We have a strange tradition in this country when it comes to pea soup. In fact, there is no tradition at all. Our Swedish immigrants forefathers forgot to bring the great Swedish tradition of having pea soup every Thursday.

In Sweden pea soup is invariably served on Thursdays. Serving it on any other day is considered a sacrilege. So, what do we do here in the United States? We eat it when we like, for instance on a Sunday, but not too often. In Sweden the tradition is so strong that pea soup is served every Thursday all year 'round — at least in many homes and restaurants. In the U.S. that’s of course too much of a good thing, so here in Atlanta we serve it only once a year. And that great event always takes place in February.

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Dessert may be equally important. In Sweden, pancakes after pea soup is as strongly linked as cranberry with turkey on Thanksgiving in America. But not in Atlanta. We serve semlor — the almond paste filled cardamom-spiced buns which are topped with whipped cream. They are delicious and incredibly popular in Sweden ... but they are associated with Lent, not pea soup.

But thank heavens for the punsch. This is the drink for gods and we still drink it with pea soup. Sometimes we drink it warm, which, paired with hot soup, is really good, especially if the weather is cold and ugly. What makes a pea soup dinner with punsch even better is the singing of a few Swedish punsch songs. That tradition we do have. It’s a pity, though, that it does not happen every Thursday.

What is pea soup?
Don’t for a single moment think that pea soup is something typically Swedish. You’ll find it in quite a few countries in Europe, the USA and Canada, but not in South America. It’s also in Russia, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and India. In India they spice it with curry, while in Sweden we prefer thyme, marjoram and mustard.

The Swedish pea soup tradition goes back to the 13th and 14th centuries when Sweden was a Catholic country. Friday was a fasting-day, which meant people were not allowed to eat meat. So people had to eat a lot on the day before in order to manage a day of privation next day. That’s why they ate a lot of pea soup on Thursdays, because pea soup with a lot of pork was a very satisfying and inexpensive dish.

The Swedish Army has a great history of cooking pea soup. It goes far back to when pea soup and surströmming (fermented herring) were the army’s basic foods. The peas were easy to transport and the soup easy to make. By the way, the Army still makes pea soup — every Thursday!

The story goes that Sweden’s King Erik XIV was killed by poisoned pea soup. It has been confirmed that the poison was arsenic, possibly put in his pea soup by his brother Johan the Third. Erik died at the age of 44 on February 26, 1577 at Örehus castle in northern Uppland. He had been locked up by his brother since 1668.

What is punsch?
The punsch is unique for Sweden — you can only get it in Sweden. The main ingredient is arrack, imported from Egypt in the 18th century, which is made from fermented fruit, grain and sugarcane. The Swedes started to make punsch in the beginning of the 19th century and very soon someone found out that the combination of pea soup and punsch was excellent, especially if the punsch was warm. The first maker of punsch was located in Karlshamn, in the province of Blekinge; the factory is still there. Punsch came to be the popular drink at Swedish universities and colleges, not only with pea soup, but anytime. Their tradition of having a glass of cold punsch with the after-dinner coffee soon spread all over Sweden. However, in the 19th century people consumed 15 times more punsch per person than today.

Atlanta celebrates
Nordic Lodge #708 celebrated — I guess we can use the word “celebrate” for something that happens only once a year — its “Peasoup-and-Semlor” Dinner on February 22. About 50 pea soup craving people came and so did several of the lodge’s pea soup chefs, who brought large pots of delicious soup. It came with bread and butter, a lot of cheese and of course semlor baked by Susanne Howard, as she has done for many years. Swedish-born chiropractor Dr. Sten Ekberg presented a greatly appreciated speech about new revelations in health — and food. He pointed out what is good and what is bad. Alcohol, for instance, is not the best beverage, but he admitted he likes a sip of a good single malt whisky. He assured the ardent listeners that pea soup is good food, however. So everyone enjoyed the meal, and went back for more. Pleased and contended, people went home in time to watch the Oscars. Maybe with a sip of whisky.

By Göran Rygert


TWO SWEDISH PEA SOUP RECIPES from Nordic Lodge #708 members. They are quite different, which shows there are many ways of making a good Swedish pea soup. I have tasted them both and they are excellent.

The first is Laurie Fulton's recipe:
3 pounds yellow peas
Approx. 1 gallon water
3 tsp salt
3 large onions, diced
2 teaspoon thyme
2 teaspoon marjoram
12 bouillon cubes (one per cup of water)
1½ pounds ham, cubed
Soak the peas overnight (or at least 4 hours) in cold water and salt. Cook in the same water, covered. Bring to a boil. Remove shells floating on top. Add onions and spices and simmer about 1½ hours until the peas are soft. Add the ham and cook for a few more minutes. If you have a ham bone with meat put that in from the start. That will be instead of the bouillon cubes, or at least you can reduce the amount. You may need to add more water as peas cook.

The second is Erica D’Onofrio's recipe:
1 pound split or whole peas
1 large chopped onion
2 tablespoons Vigo Ham flavored soup base
1 pound ham and the bone, from baked Virginia ham
1 cup chopped carrots
2 tablespoon marjoram, dry or fresh
Pepper to taste (the ham brings enough salt)
Rinse peas and soak for 24 hours in water (or at least overnight), covering two inches above peas. Pour entire mixture into a large kettle and add water to cover again by two inches. Boil for three minutes and skim off any foam or shells from the peas. Add onion, soup base, carrots and marjoram. Gently boil for two hours. Stir occasionally, slightly crushing the peas into the sides of the kettle.

"Punschen kommer." This is Sweden’s most well-known punsch song. The melody is Franz Lehár’s waltz from “The Merry Widow.”
Punschen kommer, punschen kommer, ljuv och sval.
Glasen imma, röster stimma i vår sal.
Skål för glada minnen, skål för varje vår.
Inga sorger finnas mer när punsch vi får.

Translation, however not singable:
The punsch is here, the punsch is here, sweet and cool.
The glasses are misting, the voices growing in our hall.
A toast for happy memories, a toast to each spring.
There will be no more sorrow when we get the punsch.