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Leave it to the Danes to elevate the open-face sandwich to an art form. In a country where understatement and simplicity reign, it makes sense that the unpretentious sandwich is embraced as a national dish. Some surveys conclude that Danes are among the happiest people on the planet, recognized for their tolerant nature and down-to-earth attitude. So perhaps it's without irony that this same relaxed society would make a lunchbox staple an iconic expression of tasteful design, ranking right up there with Georg Jensen silver and Royal Copenhagen porcelain.
Smorrebrod, which translates as "butter bread," includes countless open-face sandwich combinations, from minimal to lavish. How they are assembled varies with the occasion. However, they share a specific preparation method and order in which they are eaten. They also share ingredients that reflect straightforward Scandinavian sensibilities, using simple, honest, local food attractively presented with little waste. This is as close to ceremony as you will find in the easygoing Danish culture.
The origin of the open-face sandwich is the European Middle Ages, when thick slices of stale bread, or trenchers, served as plates. The trenchers absorbed the juice and flavor of the toppings and then were discarded. Over time, the bread was incorporated into the meal because the food-soaked "plate" was often the tastiest component.
Denmark's smorrebrod custom became entrenched with the onset of industrialization in the 19th century. Factory workers were no longer able to return home for a midday meal, so they packed a lunch of open-face sandwiches, which in their simplest form included slices of rugbrod (dense, dark rye bread) smeared with butter or animal fat (which helped to prevent the juices from seeping into and softening the bread), topped with cold meats, smoked fish or leftovers from dinner the night before. This tradition took hold over time, moving into the Danish mainstream. Families cultivated hand-me-down recipes, restaurants served more elaborate and creative variations, and the open-face sandwich secured its place at the holiday table.
It was at a holiday table where, in the 21st century, I sat with my husband's Danish family for the first time. I wanted to make a good impression and felt confident in my manners until I was confronted with the ritual of eating smorrebrod. Suddenly, I was catapulted into a world of unknown rules, stumbling through a minefield of herring, rye bread and schnapps. If there is a Danish equivalent for the phrase "faux pas," then I committed it. Not only did I place the smoked salmon on rye bread (it must be white bread), but I also used the same plate when I switched from the fish to the meat course. When I gratefully reached for my schnapps, I committed an even worse blunder: I drank without raising the glass first, looking everyone in the eye and saying skol. By smorrebrod standards, I was a cultural Neanderthal.
Years passed, my husband and I are still married, and smorrebrod is now a part of our own family tradition. We enjoy its simpler versions as an easy dinner or all dressed up at Christmas. Don't let the rules intimidate you. Once you get the hang of it, it's difficult not to be enchanted by the simple pleasure of eating smorrebrod and the Danish culture that produced it. It's hard not to admire a country that celebrates and expresses itself with fresh, artfully arranged sandwiches and a beer or schnapps.