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Skoal!


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#1 Fat Guy

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Posted 19 May 2009 - 05:39 AM

I confess when I first learned of the skoal project I thought it was a waste of time.

"Skoal!" is a Swedish toast, their equivalent of "cheers!" or "salut!" I guess. Two of the chefs at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, Nils Noren and Dave Arnold, are utterly obsessed with a series of three photographs that appeared in one of the Time Life "Foods of the World" books from 1968 (The Cooking of Scandinavia, pages 130-131). This photo series depicts Swedish actor Max von Sydow, then a dashing and dapper young blond gentleman, drinking a cordial glass full of aquavit. In the first photo, he holds the glass chest high and stares at the camera. In the second photo, he tips his head way back and drinks. In the third photo, he brings the empty glass back to chest height and stares back at the camera. This ritual is known as skoaling.

Nils and Dave are not only obsessed with this photo series, but also have made it their collective mission in life to photograph every A-, B-, C- and D-list culinary personality in the world skoaling. In Dave's office at the French Culinary Institute, aka "Dave's Hole," they have set up elaborate lighting equipment and a backdrop. Day and night, they bring people through and photograph them skoaling. The walls of the office are covered with these photos, such that when you enter Dave's Hole you feel like homicide detectives who've just stumbled upon the lair of a serial killer. They also, as most serial killers have done since about 2005, post the photos on their blog.

Worse, Nils and Dave recently escalated the skoal project to the level of an event. This past Sunday night, scores of chefs and friends of the French Culinary Institute (which is one of the entities that, along with the Italian Culinary Academy, comprise the International Culinary Center, where I teach a class) filled the fourth-floor dining room adjacent to the nicest of the school's kitchens ("the Italian Kitchen"). A professional photographer was on call to photograph each attendee skoaling. Swedish food was served.

But let me go back a bit. I imagine many of you are thinking, as I was for a long time, "This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard. They're photographing people taking shots of aquavit? Not particularly funny, and certainly not funny enough to support this level of sustained effort." But then you start peeling back the layers, and it gets more interesting. Like an inside joke that, when you first hear it, is cringe-inducing but, upon repetition, becomes funnier and funnier until it has the power to make you laugh even on your deathbed.

It starts by reading the actual text of the Time Life book from 1968. When the photo series is illuminated in this way, it becomes an impossibly fine example of late 1960s kitsch. "Learning to skoal is easy, and it is well worth learning," begins narrator Dale Brown. He continues, "it adds considerable charm to dining in the Scandinavian manner and assures that an evening will be a success by bringing the guests into visual and verbal contact with each other right off." This is written with the same tone of utmost seriousness that pervades the series.

"The ritual varies somewhat in the different parts of Scandinavia." Interesting. "In Sweden, for example, it is a bit more formal, because Swedes follow the custom established by military officers who began the toast by holding their glasses at precisely the level of the third uniform button," which is about heart high, I have learned. And, "basically it proceeds along simple lines. All that is required is a drink in the hand and a cooperative partner."

To elaborate, "The proposer of the toast engages the eye of the person being toasted, and 'skoal' is said. A slight bow of the head, and a twinkle of the eye—and the aquavit is drained in one gulp (if the drink is wine, a sip is taken). Just before the glass is put back on the table, the eyes meet again and there is another friendly nod."

The photo captions are even better. Photo 1 in the series "HOW TO SKOAL WITH STYLE": "Swedish film star Max von Sydow engages his drinking partner's gaze." Photo 2: "Tipping his glass backward, von Sydow drains the chilled aquavit in one deceptively cool gulp." And Photo 3: "Lowering the glass to the level from which he raised it, von Sydow again meets his companion's eyes."

The kitsch factor is greatly enhanced if you look at the actual photos, which can be found on the skoal page of Nils and Dave's Cooking Issues blog. There you will also find photos of such luminaries as Jeffrey Steingarten, Wylie Dufresne and Harold McGee. As well, you'll find photos of me.

The pivotal moment in my appreciation of the skoal project was when I witnessed Alan Richman's photo shoot. Here's a typical hallway conversation between Dave and me:

"Steven! Check this out! We just figured out how to make oysters taste like carrot juice by feeding them carrot juice while they're still alive!" (Dave Arnold is the FCI's resident food-and-technology genius, affectionately named The Food Avant-Garde's Enabler by Pete Wells in Food & Wine magazine.)

(Tastes.) "Yes, they taste like carrot juice."

"Are you teaching tonight? What's happening in class?"

"Alan Richman is coming as a guest speaker."

"Alan Richman! He hasn't skoaled yet!"

And so it goes.

An accurate account of the Alan Richman photo shoot can be found on one of my student's blogs. Mindy Nguyen, whose role in the FCI is unclear to me, took the photo and had this to say about photo number 3:

"He came down fast, snapping his head down like an axe, and leaning forward slightly to better reach out and kill the camera with the intensity of his glare. Literally, the power of that 3rd stare was like setting off a hydrogen bomb in that little lab. I’m lucky I managed to press the button on the camera before everyone standing in that doorway, myself included, literally arched backwards and flew backward out of the room. ”Oh my God!” someone yelled. People were bent over, gasping for air. I ran back to the camera, making sure that it hadn’t been my imagination, that I actually got the picture. And there it was…"

The full account is here. It's all true. (And yes we are working with Mindy on her adverb problem.)

As for the party, it was great fun. Nils's team cooked Swedish food (Nils was for a decade the chef responsible for the day-to-day operations of the kitchen at Aquavit) and he was only mildly annoying in his incessant advocacy for Swedish cuisine. (This is an issue with every Swede in the culinary profession I meet: as soon as you let it happen, he or she goes on and on about how superior and misunderstood Swedish cuisine is, how it's so much better than French, in fact the Swedes taught the French how to cook, invented pizza and pasta, the world's best Chinese food is in Stockholm, etc.) Dave's team demonstrated several techniques of molecular mixology, including martini-infused cucumbers made in the Cryovac machine. So you eat the cucumber wedge but it's like drinking a martini. There were also some high-tech components to the food, such as vinegar-infused french fries and those carrot-juice-gorged oysters. The best thing on the buffet was the trough of low-temperature-cooked Swedish meatballs, though. Take that, Ikea.

There were also a lot of pretty girls at the party, but I didn't know who they were and none of them spoke to me.

I don't know when the photos from the party will be online. While we're waiting, though, here are my three cell-phone photos of David Chang being photographed for his skoal series:

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Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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#2 slkinsey

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Posted 19 May 2009 - 06:02 AM

Alan Richman's series is definitely the best!
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#3 BarbaraY

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Posted 19 May 2009 - 08:31 AM

Well, you have made me smile today!
I have the Foods of the World set and always enjoy the skoal photos.

Please pass me by with carrot flavored oysters. I prefer oyster flavored oysters. Maybe they should feed them lemons???

#4 rlibkind

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Posted 19 May 2009 - 11:40 AM

The hardest part in duplicating this at home would be to find aquavit. Most liquor stores will, at best, have only one brand here in the U.S., and its likely to be Danish, not Swedish. Some might have Norway's Linie, which gets its name from crossing the equator (twice) in the cask on a the deck of a cargo ship during a roundtrip sea voyage from Norway to (usually) Australia; during the journey it picks up its characteristic color and wood flavors to join the herbals.

What's off in the photo series is the lack of beer. A glass of good lager usually accompanies the aquavit.

Here's a photo of the selection of aquavits at Fryet at Youngstorget in Oslo, along with the winsome barmaid.


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#5 Fat Guy

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Posted 19 May 2009 - 11:44 AM

The hardest part in duplicating this at home would be to find aquavit.

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Don't try this at home!

I need to learn more about the process, but at the FCI I think they use liquid nitrogen, an antigriddle and their own infusing process to create the aquavit and serve it super cold.

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#6 rlibkind

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Posted 19 May 2009 - 11:54 AM

Don't try this at home!

I need to learn more about the process, but at the FCI I think they use liquid nitrogen, an antigriddle and their own infusing process to create the aquavit and serve it super cold.

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Ugh! Super-cold aquavit is a sin. When I was first introduced to the spirit I, too, thought icy cold was best. But I've sinced discovered that it totally overwhelms the taste. Classic aquavits are flavored with herbs, and they don't stand up to major chilling. A little cool, perhaps, but room temp is best.

btw, I've long enjoyed the Scandinavian book from the Time Life series (and especially that photo series); many of the recipes are, as my Norwegian father-in-law might have said, "not so bad".
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#7 docsconz

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 06:59 AM

This is just cool! Theirs is a great blog in addition to the Skoal Project.
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#8 Chris Amirault

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Posted 21 May 2009 - 07:27 AM

Wylie Dufresne looks amusingly troubled post-Skoal...
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#9 TAPrice

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Posted 26 May 2009 - 07:32 AM

This is really fun. Thanks for sharing.

I can say with some certainty, though, that everyone involved in this project must have grown up in a very different cultural milieu than me. Say the word skoal and I immediately have memories of high school jocks sitting in the back of class and furtively spitting brown goo into a cup.

How did the chewing tobacco end up being named after a Swedish toast?
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#10 slkinsey

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Posted 26 May 2009 - 08:54 AM

I wonder.

On the other hand, as far as I know, the correct spelling of the Scandinavian toast is Skål.
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#11 Fat Guy

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Posted 21 June 2009 - 05:16 PM

Dave Scantland ("Dave the Cook") and Janet Zimmerman ("JAZ") were in New York recently and posed for tripartite skoal shots. They can be found at the bottom of this week's skoal compendium on the Cooking Issues blog.

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#12 hansjoakim

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Posted 21 June 2009 - 10:32 PM

I wonder.

On the other hand, as far as I know, the correct spelling of the Scandinavian toast is Skål.

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that's right! it's written skål. however, i would guess that the danish way of pronouncing "skål" is quite similar to the way english speakers pronounce "skoal".

some people like their aquavits slightly chilled, but, as mentioned above, this takes away a lot of the rich taste from herbs. the spirit is particularly popular during christmas, and it's usually served at room temperature in small shot glasses. delicious accompaniment to typical scandinavian christmas fare :smile:

#13 TheSwede

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Posted 22 June 2009 - 02:07 AM

I would like to disagree on the chilling. We always serve our aquavit very cold. I think it adds to the experience, first the intial shock of super cold alcohol followed by the actual taste as the aquavit warms up in your mouth.

Besides christmas, the other major "skål" holiday is midsummers eve, which we celebrated this friday.

#14 Fat Guy

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Posted 24 June 2009 - 09:16 AM

On spelling and pronunciation, there is a Cooking Issues blog entry here:
"A quick note: it’s Skål or Skoal, but not Skal."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
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#15 Peter Green

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Posted 24 June 2009 - 09:46 AM

Thanks, Steven, for this (especially the links).

It takes me back to some really bad mornings in Denmark.

I can't remember the nights.

:biggrin: