How a banana-chicken casserole became a beloved Swedish comfort food

How a banana-chicken casserole became a beloved Swedish comfort food

Photo: Jerard Fagerberg
Photo: Jerard Fagerberg

In Acquired Tastes, The A.V. Club explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.

The recipe for Flying Jacob reads like a stoned dad’s trip to the bodega. It starts with rotisserie chicken, heavy cream, and bananas baked together, then it’s all topped with fried bacon and peanuts, like a casserole mated with Elvis’ favorite sandwich. The story behind Flying Jacob is all the more remarkable—and unlikely. This beloved delicacy/monstrosity all happened thanks to one humble Swede who, with a single letter, changed his country’s culinary culture.

In 1976, the Swedish food magazine Allt Om Mat (All About Food) published a recipe that sounded downright bizarre on paper. Mailed to the magazine by an air freight worker named Ove Jacobsson, Flying Jacob was billed as a perfect-for-parties dish that’s “easy to make and tastes great.” Jacobsson dubbed it the “Flygande Jacob,” as it was known in his native tongue, and it soon became a sensation, one with a surprisingly long shelf life. According to Allt Om Mat writer Charlotte Jenkinson, the recipe is still referenced daily, and most families in Sweden have now developed their own take on it. The dish has become so ubiquitous, it’s even sold premade in freezer sections, under the generic name Chicken Jacob.

After decades of requests from readers to reprint the original recipe, Jenkinson republished the “Flygande Jacob” article in 2014. By that point, there had been thousands of variations published on the internet, including vegan and paleo versions, but the original scan of the pages replenished the Swedish infatuation with Flying Jacob. Even Jacobsson emerged from his long public silence to marvel at the legacy of his creation.

“I never thought that a recipe in Allt Om Mat would have this impact,” he wrote in (Google-translated) Swedish. “[It’s] my contribution to the dinner tables and lunch restaurants around the country. I was even a question on [Sweden’s Who Wants To Be A Millionaire].”

While meatballs, lingonberries, and the burgeoning fine-dining genre of Nordic cuisine have traveled across the pond, the idiosyncratic mishmash that is Flying Jacob remains an oddity in America. Cooked bananas with chicken? Cream whisked with spicy ketchup? Even adventurous American eaters would recoil at the notion. Oysters in their Thanksgiving stuffing might seem bizarre to some, but there’s nothing in the American culinary repertoire that matches the madcap, anti-epicurean logic behind Flying Jacob.

Of course, much of Flying Jacob’s meteoric rise had to do with timing. Perhaps it would have fared better had it also made its way to American shores in the 1970s, when the nation—like Sweden—was in the throes of the worldwide craze for casseroles. Increasingly busy families were looking for quick fixes for weeknight meals, and when Jacobsson’s recipe hit the magazine pages, it landed right at the median of comfort food and gourmet curiosity.

As it happened, bananas were also gaining popularity in Swedish kitchens—a pork dish called Fläskfile med banan surfaced contemporaneously, while sliced banana had become a popular pizza topping. The Jacob’s traditional combination of meat and cream, along with the suggested sides of boiled rice and an iceberg salad, were also bland enough to keep the dish feeling safe, while the addition of chili sauce and peanuts made it seem exotic.

“It was fast and easy, and that’s very consistent with how Swedes cook,” says Karl Benson, the Swedish-born co-owner of Minnesota specialty chef shop Cooks Of Crocus Hill. “All of the ingredients in there you could find in all the grocery stores.” Like many Swedes, Benson has had a nostalgic affection for Flying Jacob his whole life; he’s even put his own upscale spin on it by adding sambal chili sauce and mushrooms.

Photo: Jerard Fagerberg

Still, no matter what you put into it, the fact remains that most people who didn’t grow up with it would probably find it off-putting. It doesn’t help that, pre-cooked, Flying Jacob looks like bananas sunk in Pepto-Bismol. Benson assumes the double whammy of baby food color and soupy texture is what antagonizes the American palate. But another possible reason Flygande Jacob never caught on stateside is that most Swedish immigrants arrived around the 1860s potato famine, meaning the dining traditions of Swedish-Americans go way further back than those of their Swedish counterparts.

“If you asked a lot of Swedes [in Sweden] if they ate lutefisk, they might say, ‘Well, I had it once as a kid,’” Benson says. “But there’s a million Swedish families in [the United States] that have lutefisk for Christmas dinner every year.”

Having only moved to New York five years ago to work in marketing, Marcus Kaasinen is a recent enough transplant that he still craves Flying Jacob. Kaasinen was born in Gothenburg in the ’80s, just as the Jacob turned the corner from fad to staple. When he returns home now, his mother happily prepares it for him. And when his vegetarian wife recently went out of town, Kaasinen saw an opening to bake a pan of Flying Jacob and introduce his colleagues to his favorite childhood dish. His co-workers were appalled by the orange-pink slop in his Tupperware. Only one mustered the courage to try it. “They started Googling it, because they thought I was kidding,” Kaasinen says.

Despite how it might look, a million Swedes can’t be wrong. When baked, the Flying Jacob is indeed creamy and inviting. The sweetness of the bananas pairs unexpectedly well with the Italian spicing in the chicken and the smokiness of bacon fat. It comes out of the oven an incandescent orange, not unlike a skillet of Kraft Mac & Cheese—and likewise, a bellyful could sustain you through a long winter. The flavors may sound weird in the abstract, but served by the spoonful in a congenial setting, it’s everything Jacobsson meant it to be.

In July, Benson hosted an evening with Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson at The American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis. Nilsson was in town to promote his massive, 768-page The Nordic Cookbook, which includes a brief love letter to Flygande Jacob. Benson and Nilsson each cooked their version of the dish, sharing it with a roomful Americans and lapsed Swedes who had never tasted it before. “We had over 60 people try it,” Benson says. “They practically licked the bowl clean.”

Photo: Jerard Fagerberg

Flying Jacob

Serves four

1 rotisserie chicken
One big pinch of Italian seasoning
4 bananas
1 cup Heinz Chili Sauce
3 cups heavy whipping cream
¼ lb. bacon
½ cup cocktail peanuts

Preheat the oven to 450°F. Pull the meat from the rotisserie chicken, discarding the skin and bones. Add to a casserole dish and sprinkle with Italian seasoning. Cut the bananas in quarters lengthwise and layer on top of the chicken. In a bowl, lightly whip the cream and chili sauce together. Pour over the chicken and bananas and bake for 20 minutes. Chop the bacon into small pieces and fry in a separate pan until crispy. After the casserole is baked, top with the bacon bits and peanuts. Serve over rice and with a side salad.