The Skoal Project


Skål (Skoal): a Scandinavian toast.
For the proper pronunciation, see here.

Akvavit (Aquavit): a Scandinavian distilled liquor usually flavored with caraway.

In 1967 the young Swedish actor Max von Sydow, fresh from playing the role of Jesus, posed for a photo triptych demonstrating how to skoal with style:

The photos appeared in “The Cooking of Scandinavia,” one of the books in the amazing Time Life series Foods of the World. The shooter was none other than Richard A. Meek, one of the original roster of Sports Illustrated photographers.

Max is such a badass.

Whenever I discover a fun fact about someone I meet, I’m in the habit of barraging the unfortunate soul with a litany of questions and comments. The new person was Nils when he came on to run The FCI, and the fun fact was: this guy is Swedish. Almost immediately, I whipped out the photos and asked Nils what he thought. Turns out, Nils was a long-time admirer, and right then we figured we had to do something with them. Almost three years later, with the advent of the Cooking Issues Blog, Nils and I have worked out our plan:

The Skoal Project

You can learn a lot about people by how they handle a simple ritual like skoaling. The ritual is rigid, set in stone and unvarying. The art of the skoal discovers the person behind the toast by differences they bring to such a rigid format. With the skoal, like a symphony or a sonata, it’s the structure itself that allows for the art.

Collect a database of skoal shots from a wide variety of people: friends, family, chefs, artists, actors, writers, musicians, politicians, magnates—anyone of general cultural import or import to us. As we get the photos we’ll share them with you. Eventually we hope to make a book.

1. Skoaling is serious business. Don’t be goofy; don’t smile like it’s prom night. On the other hand, there is no reason to be morose or look like a psycho. Remember: You are sharing a drink–and a little bit of yourself—with the viewer.

2. For inspiration, look at Max. Photo 1: “Hey, I’ve got something to tell you.” Photo 2: “Hold on a sec.” Photo3: “Done told you.”

3. Don’t try to be Max. Only Max is Max. Be yourself. We want to learn about you, not your ability to do an impression.

4. Try to look nice. See rule 1.

5. Remember to hold the glass in the right position. Remember to knock the drink all the way back. Remember to bring the glass back to its initial position.

Here is what the book has to say

“Learning to skoal is easy, and it is well worth learning—it adds considerable charm to dining in the Scandinavian manner and assures that an evening will be a success by bringing the guests into visual and verbal contact with each other right off. The ritual varies somewhat in the different parts of Scandinavia. In Sweden, for example, it is a bit more formal, because Swedes follow the custom established by military officers who began the toast by holding their glasses at precisely the level of the third uniform button—but basically it proceeds along simple lines. All that is required is a drink in the hand and a cooperative partner. The proposer of the toast engages the eye of the person being toasted, and “skoal” is said. A slight bow of the head, and a twinkle of the eye—and the aquavit is drained in one gulp (if the drink is wine, a sip is taken). Just before the glass is put back on the table, the eyes meet again and there is another friendly nod.” [Dale Brown, The Cooking of Scandinavia, Foods of the World Series, Time Life Books, 1968, pages 130-131.]

Here is what Nils has to say

The Drinking of the Snaps
One of the more important cultural rituals in Sweden is the drinking of the snaps, at least if you are old enough to drink… or not. Snaps is a glass of, hopefully, ice cold aquavit. We take our drinking very seriously in Sweden, and no drinking is more serious the downing of a snaps. A snaps is not something that one nurses and sips on; it can, however, be divided up in either two, three, or four skåls (skål being the act of raising your glass with your fellow companions in the same manner that is so expertly illustrated by Max von Sydow). But dividing it into three or four skåls is nothing I would recommend. No Swedish feast (think Easter, Christmas, or the many others too numerous to mention) is legitimate without a glass of snaps present. So that means if you ever encounter a Swede that does not know how to do a proper skål, it’s not a legitimate Swede.

Back to Skoal!

One thought on “The Skoal Project

  1. I invite dinner guests outside, late in a snowstorm to stand around a cedar tree lit in tiny bulbs. I serve them each a glass of aquavit, tell them to look their love in the eye and say , I love you.” “If the snow was deep enough we would carve out a circle and sit in it. For those without lovers present, express your love for some one, or something.” All down their glasses. Katherine, a beautiful redhead from Canada repeated to my delight, ” I can’t believe I’m doing this in the snow.”

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