Christmas smorgasbord always ends up being a happy occasion at my house. It's those long weeks between Thanksgiving night and Christmas Eve when things get a little traumatic.
There used to be two lingering questions that brought seasonal shudders to the family.
The first was what to get our spinster cousin Lydia for Christmas. Fortunately, the family grew to such proportions that we voted several years ago not to exchange gifts.
This has only made the remaining question loom larger. It is: ''Who will make the Swedish meatballs?''
Meatballs may be meatballs to you, but in Swedish families like mine the meatball isn't just eaten, it is practically lionized. Whoever is goaded into making them assumes an enormous responsiblity.
This is how it always goes:
We have just put away a Thanksgiving dinner of appropriate magnitude at my sister Jeanne's rambling old Currier & Ives cape in New Hampshire. (Thanksgiving is always there). The entire family is gathered around the huge fieldstone fireplace in a state of suspended somnambulance. The silence is broken.
''Where should we have our Christmas smorgasbord this year?'' someone asks.
''Well I think we should have it at John's house this year,'' another answers. (It's been at my house for 30 years!)
''That's fine with me as long as everyone helps out and brings something,'' I groan.
''That's fine with me as long as everyone helps out and brings something,'' a little louder this time.
''Well, OK, I'll bring a tossed salad,'' someone offers. ''And I'll bring a roast ham and some pickled herring,'' says another. And so it goes down to, and except for, The Swedish Meatballs.
''Well, who wants to make the meatballs?'' I ask?
''The meatballs, who's going to make the Swedish meatballs? We can't have a smorgasbord without the meatballs.'' My voice assumes a decided pitch here.
Finally, someone bites the bullet, and with beaded brow announces. ''OK, I will.''
Then, come Christmas Eve - at my house, of course - the meatballs are ceremoniously placed in the family brass and pewter chafing dish just to the right of the centerpiece.
Everyone grabs for the toothpicks, stabs a meatball, downs it, nods and agrees - publicly - ''They're good.''
But when the crowd dissipates, little criticisms are inevitably heard in corners.
''Yes, they were good, but they're not like Grandmother's meatballs.''
Or, ''Well, I think they're better than last year's. Who made them last year, anyway?''
Or, ''They're good but they're still not real Swedish meatballs.''
And so it has gone ever since I can remember. Until now.
Enter Chef Per Nilsson - just in time.
Nilsson and staff have flown over from Stockholm to open the Sheraton-Boston's new Boylston Park Cafe. And for two weeks, under the lights and mirrors of this glittering new restaurant, the Swedish chefs have laid on a ''Royal Swedish Smorgasbord.''
''What makes a smorgasbord a smorgasbord?'' I asked Chef Nilsson.
''Herring, it's got to have herring. There's no such thing as a smorgasbord without herring.'' he said.
And it's ''royal'' because it was assembled under the direction of Tore Wretman - culinary adviser to the Royal Swedish Court. Master Chef Wretman has been named commander of the Vasa Order, Sweden's equivalent of knighthood, for his efforts. Certainly a man who knows his meatballs.
Although he is now semiretired and living in the south of France, when the King of Sweden has friends in for dinner, Wretman still gets a phone call.
''You mean these meatballs are the same as the King of Sweden eats?'' I managed to ask Nilsson with my mouth full.
''The same,'' he assured me.
''Exactly the same recipe?'' (I had to be doubly sure.)
''Exactly,'' he answered patiently.
''And no complaints from the King, right?''
''Could I have the recipe? Please?''
''Sure,'' he said.
I made a last circle around the table for a final layer of smoked eel, gravlax, marinated herring, boiled potatoes, pickled beets, Jansson's temptation , mustard-glazed ham, Westcoast salad, King Oscar cake, and authentic Swedish meatballs, just like the King eats, and Nilsson returned with a booklet of recipes.
Upon returning home I called my sister Betty, who tried her best with the meatballs last Christmas.
''There is nutmeg in them, right?'' she pleaded, giving away her ''secret'' ingredient.
Sorry, Betty. Nilsson did admit, though, to a few grinds of allspice on occasion.
This year, come Thanksgiving evening when we're all gathered around my sister's fireplace, I'll break the silence and surprise everyone by offering to make the meatballs.
TSwedish Meatballs 1 1/2 tablespoons bread crumbs 1 teaspoon potato flour or cornstarch Salt Black pepper 1 tablespoon grated yellow onion 1/2 cup heavy cream 1/4 cup milk or water 1/2 pound lean ground beef 2 ounces ground pork shoulder Butter for sauteeing
Combine all ingredients except beef, pork, and butter, and mix well. Let stand 15 to 20 minutes before adding meat.
Work together until smooth; add small amount of milk if mixture seems too firm.
Shape a small ball and fry to check on taste. Shape meatballs slightly smaller than a walnut.
Fry meatballs in pan over medium heat in generous amount of slightly browned butter. Shake pan often to keep balls round.
Salt Herring with Sour Cream and Chives 3 or 4 large whole Icelandic salt herring 1 half pint sour cream 3 or 4 tablespoons chopped chives
Remove head, gut, and skin of herring. Rinse in lukewarm water and soak for several hours - or overnight - in cold water to remove salt.
Cut herring crosswise in 1-inch slices.
Serve with sour cream and chives and plenty of hot or cold boiled potatoes.
TMarinated Herring 1 or more large salt herring 2 cups white vinegar 1/2 cup sugar 5 or 6 peppercorns 5 or 6 allspice berries 1 bay leaf 1 large onion thinly sliced 1 teaspoon whole allspice, crushed
Prepare salt herring as in above recipe. In saucepan, add next five ingredients, bring to boil, and add to herring. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Garnish with onion and allspice.
Jansson's Temptation Raw potatoes, peeled and shredded Onions, shredded Can of Swedish anchovies, with juice reserved Light cream Bread crumbs Butter
Tore Wretman suggests proportions of one part onion to three of potatoes.
Butter generously a deep earthenware dish. Put a layer of potatoes in bottom. Follow with some onion and sprinkle Swedish anchovies cut in small pieces. Continue with alternating layers.
Mix juice from anchovy can with cream, and pour enough to almost cover. Top with bread crumbs and dots of butter. Bake in 350 degree oven one hour, or until potatoes are tender.
Jansson's Temptation always gets mixed reviews at my table. Probably because I haven't always been able to get Swedish anchovies - much sweeter than the saltier ones from southern Europe.