Smorgasbord IKEA: Eating the Pseudo-Swedish Way

It's understandable if you're surprised that IKEA even contains a food store, although the hulking retail edifice could contain any number of more bizarre commercial sub-regions or artificial ski slopes. The grocery section -- which is sizable -- is tucked off to the side, past the checkout lines, easily disregarded by people struggling with piles of flat, boxed dining room table and chair sets or children's bunk beds. Almost by design, IKEA hides the food.

Make that left turn before you navigate your cart to the loading dock, and you'll be confronted by more shelves, coolers and freezers than at your typical convenience store. Stacked cardboard cases are emblazoned with the blessed, almost confrontational simplicity typical of military supplies and Swedish design: IKEA FOOD.

Packages are equally unsubtle, with full-color photos of your future meal, or clear plastic windows if the food is attractive in its raw state. The freezer cases are filled with cakes, sausages, soups, fish and, of course, an imposing section of bagged meatballs, all vaguely familiar and approachable. The refrigerator case, however, will challenge your commitment to your new IKEA lifestyle with a vast array of jarred herring, crab paste in brightly colored tubes, and cheeses that are recognizable -- at best -- as Swiss-like thanks solely to holes. Dry goods are more comfortable territory, with breads, jams and candies that are almost mundane.

Never fear, though: IKEA has provided guides. Instead of the swarming masses of Tampa locals trained in warehouse categories and bookcase management, the people working the register in the food store are actually Swedish. They'll dissuade you from buying salted licorice, explain the pungency levels of the cheeses and describe the quaint tradition of end-of-summer crayfish parties -- "We like having another excuse to drink beer!"

With their help I purchased a prodigious amount of Swedish cuisine, from smoked roe to lingonberry preserves, and spent a week eating the Swedish way. In typical IKEA style, I chuckled at my credit card receipt while loading the car. And, in typical IKEA style, I finished the project having worked much harder than I intended, and with a twinge of buyers' remorse, despite the value.

Here's the schedule for your guide through IKEA's vision of Swedish food and drink (I'll link the stories as they go up):

Tuesday, 9/8: IKEA Cocktails

Wednesday, 9/9: IKEA Food Shopping List

Thursday, 9/10: Crayfish Party!

Friday, 9/11: Cook the IKEA Way

(Follow Brian Ries on Twitter: @brianries.)

My nightly meal is brought to you courtesy of IKEA, food served on simple, gleaming white ARV plates, cut and delivered using SVIT utensils, with lemonade sipped from chunky POKAL tumblers. If we're feeling saucy, or it's a weekend night, there may be Cotes Du Rhone or Spanish grenache in OPTIMAL stems, or shaken Bombay Sapphire poured into a curvaceous SKIR.

My young son prefers the brightly colored KALAS ensemble, demanding a different hue for each utensil — although the plate and glass can match, if necessary.

But the food? Never Swedish.

We eat the Swedish meatballs doused in creamy gravy when we visit the store, sure, but I'd never made the leap to actually shopping for food at IKEA, as if it was an ethnic grocery store instead of a temple to inexpensive, northern European apartment design. Until this week.

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