific rye bread known as rugbrød — of which sealed-in-plastic imported German versions are sold in many American supermarkets, and even our local Walgreens. Then what? The Danish tourist authority has a smørrebrød app, but basically …

First comes a smear of butter: Smørrebrød literally means “bread and butter.” Next comes the main topping: usually meat, egg, cheese and/or seafood. (Anything is possible, but herring and hard-boiled eggs are smørrebrød standbys.) Last come cleverly arrayed herbs, vegetables, sauces or other garnishes. Unlike your average unassuming American sandwich, smørrebrød are supposed to look great from all angles … just like sushi!

And because they’re small, open-faced, somewhat fragile and not built to last, smørrebrød invite you to pick them up in one hand and shove them rapidly into your mouth … also just like sushi. But no. Danes eat smørrebrød with knives and forks.

If you’ve never heard of smørrebrød — well, how much does the average non-Dane know about Danish cuisine? Beyond Tuborg, that is. Smørrebrød are currently undergoing a renaissance, thanks to enterprising Danish chef Adam Aamann. And maybe the popularity of Noma, the Copenhagen wild-food restaurant that is Restaurant magazine’s reigning “Best Restaurant in the World,” will turn rødspættefilet and rændende kærlighed into international household words, but Danish cuisine has thus far flown under the rest of the world’s radar. It’s strange — most Americans know what pad thai and souvlaki are and have probably eaten both, but couldn’t identify frikadeller or aebelkage if their lives depended on it. (Luckily, they don’t … yet.)

When Scandinavian Airlines hosted a party in San Francisco this month to toast its new nonstop flights from SFO to Copenhagen, of course they served smørrebrød. Topped with roast beef, fried fish, raisin-studded chicken salad and tomatoes — as depicted in the photograph above — these jaunty little shingles drew blank stares from many in the crowd. Ice-cold Mikkeller beer — Copenhagen’s micro-brewed claim to fame — washed away all the unfamiliarity and made us all feel as if we had been eating smørrebrød all our lives … whether they count as real sandwiches or not.

Announcing the Re-Launch of Dibs!

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 4:21 pm, Wednesday, April 17, 2013

dibs_launchWelcome (back) to the newly remodeled Dibs, which starting today is devoted to scoping out local-isms — whether they’re sources of pride or shameful secrets or somewhere in between.

We once went to Belgium thinking we knew about Belgium. Waffles. The Ardennes. Tintin. Then our new one-eyed Belgian friend invited us home and treated us to blood sausage she had cured in her backyard shed and raspberry beer her uncle brewed in his bathtub and sold only to friends.

Her sausage recipe, she insisted, was a local specialty, but (to be frank) tasted to us like big scabs. Yet drinking her uncle’s raspberry beer was like leaping through fruity meadows under a swirling sky in which every star had a smiley face. Suddenly we understood Belgium.

Finding out what’s local, anywhere, is a form of initiation. You learn something, try something, hear something, see something that helps you figure out why people do what they do where they do it. You’re still an outsider. But a little less of one.

The Right Kind of Survival Story

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 11:18 am, Monday, July 13, 2009

I’ve been reading Norman Ollestad’s memoir Crazy for the Storm, which Starbucks has chosen for its latest featured book. As a preteen in 1979, Ollestad survived a small-plane crash that killed his beloved father, an adventurous child star-turned-lawyer who had taught the author to surf and ski when the younger Ollestad was barely old enough to stand. The memoir cuts back and forth from the crash scene to childhood memories in which Ollestad junior and senior — both are named Norman — face snow and sea alone, father and son, the former confident and ever optimistic, the latter timid and even furiously resentful at first but growing ever more enthusiastic. It’s interesting to learn how lessons learned through skiing and surfing — such as how to gauge distances and one’s own strength as well as how to navigate and handle frozen surfaces — proved so useful in the wake of the crash as to save Ollestad’s life.

Stories of survival like this one, which focus on love and inner strength rather than victimhood, are all too rare these days.

And it just goes to show you: Whatever you know now, even if you hated learning it, might come in handy someday.

And if I’m ever in a situation where hula-dancing is the only thing that stands between life and death….

Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ Beach Sold at Auction

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 11:04 am, Monday, July 13, 2009

Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse was inspired by a real-world beach — which sold for £80,000 at an auction today. According to the Daily Mail, “The 76-acre Upton Towans beach in Gwithian, Cornwall, overlooks the lighthouse situated on the headland at nearby Godrevy Island. Virginia Woolf spent many holidays there with her family as a child and the watch tower became the inspiration for her 1927 novel….

“The stunning beach [depicted above] has been owned by Dennis Arbon, a trustee of the Hall for Cornwall, a performing arts venue in Truro, for the past 19 years. But Mr Arbon auctioned off the beach in order to raise funds for the Hall.

“A spokesman for estate agents Colliers CRE said there was a lot of interest in the beach which sold for £30,000 above its reserve price…. Competition between three telephone bidders pushed the final price up at the auction at Portman Square, London. It was bought by a man from Cornwall but based in London.

“However planning rules means he will not be able to build on the land or excavate minerals. The beach must remain public which means the new owner can only make the money back with services such as by selling ice creams and donkey rides.”

Boris Yeltsin Library Opens in Russia

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 10:59 am, Friday, May 29, 2009

borisyeltsinBoris Yeltsin was an impassioned reader, and the new Boris Yeltsin Presidential Library opened in St. Petersburg on Wednesday.

“The idea of a library unifying the country’s information and archival resources was first suggested in 2007. The then-president Vladimir Putin signed a decree to found such a library. He also proposed naming it after the first Russian president, Boris Yeltsin,” we read in the St. Petersburg Times.

“The library is set to act as a central connecting point for all of the country’s libraries. Its electronic archives will receive materials from the Russian State Historical Archive and from Russia’s leading national libraries. It will mainly contain materials on the history of the Russian state. Texts, audio files and pictures are included in the database.”

Also in the library is “a unique collection of books and magazines connected to Russia. The collection, consisting of more than 2,000 books, belonged to a Swiss family who amassed it over three generations, with the oldest book in the collection dating back to 1551. The collection was set to be auctioned off, but was then offered for full sale to Russia.

“Boris Yeltsin’s widow Naina Yeltsina, who was also present at the ceremony, said ‘Russia has always prided itself on being a nation of readers. Although life is changing now, and today every family has a TV set, we need to keep books in our life because they are one of mankind’s most priceless inventions.’

“Yeltsina said that her husband loved reading, especially in his student years. Later in life, his political activities did not leave him much time for reading but when a new book appeared in the house Yeltsin used to always say that he would read it when he retired, she said.

“’And it really happened that way…. In his last years reading was his main occupation. Our daughters barely managed to read new books because he got through them so quickly! The opening of the library is a priceless gift for all book-lovers and a fitting tribute to Boris.”

New Novel Twists History

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 1:54 pm, Friday, May 22, 2009

In the early pages of Glen David Gold’s new novel Sunnyside, Charlie Chaplin is sighted in more than 800 places at the same time on November 12, 1916. One of these places is on “a small boat bobbing in the swells” off the Northern California coast within sight of a lighthouse whose “brilliant spotlight … swept away all color in the flood of illumination, casting its view into white or penumbral mystery.” Out there on the boat, the derby-hatted Chaplin stands “rubbing his chin, and waggling his mustache as if itched by a puzzling thought.” A rowboat crew rushes out to rescue him, but too late: “A wave crashed down upon the boat, and Charlie Chaplin was blown below the surface” to his doom.

Or was he? Throughout this novel, Chaplin is among a teeming cast of characters, both real and fictional, engaging in love and war and filmmaking around the world. It is the second novel in which author Gold casts flesh-and-blood historical figures with folks he just made up. His previous book Carter Beats the Devil was based on real-life magician Charles Carter.

“I apologize to students of truth who find themselves arguing with information contained herein,” Gold writes in the credits to Sunnyside. “… On November 12, 1916, Charlie Chaplin was indeed the subject of mass hysteria. And on September 15, 1918, Leland Duncan found two puppies on the World War I battlefield and named them after finger puppets. The surviving dog was the most successful film star of the 1920s. … I got some things wrong on purpose … and there are probably some things you know that I don’t.”

In a statement composed subsequently, Gold adds: “While I was working on Sunnyside, I realized to my embarrassment I was writing about something of importance. Try as I might to keep it light entertainment (and yes, there are train chases, dancing princesses, clever jewel robberies, crossbow executions, rescues at sea and battles with flamethrowers), it turned out that I was writing a novel of ideas.”

Hubcap Gallery

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 9:05 am, Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Pennsylvania art-and-frame-store owner plans to write a book about his latest undertaking, in which 1,041 rusty old hubcaps are being transformed into “canvases” by 1,041 different artists. Thanks to Ken Marquis and his Landfill Art project, some use oil paint or acrylic paint, but others weld or glue or screw stuff onto the caps, weave onto the caps and carve the caps to make sculptures. (A painted example by Sarah Aslakson is depicted at left.)

“I have found that the fine artists I have worked with on this project do not even flinch when looking at this white round disc of metal canvas,” notes Marquis, who bought a load of rusty caps last August. “And why should they. Artists from the beginning of time have used cave walls — Lascaux, France and Altamira, Spain — walls of pyramids (Egyptians,) animal skins (American Indians,) etc. as their canvas. In addition, as a gallery owner for over thirty years, I maintain that artists, generally speaking, are more ecologically in touch and environmentally aware. Perhaps that is the reason forty-one artists readily accepted the challenge and embraced the project.

“Although the project is in its infancy (I hope to have it completed by 2012), it will evolve from a simple idea of taking forty-one old rusted hub caps and creating forty-one pieces of great art. The second phase has already started with the acquisition of one thousand additional (1,000) rusted hub caps which will be turned into cleaned and primed ‘metal canvases,’” Marquis explains.

“The third phase will involve publishing a book on the project showcasing all one thousand forty one (1,041) completed ‘metal canvases.’ The fourth and final phase will involve choosing 200 metal canvases that adequately represent the project and create a traveling show. The book and traveling show will publically portray the global art community’s effort to positively impact the environment through repurposing previous metal waste into great landfill art.”

Review: Woman with Birthmark

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 7:23 am, Saturday, May 16, 2009

What is it with Sweden and mysteries, eh? And it’s not just Henning Mankell. (Btw, I found the English-language televised version of Mankell’s mysteries, Wallander — which debuted last weekend — a bit disappointing.) Other Swedish authors just keep pumping out dark, dramatic, literary page-turners populated with unforgettable characters.

One of these authors is Hakan Nesser, a three-time winner of the Best Swedish Crime Novel award. Woman With Birthmark, his latest to appear in English, involves a series of middle-aged men being murdered in an identical fashion: shot in the heart, then shot in the testicles.

Hey, it happens. At least it happens in fiction. Nesser sets his novels in a weird generically European country that is never named. With its double A’s and with characters named De Bries and Van Veeteren, it sort of evokes the Netherland. But unlike most mystery authors, who focus intensely on location — name-checking local hangouts and natural wonders — Nesser makes a point of never saying where his books take place. This is deliberate, based on his vision of the future.

As Swedish mysteries go, I’ll read a Nesser when one comes my way, but I much prefer Mankell, Asa Larsson, Ake Edwardson, and some of the others. Nesser’s protagonist, Chief Inspector Van Veeteren, somehow fails to engage or compel: He’s tired, he’s aging — but so is Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, and Mankell somehow makes that fascinating. A tell-not-show dullness hamstrings Nesser’s Van Veeteren novels, despite Laurie Thompson’s always-elegant translations.

Nonetheless, the killer — whom we meet early on, and meet again via deft cross-cutting — is a tight bundle of craft and cunning and iron will who gives the reader much to ponder as details emerge. The reader is left wishing, by the end, that we’d learned a bit more.

50 Cent, Author and Non-Arsonist

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 10:26 am, Monday, May 4, 2009

50cent27So it’s happy news all around for 50 Cent. According to Chartattack, the rap star formerly known as Curtis Jackson will have two books out this year. After much delay, Before I Self Destruct is set to arrive at music retail outlets in June. And a full two years after its planned publication date, The 50th Law is set for a September 9 release. Meanwhile, the star has just been cleared of wrongdoing in the 2008 fire that destroyed his $2.4 million Long Island mansion — which was then inhabited by his ex-girlfriend Shaniqua Tompkins and her two sons, one of whom is 50 Cent’s child, Marquise. The occupants were not in the house at the time, but 50 Cent  had been trying to evict Tompkins for not paying rent. The exes accused each other of setting the fire; the star has been cleared and the investigation is ongoing.

Blam! Pow! It’s Free Comic-Book Day, Batman!

Posted by Anneli Rufus at 11:26 am, Friday, May 1, 2009


crimess22maySaturday, May 2, is Free Comic Book Day. This means that comic-book stores all over the nation will literally give books away. The annual promotion, which began in 2001, was launched by comic-book publishers and distributors to bring more people into the stores. Among the freebies at participating stores are titles from the major companies DC (Superman, Batman) and Marvel (Spider Man, X-Men) and from smaller publishers such as Image, Dark Horse, Dynamite and Devil’s Due.

In Berkeley, California, Comic Relief is not only giving away freebies but also offering chances to meet a lot of artists and writers, including Daniel Cooney (Valentine), Joseph Wong and Genevieve Tsai (Islands in the Sky), Daniel Salcido (Doodles of the Drunk), Joey Alison Sayers (I Wish You Were Dead) and Derek McCullough (Displaced Persons, T-Runt, Stagger Lee).

Get ‘em while they’re free!