Fifty years ago, Swedish pastry chef Gunnar Sjödahl began working on something that has become a modern Swedish classic. His idea was to make a dish from several layers of white bread, with creamy fillings in between—like a cake, but different.
After a few months of experimentation with mayonnaise, liver pâté, and cheap caviar—a combination he says contained too many different tastes—Sjödahl hit it home with layered fillings mixed from cream cheese, butter, mayonnaise, sour cream, and crab. The top layer of the cake was garnished with slices of tomato, cucumber, cheese, salmon, and boiled eggs, and a shitload of shrimp inside a crown of dill, topped off with lemon slices. The sides were covered in puff pastry sprinkles. Sjödahl called it smörgåstårta (sandwich cake).
It is, unlike a lot of Nordic food, not an especially humble concoction. Yet, it is considered to be something very Swedish. "It is the act of putting a bunch of sandwich toppings together in form of a cake," says Richard Tellström, associate professor of culinary arts and meal science at Örebro University. "All the pieces of the cake are alike, which is very important in Sweden, to make things fair and democratic. And above all, its festive impression that makes it usable at all kinds of receptions."
Uncountable variations of sandwich cake have appeared since its inauguration in 1965, featuring any imaginable combination of fillings and toppings. Common for most of them is the pleasant sense of defeat you feel after a sandwich cake session, which forces you into a fetal position of passivity. The cake has not escaped criticism though—the sticking point being that it's a gooey demon spawn of mayonnaise and shit, topped inconsiderately with everything that can be put on a piece of bread. Eating it might render you comatose, helpless, and mortally constipated.
The critics proved to be few in comparison to the vast number of enthusiasts. Sandwich cake was an instant hit with the customers, and its popularity spread quickly. "In the 1970s and 1980s, you couldn't find a celebration party without sandwich cake," says chef and food writer Alexandra Zazzi. "I think it has a lot to do with the fact that food caterers had few choices to offer back then. It was either roast beef with potato salad, or sandwich cake."
Along with the supposed 50th anniversary of the sandwich cake, the originality of Sjödahl's work has come under scrutiny. He claims that the sandwich cake was a new culinary invention in 1965. "I checked very carefully with everyone in the business when I got the idea, and nobody had heard of anything like it," he said to the local newspaper Östersunds-Posten earlier this year. On his website, Sjödahl declares himself as the founder of the sandwich cake. He has stood by this notion categorically in interviews with the media, even though the subject of predecessors has been raised almost every time. "What is absolutely certain is that I launched it in 1965. It didn't exist then," Sjödahl said to the news site Nyheter 24.
"That's like saying that you invented sunshine," says Richard Tellström. "There is no historical research that supports his claim. I don't know what it is that makes him believe that he invented the sandwich cake." Tellström presents several sources, from the early 1900s and onward that contradict Sjödahl's assertion. Among them is a Swedish cookbook from 1951 that contains a recipe for smörgåstårta. It is not identical to Sjödahl's, but Tellström describes it as quite similar. "A dish is very rarely invented out of nothing. It is rather a matter of evolution," says Tellström.
Sjödahl shouldn't be completely discredited though. His role in the "invention" of the sandwich cake recalls another character in the history of sandwiches. John Montagu (1718 - 1792), Fourth Earl of Sandwich, has been credited as the inventor of the concept of eating things put between slices of bread. His fellow aristocrats were apparently so impressed by the ingenious innovation that "the sandwich" became a thing in Great Britain, and eventually abroad as well.
The idea of using bread as an edible plate was conceived and documented long before the 18th century. But John Montagu made two slices of bread and a piece of meat into something much greater than any combination of meat and bread could ever accomplish on its own. He laid the foundation for what was to become a global institution.
Perhaps this is how Sjödahl should be credited, too. He commercialized the sandwich cake and made it popular. Because of him, sandwich cake is as well known as it is—and one of the most bizarrely Swedish dishes in existence.