December in Denmark is dark indeed. That is why Danes invented the Danish Xmas lunch. December 1st was my first this year, and it was rather wild – to be expected perhaps since the hosts were a professor of criminology and theater director and most the guests were actors, writers, painters, a prison warden, and a teacher. The prison warden is a young Dane known to his friends as Skeleton Man because every year he attends the Burning Man Festival in Nevada dressed in a skeleton suit. The nationality mix included Danish, Swiss, American, Scot and Irish, and there were some half a dozen small to tiny kids: Maya, Axel, Eifleef, Silas, and the 10-month-old Molly.
The table was adorned with three kinds of onion-festooned herring (marinated, sherried, and creamed), curried cod-roe paste, my Lady Alice’s home-made liver pâté with mushrooms beneath a roof of crisp bacon strips, Danish meatballs, fat succulent medister sausage with pickled chopped red cabbage and white cabbage chopped with cinnamon, roast pork with crackling (that is a perfect roast pork with perfect crackling, provided by the perfect hostess, Methe), and assorted other delicacies – not to forget the chocolate cake with raspberries and ice cream, coffee and cognac.
But especially not to forget that which gives the Danish Xmas Lunch its special character. Bottled beer and iced snaps. The latter is sometimes referred to as schnapps or aquavite – the water of life, or perhaps lively water, which indeed it is. But the proper word is “snaps”; a Danish king of long ago decreed that the spirit would henceforth be known as snaps, from the German word which indicates something taken in one snap – or “bite.” The glasses in which the spirit was served yesterday by our hosts were perfect for the single bite treatment – just about 1½ centiliters. The perfect mouthful. Just enough liquid to allow the herring to swim – and, as the toast goes, Fish must swim (fisk skal svømme!)
On hand yesterday to wet the tongue after crunching the pork crackling was a fifth of Brøndums and a liter bottle of Linie, both eighty proof and misted with frost. The Brøndums is flavored with caraway seed (or as Danes are wont to write it on menus, “carryaway seeds”) while Linie is Norwegian; for over two centuries it has, after distillation, been shipped in wooden sherry kegs over the equator so that while sloshing about in the keg it takes a special flavor and color from the sherry-impregnated wood. Linie means equator, and it gives a delightfully mellow bite.
Meanwhile, chilling in the garden room, were several cases of various types of beer – pilsner, Xmas beer, porter, even Easter beer, out of season but still sweet and strong in the mouth.
As we enter the dining room, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and other American crooners sing Christmas songs from the sound system. Which reminds me of a South Carolina friend who just acquired a blue-eyed cat named Frankie Boy which I tell about as we find our places at the long table, set catty-corner in the dining room of the ground-floor Frederiksberg apartment. Eight adults at one end, five children at the other. As our host, Professor Dave, goes about pouring snaps, the basket of bread is passed. Des, a teacher from Galway, has never been to a Danish Xmas lunch, so the Danish actress Anne instructs him in the mandatory ritual with which one begins:
A half slice of dark rye bread is spread wth fat (brand name Bedstemors fedt which translates literally as “Grandmother’s fat”) upon which is piled a couple of pieces of herring filet then rings of raw onion (capers and dild optional) – an open sandwich to be eaten with knife and fork (knife in right, fork in left). You cut a mouthful, fork it in and chew, waiting for the host to lift his snaps glass and say skål. The guests follow suit and all along the table each person quietly meets the eyes of each other person, lifting the little glass to sip – or rather to bite.
“Fish must swim,” someone invariably says at this moment – in this case, me.
When the snaps is down, it’s chased with a mouthful of beer, following which the rituals have been satisfied, completed, and one is free to eat and drink at will, and each may say skål to all or one of his or her choosing. Only the first toast is reserved for the host – it is ill-mannered to take that from him – and in more formal settings than this, it is the host who sets the pace; if he empties his snaps glass on the first skål, look for a lively party. Incidentally, the toast skål means bowl; in Viking times the communal drink was passed in a bowl. Some say it is from the old Icelandic for skull, that the Vikings drank from the skulls of their conquered enemies –a good story but based on a mistranslation.
Meanwhile, during the herring and snaps ritual, the children at their end of the table were busy stripping the bacon from the two bowls of liver pâté and had started filching the crackling from the roast pork – fortunately stopped while a good deal of the delicious crisp fat strips still remained.
It is the manner in which the beer and snaps combine with the food that gives a Danish Xmas lunch its particularly delightful, impressionistic quality. The impressionist stroke technique, in fact, broadens as the day matures.
There is, however, something of an expressionist quality as well – here expressed, for example, by the Swiss actress Katarina who after the third snaps stands up on her chair to demonstrate the yodeling technique she has just learned for a play in which she will be acting. She is tall and slender and wearing gaily colored Christmas stockings that extend the length of her long legs right up to the edge of her very short mini-skirt, and it is a riot to see her standing up nearly to the ceiling, chin raised, throat working like a bird’s and tongue fluttering as the yodels cascade across the room, drowning out Bing – who, I cannot help but comment, was said to have been a wife-beater and a child-beater.
“Here’s to Bing Crosby, the wife beater!” says Anne, raising her snaps glass.
“And the child beater,” adds another voice, toasting.
“Skål! Skål! Skål!”
“Someone pass the pussy, please,” Anne requests primly, then looks about in mock alarm. “Where is the pussy? Has someone forgotten the pussy?”
This is a reference to the preceding year’s Xmas lunch in this same place with some of these same guests. I had brought a house gift which was the Christmas Magazine published by my friend Lars Rasmussen at the Booktrader. This particular Christmas Album had, unbeknownst to me, included a detachable portfolio of erotic photographs by an artist named Niels Rydung. The portfolio consisted of close-up artistic portrait- photos of women’s genitalia. When my host had discovered this feature of my house gift, I was horrified, but he was delighted and had proceeded to pass it around the table, upon which Anne coined the refrain of the day, “Please pass the pussy.”
Niels Rydung, in fact, I tell the company, is a fellow who has never had sex with a woman without paying for it.
“We all pay for it,” someone says.
“But he has been with over 500 prostitutes in his life-time, has never had sex with anyone but a prostitute.”
“Pass the pussy, please,” says Anne.
“Alas there is no pussy this year.”
“There is pussy,” says Dave. “I saved the portfolio from last year. It’s still fresh,” he assures us, proceeding to pass it around.
“Smells fishy to me,” says someone, evoking a snaps cackle from someone else.
Des looks at me with a twinkle. “Tell us again about the blue-eyed pussy from South Carolina.”
Meanwhile Katarina has climbed down from her chair, yodel exhibition complete. What she does not know is that one of the children has a whoopee cushion which finds its way to her chairseat. She sits direct onto the cushion, placed there by her adorable 3-year-old Silas. An explosive sound emits from beneath her, and she pretends to be ashamed as everyone waves palm before nose to chase the make-believe smell while Katarina grabs the giggling Silas and pinches both sides of his bottom before covering his face with big wet smooches.
“I love to pinch their behinds,” she explains. “They are so sweet at that age, so delicious. Nothing undelicious about them. As soon as one begins to grow undelicious I just get pregnant again and have another.”
Lady Alice and I are a generation older than most of the adult guests here. I am exactly 20 years older than Dave, our host. We consider it a privilege to be among younger people and anyway I have always been immature. Doing my best to keep pace with their youthful drinking, I generally end up drinking twice as much as most.
While our beautiful hostess Methe is hurrying about, making certain that everyone has what they need, and I am filching one more piece of crackling from the roast pork, Des is telling about how difficult it had been for him to watch the Rugby world cup with Anne who kept joking about the players’ cauliflower ears and about the terms – asking whether a “maul” was a place where the teams shopped. Anne, for her part, decides to give a demonstration of bird calls, at which she is very good, but halfway through the blackbird decides instead to show how she died in a recent play.
She steps over to the door, opens it halfway, and speaks to an imaginatry person concealed outside.
“Who are you?! What do you want?! No, stop, leave me alone!”
Her half-invisible arm begins to be jerked by invisible hands as she is pulled further out the door. Now, her body is half concealed behind the door so that only her head and neck show, while hands choke her throat – her own hands of course, but they seem convincingly the hands of another. She gasps, gags, her tongue protrudes and she falls – kerbang! – to the floor and lies there, staring glassily upward, looking quite dead.
A smattering of applause brings her hastily back to life – “No, no, not yet, there’s more!” Then she is dead again, staring glassily, and her body begins to move, as though she is being dragged by the ankles by someone not visible behind the door, moving her body like a snake..
It is an amazing performance and I leap to my feet, applauding. She takes a bow and I sit again and the whoopie cushion explodes beneath me.
“You are so easy,” says Skeleton Man beside me as the children giggle and shriek and I pretend to be deeply mortified.
Now dessert has been served and soon we are into the cognac and the brandy, and Pete who is from Aberdeen is beautifully singing a Scottish ballad about love and death which soon has Des singing Irish ballads, a Percy French air, advising men that if they want a woman to run after them, then look the other way. Then someone puts on Johnny Cash singing another Percy French song, “Danny Boy,” which moistens my eyes since my own son is Daniel. I shed a tear or two as I eat another piece of crackling and chase it with icy snaps and cold pilsner.
Des explains that the name French is Irish, from Galway, originally with a double ‘f’ and has nothing to do with France, and Lady Alice, to my dismay, announces what a wonderful singing voice I have. She wishes me to render a song, but I do not wish to because I do not have a wonderful singing voice, and especially not when in my cups – then it is especially bad.
Fortunately, Dave saves the day by appearing with a guitar which he strums and sings,
In a sick city
Burned their homes down
To make the sky look pretty…
Dave, professor of criminology, is singing a song by Charles Manson, “Sick City,” soon followed by others, “Cease to Exist, “Big Iron Door,” and “People Say I’m No Good.” It seems his profession gives him access to such things.
“Pass the pussy, please,” someone croaks and cracks up laughing as if only now having discovered the humor of the expression, and another sits so hard on the whoopee cushion that it bursts. There follows the weeping of a child and then the administration of a bag of wine gums and contented slurpings.
One guest comes past to lean down and murmur in my ear, “Than’s fa won’ful day,” as he departs, and it occurs to me, as I bite down yet another snaps, that perhaps it is time for Lady Alice to put me to bed as well.
Soon a taxi arrives and before much longer, I am supine upon my mattress, two miles east, mentally reciting the wonderful poem by Steve Davenport, discovered only that morning, “Last night my bed a boat of whiskey going down…” But soon I am roaring and riding in a dream of sweet sinking.
Twelve hours later I groggily open my eyes – wondering if the words groggy and grog are related – and drag out to my computer to send an email to my hosts saying “Tak for igår” – “Thanks for yesterday,” a Danish custom to thank promptly. (A smack and a thanks should come at once, goes the old Arhusianer saying.) It also eases the sense of hungover guilt that too often accompanies the morning after and gives an opportunity to plumb the waters as to whether one was in fact buffoonishly intoxicated.
Soon I have an emailed response from my host:
“The last of the guests kept on until around 2:00 a.m., though my memory gets a little short there. I think I was in bed at 3.00, rose at ten feeling dizzy, but human, went to an annual Xmas Tree Party that we always attend, and I am now back in my office. I have to prepare to administer 37 oral examinations to students at the law institute within the next three days. Thanks for your great company yesterday And thanks to Alice for that great liver pâté and all apolgies for the behavior of those fresh kids who stole the bacon from it! Please greet my lovely friend, Alice. She’s a doll!” From Methe comes another mail praising us for being such good guests.
Ah! ‘Tis a civilized land!
Now I sit and think ahead on the various Christmas festivities that await us during this month of drear December. The next is, in fact, tomorrow – at the Tivoli Gardens.
What can I say? ‘Tis the season. The best of it to all of you from each of us!
Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy
See also www.copenhagenquartet.com for information on four independent novels about the souls and seasons of Copenhagen, each written in a different style and set in a different season and which can be read independently of one another or together in any order desired: Kerrigan's Copenhagen, A Love Story, which is a novel disguised as a guide to the bars of Copenhagen, each chapter unfolding in a different serving house; Bluett's Blue Hours, a noir tale about the deep dark of Copenhagen winter and the seamier sides of life in this beautiful capital; Greene's Summer, about a Chilean torture survivor who comes to Copenhagen to be treated in a torture rehabilitation center and meets a Danish woman who has herself survived a violent marriage; and Danish Fall, a satire about 12 people connected to a Danish firm which is being downsized.