Too much to swallow in one gulp
The phenomenon of the Smörgåsbord (or Smorgasbord, as it is known internationally) is such a many-splendoured matter that it cannot be treated integrally, not without subdividing the subject into at least two main chapters:
(A) Smörgåsbord: The Word
(B) Smörgåsbord: The Meal
First, let us get the etymological matter out of the way.
(A) Smörgåsbord, The Word
As many readers already know, the word smörgåsbord is a slip of the Swedish tongue. Smörgås means sandwich and bord means table, so smörgåsbord would then mean "sandwich table". But paradoxically there are no sandwiches in sight in any smörgåsbord anywhere. So we’ll have to dig deeper if we want to account for the missing sandwiches.
In the beginning there was Alcohol
It turns out that in the beginning there was the Snaps (= schnapps, dram, snifter -– a small number of 40-60 ml doses of a 40% ethanol solution). This unlikely beverage was habitually imbibed in 19th century Sweden at about six o’clock in the evening, just before the main meal. Forty percent ethanol in water solution (aka Vodka) is no culinary treat. Hence, in order to get it down, people used to have something edible ready on a side-table, small plates with ingredients for making a sandwich or two -– bread, butter, cheese, herring, and maybe a slice of ham. Note that the sandwiches were not ready-made; just the raw materials for preparing sandwiches were provided.
As the 19th century steamrolled on and the newly industrialised Swedes became more affluent, the table that held these sandwich-making raw materials became filled with more and more plates -– more varieties of cheese, more kinds of sliced meat, herring, salmon, etc, to go with the Snaps. In the end the side-table grew so as to equal or overshadow the main dinner table, housing not only things that you could conceivably put on your sandwich, but in equal measure things that were inconceivable for that purpose –- meat balls with sauce and potatoes, berries with whipped cream, etc.
Mysteries of geese and butter
As the side-table grew, the ordinary dinner meal atrophied to almost nothing and was finally dispensed with altogether. Thus the Swedish Smörgåsbord as a stand-alone, complete meal was born, some time in the latter part of the 19th century. At the end of the 19th century it had successfully invaded most other Western countries as well, under its more easy-to-spell name "smorgasbord".
Unfortunately this historical exposé doesn’t exhaust the complete mystery of the word smörgåsbord by a long shot. The last part, bord = table is clearly unproblematic. However, the Swedish word for sandwich -– smörgås –- sounds schizophrenic even to most Swedes. Because it means literally "butter-goose", not "butter-bread" like in the Danish smørre-brød or the German Butter-brot.
What can geese and sandwiches possibly have in common? It’s a matter of appearances, it appears. When churning butter, some small blobs or lumps of butter will raise to the top, floating about on the surface. Many Swedes apparently thought that these blobs looked like small geese. These “geese” of butter were predominantly used for buttering sandwiches. Hence the "-gås-" part of "smörgåsbord" actually means a small lump of butter, not the bird "goose", of which there is a wild and a domesticated variety.
Smear and butter
This is all good and well, but what about "smör"? Smör also means butter in Swedish, doesn’t it? And "smör-gås" would then come mean "butter-butter", a most remarkable etymology for a word that is ordinarily translated "sandwich". Well, "smör" is derived from a Germanic word which is related to the English verb "smear". With this in mind we get a rather more reasonable etymological translation of "smör-gås" = "smear-butter". OK, it still doesn’t look altogether reasonable, but then languages never are.
In any case, what we have established is that the word Smörgåsbord means “Sandwich table” and that the missing sandwiches on the table are explained by the fact that it originally meant "Table with materials for preparing sandwiches to go with the Snaps". We have also managed to sort out the background of the crazy-sounding Swedish word for sandwich, smörgås (literally "butter-goose").
In addition it would be proper to point out that "smorgasbord" is also used in a metaphorical sense, denoting a great variety of different options, e.g. like in "The XYZ Party program is a populist smorgasbord of vote-catching proposals".
So now it's time to turn to the smörgåsbord table itself. Sadly, this will not entirely put an end to all etymological speculations, as will soon be apparent.
(B) Smörgåsbord, The Meal
The modern Swedish Smörgåsbord is a buffet with an almost infinite number of dishes, variations and gastronomic designs. However, it always has to include certain time-honoured and inflexible categories of dishes in order to be called a Smörgåsbord. These close to sacred categories are the following, listed in the order that they must appear on the Smörgåsbord table (the dishes included here under each category are merely examples):
Herring (= sill in Sw)
At least three or four varieties of pickled herring, e.g. onion-pickled, mustard sauce-pickled, garlic pickled, etc. must be included in the Herring category.
In addition small bowls with finely chopped or minced white and / or red onion, leek, chives and sour cream are compulsory, for the event that the dinner-guest would like to optionally garnish her / his chosen herring varieties.
When the Smörgåsbord is served at home, a few bottles of iced (and preferably spiced) Snaps (e.g. the Danish Aalborg Aquavit) are placed here, among the herring plates / bowls. In restaurants the Snaps is ordered separately, but the first glass of Snaps is always consumed with the pickled herring, often to the accompaniment of a lively drinking song.
Cold fish of many kinds and different preparation methods -– poached, smoked, fried, in aspic, etc. Salmon usually comes prepared in several different ways: poached, smoked, and as gravlax. Smoked eel is common, as are fried fresh herring filets. Fish pâté, fish salads and shrimp occur frequently.
A great variety of sauces to go with the fish dishes are provided.
Kallskuret is one of the central Smörgåsbord concepts. It means "cold cut(s)" and includes almost anything meat-related that can be sliced -– ham, salami, turkey, roast beef, pâté, etc. Slices of hard cheeses are found here too. Many sauces and salads (e.g. potato salad) are provided in this section.
Småvarmt is again a most important Smörgåsbord concept. Its literal meaning is "small-warm", but this doesn’t convey the fact that the word is a collective noun, meaning "a collection of small warm (hot) dishes".
A true Smörgåsbord must include at least three or four dishes under this category, of course including "Swedish meatballs" and the special anchovy-and-potato gratin "Janssons frestelse" (= "Jansson’s temptation"). Boiled potatoes, fried potatoes, rice, etc., and various sauces are provided in the "Småvarmt" section of the Smörgåsbord. Some method for keeping the "Småvarmt" dishes hot must be provided for.
An assortment of various desserts (at least 4), plus fine cheeses. Ice cream is often included, but frowned upon by purists.
Have a taste, but don't fill your tummy with herring alone
If you want to have a taste of a particularly richly served Swedish Smörgåsbord, then the huge (with up to a dozen dishes in each category) Smörgåsbord buffets on board the ferry lines between Sweden and Finland and Sweden and Estonia will give you a pretty good idea. Some of the dishes included here may be influenced by the Finnish and Estonian cuisine, but the Swedish Smörgåsbord categories and their correct order – Herring, Fish, Kallskuret, Småvarmt, and Desserts are religiously adhered to.
At Christmastime most Christmas dinners in Swedish homes are served in the form of a Smörgåsbord, in this case often called "Julbord" (= "Christmas table")".
Finally a piece of advice: don’t eat your fill of the goodies in the herring category, making you unable to taste the stuff that you would really like to enjoy in the later categories. It sounds stupid, but to some people this has actually happened more than once.