Surströmming is something that everyone agrees is a Swedish specialty, even though plenty of Swedes either don't like it or refuse to even try it. It is one of those one of those sorts of foods that can be considered a national dish, mostly because it can be used to terrorize outsiders.
At morning fika, post-doc K. related the story of how a Brit that she met at a conference was given a couple cans of surstömming as a "present" by a Swedish colleague. "But the Swede didn't give the Brit any special instructions," K. said, "So the Brit got home and just opened the can in his kitchen. The surströmming exploded of course*, and the kitchen smelled like surströmming for days." K. herself, being sensitive to smells, has never eaten surströmming. Student Z. said that she had it at a surstömming party last year, and it wasn't so bad, when taken in small quantities and mixed with chopped raw onions, served on plenty of bread, and washed down with beer and aquavit, which is how it is eaten these days. (For a good story that's not too disgusting, read Francis Strand's description of a surströmming party—scroll down to October 14. For disgusting stories, search YouTube for "surströmming." Not for the faint of heart.)
This train of conversation inevitably led to a discussion of every nation's disgusting cuisine, including Iceland's famous fermented shark (which the Swedes at the table all agreed was much worse than surstömming), and other historical failures in food preservation. What happens if you try to preserve something and it doesn't work, but that's all the food you have? Then you will probably eat it anyway. And thus a cuisine is born.
Post-doc E. suggested that they do away with the rather clinical word "fermented" and just call it what it is: rotten. Staff artist L. said "That's a good thing about America. You are so young that you don't have a 'rotten' stage in your history. You never had to eat rotten things."
I'm not sure that I agree with his historical analysis, exactly, but I am rather pleased that I personally have never had to eat rotten fish to survive. But what if the department has a surströmming party, like they did last year? Will I succumb to peer pressure and try to eat rotten herring from a can, just to fit in? Stay tuned for the rest of August, and find out!
*Why does the can explode, you ask? Well, the fish ferments in the can, so the can is under enormous pressure from the build up of gasses. The proper way to open the can is under a sinkful of water, or, better yet, outside in a bucket.