anna brones

writer + artist + activist

Jólabókaflóð

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When it’s cold outside, there’s the gentle call of curling up with a book and a mug of tea or coffee (or even a glass of wine or a beer). Reading is wonderful any time of year, but if I was going to pick a reading season, winter would certainly be it; when it’s cold and dark, we want to curl up with a good story.

Maybe it’s the cold darkness of the north that has led to Iceland’s popular Jólabókaflóð, otherwise known as the “Christmas book flood.” Not only are many new titles released this time of year, but the majority of Icelandic book sales happen at this time, everyone prepping to gift a book come Christmas.

The tradition has its roots in World War II, when many imported items were heavily regulated, but paper remained fairly inexpensive. The book became the holiday gift of choice, and it still is today.

It all kicks off when the Iceland Publishers Association distributes a free copy of Bokatidindi  – the annual catalog of new book releases – to every single Icelandic household. It’s a season of book buying and book giving. “It’s considered a total flop Christmas if you do not get a book,” Icelandic writer Yrsa Sigurðardóttir told Read it Forward. Just imagine if children (and adults for that matter) were upset because they didn’t get a book as opposed to whatever new version of iGadget was on their list.

Having a culture of books and reading comes with many benefits. 93% of Icelanders read at least one book a year, compared with only 73% of Americans. (To put that another way, one of of four Americans isn’t reading at least one book a year.) Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world, and one out of 10 Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime.

For those of us who don’t live in Iceland, how about creating our own book flood this holiday?

Start by visiting the library. Find a book you didn’t know you wanted to read.

If you read and feel inspired to write, do so.

And finally, in the spirit of not consuming (although, if you are going to buy presents, books are a pretty good option, and remember to be sure to support your local independent book retailer), here’s one final prompt for today to kick of your own Christmas book flood:

Go to your bookcase. Find a book that you loved reading, but are willing to part with. Think of someone who would enjoy reading it. Package it up, and take it to the post on Monday, or gift it to them in person. If there’s one thing better than reading a good book, it’s sharing one with someone else.

This post originally appeared in my 24 Days of  Making, Doing and Being advent calendar. To receive it, sign up for my newsletter

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Written by Anna Brones

December 12, 2017 at 10:03

Making Glögg

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“When I first moved to Washington, you couldn’t buy grain alcohol without a prescription…. so I asked my dentist if he could write me one.”

A couple of years ago, a 90-year-old family friend was sharing this anecdote of her glögg making experience (a leftover prohibition thing). Of Swedish heritage, her recipe was one that had been passed down by her father. It always involved grain alcohol, and she insisted upon making it the same way he did. There was no other option. Which is why this sweet woman was in the dentist chair asking if perhaps she could illegally get her hands on some.

This isn’t a story of alcohol, but a story of tradition.

When we attach to a certain recipe, a song, a book, an activity, what we’re really attaching to is a regularity that ensures nostalgia. Tradition is a fixed point on our life journey, one that we can always turn to. It’s also one that shifts with time, evolving as we do, much like a recipe; the origins stay the same, yet we adapt based upon our personal preferences, modernizing along the way, keeping the idea of tradition but at the same time turning it into something new.

Every family has a holiday pastime of some sort. A friend recently shared with me the story of her favorite Nutcracker experience; the classic ballet wasn’t seen at a theatre, but on a television screen in a community hall in a town where she was passing through. And if we don’t have traditions, we often find ourselves making new ones. What we drink, what we eat, what we listen to – these are all things that are imbibed with memories, and memories to come. Traditions tie us to culture and history. They are what keep us alive.

This is not to say that tradition can’t be broken. Certainly, there are times that call for breaking with the norm and creating something new in the process. But I am convinced that it’s not the actual thing that we make or do that is the important part, it’s simply the act of doing it.

***

One of my holiday traditions is glögg. In my family, we don’t drink glögg (i.e. Swedish mulled wine) until the first of advent, and making it is an important affair.

There are many variations of glögg out there. My father makes his with vodka and madeira, and of course, the family friend mentioned above still insists on grain alcohol for hers (the last time she brought a bottle of glögg to a gathering it was in fact in an Everclear bottle, “glögg” marked clearly with a Sharpie marker on a piece of masking tape).

I think tradition is important, because it gives us something to look forward to, something to celebrate. In my home, glögg is a reminder of the season. The smell of spices fills the kitchen, giving a sensory cue to commence the holidays.

If you’re interested in making glögg a part of your own holiday traditions, I’ve got two versions for you: an alcoholic one and a non-alcoholic one. As always, there are many renditions out there, and these happen to be the ones that I make in my kitchen. My basic glögg is strong and sweetened only by the addition of dried fruit. If you like yours a little sweeter, consider adding port, sugar, honey, or even a little freshly squeezed orange juice.

Everyone deserves the chance to make their own traditions. What are yours?

Glögg

1/4 cup chopped figs

1/4 cup raisins

Zest of one orange

2 tablespoons chopped ginger

2 cinnamon sticks

2 teaspoons whole cloves

5 whole green cardamom pods or 2 teaspoons cardamom seeds

1 teaspoon anise seed

1 cup whiskey or aquavit

1 bottle red wine, full-bodied

Optional:
1 cup port or Madeira (this will bring a little additional sweetness to the glögg)
2 to 3 tablespoons brown sugar or honey

Garnish:
Blanched almonds
Raisins

Directions:
Place the dried fruit and spices in a glass jar, cover with the alcohol, seal with the lid and let sit overnight (or at least a few hours if you are pressed for time).

Strain the spices and pour the alcohol into a large saucepan along with the red wine (and port or madeira if you are using it).

Heat on medium/low heat until warm, but not simmering. Strain out the spices, then serve warm. **If you want a slightly spicier glögg, then leave the spices in and remove once you have heated it.

This glögg tastes better as it has sat for a bit, so ideally, make it the day before you want to serve it. Once you have heated it, let it cool, and place it in a cool, dark place. When ready to serve, heat it up (but don’t let it boil), pour into small glasses and garnish with blanched almonds and raisins.

If you are entirely short on time (this is the holidays after all!) and in the need for “quick glögg,” add the dried fruit, spices and whiskey to a saucepan and place on medium heat until the alcohol warms up and you can really smell the spices. Add the wine. If you need to sweeten the glögg, stir in a little port, brown sugar, honey or freshly squeezed orange juice.

Non-alcoholic Glögg
Note: This one doesn’t use dried fruit in the base since usually the cordial or juice is sweet enough on its own. Up to you if you want to add more sweetness!

2 tablespoons chopped ginger

2 cinnamon sticks

2 teaspoons whole cloves

5 whole green cardamom pods or 2 teaspoons cardamom seeds

1 teaspoon anise seed

Zest and juice of one orange

1/2 cup water

About 3 cups fruit cordial or juice, ideally something tart like lingonberry or black currant, or even a grape juice that isn’t too sweet

Garnish:
Blanched almonds
Raisins

Directions:
Place the spices, orange juice and water into a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat, cover and let sit for at least half an hour. Overnight is good too!

Strain out the spices, then pour the liquid back into the saucepan along with the juice. Heat and serve, or heat and let cool, then bottle until ready to serve. When ready to serve, heat the liquid and pour into small glasses, garnish with blanched almonds and raisins.

This story/recipe originally appeared in my 2017 digital advent calendar: 24 Days of Making, Being and Doing. Want to receive it in your inbox? Subscribe to my newsletter. Want more Swedish recipes? Check out my books Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break and Live Lagom: Balanced Living the Swedish Way,.

Written by Anna Brones

December 8, 2017 at 06:00

24 Days of Making, Doing and Being: A Digital Advent Calendar

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The month of December has a tendency to pass in a flurry, the main focus concentrated on Christmas Day. The other days pass in anticipation, and often, a stress inducing countdown. December has become an extension of our overbooked, over-planned, over-digitized lives; a month where chaos and stress levels collide.

It’s cliché to say that we’ve forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, that today, Christmas is an over-commercialized affair that’s about the procurement of things rather than generosity, caring and celebrating.

Given this frenzy, it’s no surprise that Christmas advertising and marketing works; it sells a cozy, slow image that we’re all craving. Families in pajama sets sitting by the fire smiling at each other (if only you invested in those pajamas, your family would be happy too). A cup of tea on the windowsill overlooking a snowy morning (make sure to buy this particular brand on tea, or your mornings won’t look like this). A couple on a winter walk through the woods (trust us, you can’t go on one of these walks without buying these boots).

Here’s the secret to that kind of living: you can’t buy your way to that feeling, you have to create it yourself.

For me, part of creating that seasonal magic has come in the form of an advent calendar. Growing up, every December meant the enjoyment of an advent calendar. There would always be more than one. Often, a beautifully illustrated one sent from relatives in Sweden, and the other one was an advent calendar that my mother had woven, each day made to hold a small slip of paper. My parents would write a note every night, so that it was the first thing I saw when I woke up the next morning. The note might say something fun that we would do that day (“build a gingerbread house”) or just be a reminder to enjoy the season (“curl up with a book and a cup of tea”). The advent wasn’t a countdown to Christmas, it was a way of making every day during the month of December special.

I have had that advent calendar hanging on the wall every single December since I can remember. Today, it’s a link to the past, an object that carries a lot of magical childhood memories. But it’s also a reminder of the present, the prompt to focus on the now and create a little magic every day during the holiday season.

This is a time of year focused on consumption. It’s a time of year that can be stressful. It’s a time of year that’s frantic. The U.S. version of my book Live Lagom comes out at the end of December, and I have been thinking a lot about how lagom applies to the holidays. Certainly, it means a little indulgence, in the form of a plethora of holiday cookies and glögg, Swedish mulled wine. But it also means balance. It means slowing down, spending time with family, taking winter walks. All the things that we often tell ourselves we will do, but never make the time for.

So this year, I’m putting together a digital advent calendar that’s focused on slowing down, creating and experiencing rather than consuming. The advent calendar will be in newsletter format, sent out every morning. It will include everything from holiday recipes to creative prompts, something new every day. You’re sure to find a little Scandinavian inspiration as well. The goal with this advent calendar is to help you create a little magic every day during the month of December, but also focus on slowing down, finding balance, breathing.

It all kicks off on Friday, December 1, 2017, so if you want to receive the advent calendar, be sure to sign up for my newsletter.

 

Written by Anna Brones

November 29, 2017 at 11:21

Using Food to Change the Thanksgiving Narrative

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For many of us, our associations with Thanksgiving are mostly about food. Cranberries, pumpkin pies, stuffing and all those other things that turns the food media world into a seasonal frenzy of recipes and roundups. It’s a holiday where we’re encouraged to gather with our friends and family and be thankful, showing gratitude for what’s on the table and the people we share it with.

These are admirable ideals, however when we talk about Thanksgiving, share iconic recipes, gather around the table, we avoid the harsh reality of a holiday with a dark past, one of slavery, plague and massacres. At its core, Thanksgiving is a story of genocide, and instead of facing that reality, it’s a holiday that we have chosen to mythologize, erasing real stories and people along the way. Instead of the truth, the false narrative around Thanksgiving allows us to focus on the easy stuff, in the form of “10 Best Pie Crusts” and “25 Creative Stuffing Ideas You Never Thought Of.

“Food media at large still won’t touch the imperialist implications of Thanksgiving with a ten foot pole bc it’s more profitable to pub stuffing listicles,” wrote Racist Sandwich a few weeks ago on Twitter.

I thought about that comment a lot, pondering the importance and weight of food media in addressing cultural history as well as today’s realities. Food is an excellent lens for looking at important topics like gender, race and culture, and in that sense, the food hype over Thanksgiving seems like a massively missed opportunity to highlight the true story and its modern day implications. Avoiding the conversation about the true roots of Thanksgiving means perpetuating the injustice.

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Written by Anna Brones

November 22, 2017 at 13:25

Preorder ‘Live Lagom’ U.S. Edition

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Earlier this year I wrote a book called Live Lagom: Balanced Living the Swedish Way, published by Ebury Press in the U.K. I am happy to announce that it’s hitting the U.S. market this December thanks to the wonderful team at Ten Speed Press.  It’s officially out on December 26, 2017 which means that you could consider it a belated Christmas present, or also, a kick off to the new year.

What is lagom? It’s a Swedish word that roughly translates to “the right amount.” In other words, not too much, not too little, just that perfect middle ground. It can relate to food, fashion, health, work, social life and beyond. I wrote a little more about the book when it came out in July, which you can read here.

The book is beautifully photographed by Matilda Hildingsson and Nathalie Myrberg and I like to think of it not just as a lifestyle guide about Scandinavian living, but a look at how slowing down and finding balance can help all of us.

Ask your favorite bookstore to order it for you, or preorder it online at your favorite indie retailer (mine is Powell’s.)

Written by Anna Brones

November 10, 2017 at 07:00

Welcoming the Darkness

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It’s so easy to complain about the lack of light this time of year, particularly after we have set our clocks back and the afternoon succumbs to darkness even earlier. Yet with that darkness comes a beautiful quietness and stillness that’s hard to find at other times of year.

The Scandinavian way to enjoy this is to bring in lots of candlelight. I’ve been lighting candles both in the morning and the afternoon, a way to welcome the darkness instead of falling prey to it. In Finnish, “kaamos” is the world that refers to the time of year when the sun doesn’t even rise, yet there is still a magical lightness that covers the winter landscape. It doesn’t matter if you live in a place of pure winter darkness or not, candles and a pot of tea or a cup of coffee always help.

So in the coming weeks, invite a friend over and have fika by candlelight. (Here’s a recipe for sourdough cardamom buns, if you are in the mood for a little baking)

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A couple of Scandinavian classics featured in the papercut above: the Kivi candleholders from Iittala and a teapot and mug in the Unikko design from Marimekko. Kivi means “stone” in Finnish, and the candleholder is a gentle nod to the fact that so much of Scandinavian design is influenced by nature. The Marimekko Unniko design dates back all the way to 1964, when the company’s founder Armi Ratia declared that the company would never print a flower pattern again. Designer Maija Isola thought otherwise, and came up with this iconic poppy print that is still used today, over half a century later.

 

Written by Anna Brones

November 9, 2017 at 10:44

Recipe: Chanterelle Tart with Rye Crust

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In Swedish, chanterelles (and other mushrooms that can be found in the forest this time of year) are often referred to as skogsguld, forest gold. Cooking them up in a pan with a little olive oil or butter is as indicative of autumn to me as the changing colors.

I haven’t been out to harvest any chanterelles this season, but fortunately my friend Adam supplies a good stash, and I like sautéing them and serving on top of a slice of rye bread for a simple warm sandwich.

Another good way to put chanterelles to use is in a tart or quiche. I like making savory tarts because they are fairly straightforward and forgiving; just sauté up whatever you want as a filling, pour some whisked eggs on top and call it a day.

For this one in particular, I wanted a flavorful crust to pair with the earthy chanterelles, so I came up with a rye pastry crust. It’s made up of mostly rye flour and a little oat flour.

This is a cozy recipe, perfect for a blustery autumn day with flickering candles on the kitchen table. Leftovers will be perfect for breakfast the next day too, so be sure to save a few slices.

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Written by Anna Brones

November 2, 2017 at 10:42