On the Side: Swedish pea soup warms hearts in S. Phila.

Of course, the marjoram-scented pea soup may not precisely replicate the steaming bowls that are still fixtures at eateries all across Stockholm on any given Thursday night.

Here at South Philadelphia's stately American Swedish Historical Museum, the peas are yellow and split. In Sweden, they tend to be whole. And the ham speaks, well, with a different accent.

But on Saturday morning, the Men's Pea Soup Committee will cook up 16 gallons of what is considered an extremely passable rendition, stirring devotedly away in the museum's basement kitchen in the sprawl of FDR Park.

And on Saturday evening, local Swedish expats, and the grandsons and great-granddaughters of Swedes and whoever has a hankering for the stuff, will congregate in this land beyond the Swedish meatball: The annual Ärtsoppa (pea soup) and Punsch (a honeyed liqueur) Supper.

Such is the long, unfaltering tug of tradition: Pea soup for Thursday supper dates back centuries, to medieval times when Sweden was a Catholic country. With Friday a fast day, Swedes wanted to load up on a hearty, sustaining meal the night before.

The galleries above the kitchen may be given over to the glories of Swedish accomplishment: Who knew that it was John Ericcson, the Swedish immigrant inventor, who designed the ironclad Monitor, "[saving] the Northern fleet" in the dark days of the Civil War? And let us bow our heads to Jenny Lind, the legendary Swedish Nightingale.

But if the tales of Alfred Nobel and of the intrepid Swedish colonists who briefly planted the Swedish flag on the west bank of the Delaware River (1638-1655) are meant to stir men's souls (and those of visiting fourth graders), it's the stirring in the downstairs kitchen that satisfies their winter longing.

The upstairs is about objects: five-pronged porridge stirrers once twirled between the palms, and three-legged copper coffeepots to set over coals; dowels to dry Swedish crispbreads; and silver spoons, their bowls the shape of old Spanish mandolins.

But downstairs is where the meat gets put on the bones: In early December, there's the Christmas smorgasbord, ham and herrings of every sort, and red cabbage and baby sausage, smoked salmon and Jansson's Temptation, a lush shred of white potatoes and onions baked in an anchovy and cream sauce.

For midsummer, there are sandwich tortes. And every August come the crayfish boiled in saltwater and dill, celebrating one of Sweden's most enduring picnic rituals.

So there will be a dry spell for awhile after the night of the pea soup and punsch, good reason (as it was on the eves of those fasts long ago) to dig into the thick bowls, to pack in the crispbread and hunks of präst, or "priest," cheese so named because the church once made it from the milk tithed by farmers.

For dessert: frozen lingonberry parfaits, and those thin ginger wafers they sell at Ikea.

And one free glass (with a $20 member's ticket) of punsch, a warm, silky-sweet elixir of arrack (the amber liqueur first imported to Scandinavia by the Swedish East India Co.) and a potent hit of vodka.

Exactly what kind of vodka? "Oh, the cheapest," said the museum's Gittan Davis.

It's the spirit that counts.


The American Swedish Historical Museum is at 1900 Pattison Ave. in FDR Park. For tickets and other information: 215-389-1776 or www.americanswedish.org.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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