*Darkness. A voice narrating. It sounds pompous, powerful, and slightly intoxicated.*
LO, AND A GREAT CRY WAS HEARD THROUGHOUT THE LAND… The rumbling voices of a thousand somewhat curious onlookers, riveted by the journey of two friends from simple American expats in Sweden to would-be picklers of Swedish fish.
AND WHAT A JOURNEY IT WAS.
*Loud thundercrash, curtain draws back, revealing a grotesquely fat Tom Cruise, who is narrating*
Listen, my children, and you will hear… Of a truly heinous story of herring gone wrong, and the terrible fate that awaits unsuspecting picklers.
*Thunder crashes again, cut away to FLASHBACK*
Once upon a time, there were two friends. Let’s call them Kate and Steve.
*Charming pastoral soundtrack*
The two friends lived in Sweden, and when National Day approached, they decided to go where no Swede had ever gone before: pickling their own herring. (When I say “where no Swede had ever gone before,” this is of course excluding everyone’s grandparents, all seafood chefs, fish markets, food distribution factories, and my friend Anna, who did it for Christmas a couple of years ago.)
Like I said, we dared to go WHERE NO SWEDE HAD E’ER GONE BEFORE.
We diced. We sliced. We skinned. We pickled.
And it was good.
The annual Midsummer feast, a tribute to nature and to fertility and to the land of the midnight sun, would be graced by a triumvirate of pickled wonders: one Senapssill, one Brantevik sill, one Leif Mannerström Unnamed “Classic Recipe” Sill.
Once the pickling process was approximately perfect, we watched the jars with a keenness not unlike that of new parents. We marked incremental changes in the amount of fluid in the jars or the slight change in color of the sauces with equal parts joy and wonder.
This herring was going to be THE BEST HERRING EVER.
*cue Mr. Crowley guitar solo. The silhouette of the unknown guitarist is outlined by a crash of lightning and MORE THUNDER.*
The week of Midsummer came. Kate’s plans were still up in the air. Steve had rented a cottage outside of Ystad. The unthinkable happened.
How to interpret the following chain of events must be left to far more talented historians than I, a simple scribe.
Steve forgot to pick up the herring from Kate’s refrigerator. Or Kate forgot to bring the herring to Steve. Depending on how you see it.
And then Steve left for the cottage. And Kate went to Stockholm.
And the merry herring pickled on, jiving to the bacteria beat.
THE BACTERIA BEAT, YOU SAY? That doesn’t sound good.
Ahh, yes. What an apt observation. Because the bacteria beat is not good. The bacteria beat is so not good that it has even crossed over the border to being bad, BAD TO THE BONE, regardless of the fact that bacteria don’t have bones.
The word slithers out of your mouth: b o t u l i s m.
The herring had already crossed over to the Dark Side, and unlike Darth Vader in his final moments, there was no winning it back.
Steve went to the Fiskehoddarna fish market in Malmö to consult with an expert. The grizzled man with snus-stained gums answered his questions with uninterested contempt.
Steve: We pickled our own herring from fresh fish about three weeks ago. Is it still good to eat?
The grizzled man: I wouldn’t.
And with that, our pickled herring journey was over. A mission that had to be abandoned without reaching our final destination, and one kilo of possibly Botulism-infected herring still left in my fridge as I try to figure out the best way to dispose of it.
Oh, the herring.