Real Swedes Eat Meatballs

Real Swedes Eat Meatballs
ESSAY/ National gut-feeling. The idea of what makes typical Swedish food was formulated in the 1960s. This was part of a broad movement that wanted to save what was “genuine” from the destructive effects of the modern. It makes little sense today.
By Jonathan Metzger
PhD of Economic History
Translated by Phil Holmes
Then in the 1980s American companies started being bought up by their increasingly efficient Japanese competitors, a sticker began to appear on cars proclaiming “real men don’t eat sushi” (presumably inspired by the macho bible Real men don’t eat quiche from 1982). In the then prevailing political and economic climate, where the previous world-leading and proud American industry was seen to capitulate to an economy that only thirty years before it had defeated in a world war, it became quite clear to those who saw this sticker (and above all to those who had themselves attached it to their cars) that this was not just a question of a gastronomic position, but rather had to do with a cultural and political act of protest in which sushi, small cushions of marinated rice with a garnish of raw fish, were held to represent the Japanese economy, and “real men” the solid American workers, those who did not eat sushi. Indirectly the idea was also communicated that those who ate sushi, the Japanese, were not “real men” but effeminate and ridiculous wimps, a common prejudice against Asiatic men within American popular culture. The demarcation between “we” Americans who stick together against an intruding “them”—the Japanese—was stressed symbolically in this way through adopting a position on a dish, sushi.
Cuisine is one of the most commonly occurring identity markers for groups, and has innumerable times throughout history been used as a dividing line between a “we” and a “them.” Even in ancient Greece bread and wine were regarded as symbols of civilisation, and those people who did not have these foodstuffs in their diet were regarded as “barbarian.” Different dishes were often used as derogatory epithets of other groups and peoples, such as the contemptuous British appellation for the French as “frogs” and the Germans as “krauts.” Food is also political dynamite, which French president Jacques Chirac showed us a month or so ago with his disparaging remarks about British cooking. When, at a meeting with Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin, Chirac in a jocular tone commented on the inedibility of British cooking, the British reaction may have been totally out of proportion, with war headlines in the evening papers and agitated debates in the House of Commons. As a BBC journalist has described it, Chirac’s comments stuck “in the collective British throat like a stray shard of snail shell.” The comment was received as a cultural declaration of war, an attack on the entire British nation and the British way of life. Attack my food and you attack who I am.
Cooking is used, therefore, not merely as a symbol of other groups, but in many cases often as a powerful symbol with which members of one’s own group can identify. Dishes are used as icons which are regarded as containing some of the soul of one’s own group. In Sweden, crayfish, herring, a glass of aquavit and new potatoes, gravad lax (raw spiced salmon) and meatballs with lingonberry preserve and mashed potatoes are regarded as containing the essence of the Swedish soul; they comprise the central components of the mythical spirit of community.
In his article “Food, self and identity,” the French anthropologist Claude Fischler has attempted to analyse how it has turned out that cooking is so often ascribed a powerful symbolic value when groups of people try to identify themselves and others. Fischler argues that the strong symbolic charge in food comes from the fact that it is a substance that is incorporated into our bodies when we eat it; it quite simply becomes part of us—both physically and symbolically. Food is a material that, when we eat it, passes across the divide from the outside, the world around us, into the inside of our own bodies. Food, with all its physical and symbolic properties, is “installed” in this way within the eater, and thus becomes part of him or her. The food we eat, dependent on the symbolic charge in it, thus determines who we are, and what we consist of in both body and soul, according to this “incorporation fantasy” which is to be found in almost all cultures, and this is why in brief one might claim that the consumption of food forms part of a central component in the production of identity.
Or as the familiar German proverb has it “der Mensch ist was er isst” (a person is what he eats). The consumption of food is regarded as transferring certain properties from the food consumed to the consumer, by which means an eater in some mystical way is regarded as being able to install part of the ascribed identity of the dish within themselves. A person eating food that is regarded as “womanly” becomes, in accordance with this thinking, a little more womanly; a person eating food that is described as “trendy” installs a little trendiness in themselves, and someone eating “typically Swedish food” confirms that he or she is “typically Swedish.” In this way we can, through our cooking, communicate group adherence inwardly to our own group at the same time as we draw a demarcation line between us and “the others”.
IN OUR AGE the cultural boundary with “the others” often runs along national lines, and it is possible therefore to argue that the most important and most tangible group adherence today is the nation. At the same time the national spirit of community is curious, as it is, as Benedict Anderson has determined in his oft-cited claim, an “imagined sense of community”. What is meant by this? Well, simply that most members of a nation never have any other relationship with the majority of the other members of this group other than the common identification of an imagined collective. The nation, the dominant political form of organisation in the world today, is thus ultimately founded on a fantasy of community which perhaps is most clearly manifested in the “great moments” when the members of a certain nation can enter into the idea that all other “real” members of this nation at a specific point in time do, feel or experience exactly the same thing that he/she does on that occasion. Here a major part is played by sports events, royal weddings and wars. But at the same time, day-to-day and sometimes scarcely conscious rituals and symbols are extremely important for national solidarity. It is these rituals and symbols that mean that people in their everyday lives are constantly reminded that they are members of a nation.
Michael Billig, a researcher into nationalism, has argued that it is actually primarily through the small and sometimes barely noticeable gestures and emphases in our everyday lives that we are constantly reminded that we are members of a nation. Billig argues that this “banal nationalism” is the linchpin of all functioning nation-states, and considers the nation is indicated or “flagged” daily in the life of the average citizen in established nation states. These reminders of membership in the community of the nation are so subtle, banal and constantly recurring that they do not register as conscious reminders, which is why Billig in a simile claims that the national flag that is waved at him in the heat of passion is nevertheless not as important for maintaining a national sense of community as the national flag which, unnoticed, hangs outside a public building. Billig also considers that we have to look beyond the more obvious national symbols such as the flag in order to see what phenomena in our everyday lives are invested with national symbolism, and in this way remind us of our membership in a national community.
The anthropologist Catherine Palmer has in this context noted that cooking is one of the phenomena that is most often invested with a national symbolic charge. Nor is it difficult to find examples of cases where certain dishes of have been given a national symbolic dimension. Eszter Kisbán has, for example, explained how goulash, historically a stew made by shepherds on the Hungarian plain, during the 19th century underwent a process by which it was charged with national symbolism and came to represent the nationalist bourgeois Hungarian elite. In Japanese national iconography the spotless Japanese rice has often come to symbolise the “pure” Japanese nation, which has been contrasted with “dirty” imported rice, and in the USA “ Thanksgiving dinner” with turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce, symbolises the community of the American nation, and in this way forms a powerful basis of identification for all citizens in the USA.
ON MANY OCCASIONS it is not just individual dishes which are charged with national symbolism, but entire national food traditions that are created—comprising a number of dishes—what we usually call “national cuisines” (“Italian cuisine”, “French cuisine”, “Thai cuisine”, etc). When I write that these food traditions “are created” rather than “develop”, I am doing this in order to stress the discrepancy between what is, for example, “typically Swedish” food in our heads, what we might call the concept of Swedish food, and what we Swedes in general have on our plates every day, what we might call Swedish cooking practice. When we discuss national cuisines, we are often referring above all to phenomena that exist at a conceptual level, in our heads and ideas, what we discuss is our notions of different countries’ “typical” cooking, rather than what this in fact comprises in the commonly occurring diets of these countries. The national cuisines are therefore, above all, collections of recipes which have been codified as coherent units and charged with a national symbolism rather than exact representations of a social reality. The symbolic constructions the national cuisines comprise are created on a conceptual level, in and through the language, and the food that in reality is found every day on the plates of a country’s inhabitants often has very little to do with what is imagined as typical cuisine for that country. The national cuisines rather constitute a projection of ideas about a national cooking ideal. Thus, most Swedes would claim that salmon pudding and liver stew are more “typical Swedish food” than kebab in pita bread is—despite the fact that the average Sweden today presumably eats 10 times more kebab in bread than salmon pudding or liver stew every year.
In Sweden some of our foremost culinary icons today are presumably smörgåsbord and husmanskost (simple home cooking), which are two collective concepts encompassing a large number of nationally charged dishes. Even if the smörgåsbord of today has some of its roots in very ancient Swedish customs, among these the old aquavit table of the 18th century, it is only after the Second World War, and above all during the 1960s, that the smörgåsbord began to develop as a Swedish culinary icon, and in this way became linked to an essence of “Swedishness.” Before this the smörgåsbord, and its predecessor the aquavit table, had undergone several marked fluctuations in its popularity, during which for long periods it had largely been considered to be a painfully provincial custom. During the 1960s the smörgåsbord was “rehabilitated” through the active intervention of a group of young chefs and cooking correspondents, of whom the most prominent presumably was the young but influential restaurateur and food personality Tore Wretman. Through his restaurants, cookbooks and cooking programmes Wretman fixed what the “genuine Swedish smörgåsbord” should look like, and which dishes were included within this concept—a definition that to a large extent still determines our idea of what a correct smörgåsbord should look like. In this way it is in the 1960s that the smörgåsbord was really “Swedicized” and at the same time elevated to an accepted and codified national tradition.
Roughly parallel to the canonisation of the smörgåsbord as a national icon, the content of the concept of husmanskost began to be reformulated. From having been a relatively negatively charged concept in the 18th century, denoting a meagre and very simple servants’ diet, the concept during the 19th century acquired a sense of bourgeois everyday cooking in order, at the beginning of the 20th century, to be used as a denotation for everyday cooking by the broad Swedish public. What has since happened during the 1960s was that the concept came increasingly to be given a sense of “typical Swedish food,” i.e. cooking that is imagined to represent the essence of a culinary Swedishness. This was an entirely new use of the concept, and here, too, Tore Wretman played a central role, when, in publishing the cookbook Svensk husmanskost (1967, Forum), he struck a blow for such a reformulation of the concept of husmanskost.
WRETMAN AND A COUPLE OF OTHER cookery writers presented “typical” and “genuine” Swedish cooking as being under severe threat. On the rear cover of his book we can read that “everything is changing—the changes are so rapid in our society. Soon the art of making hash and beestings pudding will be forgotten. Tinned ravioli from the supermarket is replacing home-made koldolmar (stuffed cabbage leaves).”
Even on the cover of the book it is stressed that husmanskost is in acute need of being “rescued”—but from what? In the introductory chapter of his book, Wretman describes how both increasing mass tourism and the influx of foreign labour into Sweden comprise a threat to “Swedish husmanskost,” and he asks himself rhetorically: “Will blood bread and pork within a generation completely disappear in favour of ravioli and cannelloni?” Despite this, it is neither travel nor immigration which is presented by Wretman and others as the primary threat to Swedish food, but rather modernity itself. Most clearly, and presumably with a certain humorous intent, this concern is expressed by Wretman when he writes that “food in the form of pills and intravenous nutrient fluids” threatens all good cooking traditions in this age of space voyages, as it is difficult “to imagine an astronaut in his space capsule chomping on Norrland hash or grilled pig’s trotters.”
Beneath the humour Wretman does, however, conceal a real concern. He and a handful of his leading colleagues in the cooking field felt during the 1960s a very tangible and compelling need to gather together, write down and codify “typical Swedish” food. In this way a canon was created of hallmarked Swedish dishes which today comprises the recognised Swedish cuisine. This work of annotation occurred very much in the historical tradition, but in reality it consisted on many occasions just as much of new creativity, clad in a mantle of historicising rhetoric. Just as in all work of constructing a cultural heritage, this creation of a national cuisine was a process in which the old customs the annotators considered to be less suitable were allowed to drop away, and where newly discovered traditions of higher “status and quality” were introduced. In this case it was thus a question that some newer dishes which the annotators considered to represent good cooking were smuggled into a newly created canon at the same time as older dishes which the authors considered of lesser culinary value fell away, despite the fact that these perhaps would have justified their place better if the selection had been based on purely historiographical considerations (here Wretman expresses a particular aversion to the traditional beer posset and macaroni pudding.)
DURING THE 1960S the first real attempts were therefore made to codify a Swedish national cuisine—but why was this great work of constructing a national culinary heritage begun at that juncture? In this context it is important to remember that cooking does not exist in a vacuum, but that it is a strong social and cultural phenomenon that is influenced powerfully by the overarching trends in society, and perhaps even comprises one of the most trend-sensitive cultural fields together with similar areas of consumer culture such as fashion and design. One of the trends that above all at the end of the 1960s began to gain a foothold among the troops of the cultural avant-garde was an increasing scepticism regarding modernity and modernisation. This came increasingly to be regarded as a monstrous failed process which consumed and destroyed all the old cultural institutions that came into its path. The human geographer David Harvey has described this informal movement in the 1960s as a reaction to what he calls “time-space compression,” which is a concept he uses to cover the effects of the globalisation processes that cause us to feel that the world is “shrinking” around us when geographical distances become more and more insignificant. Harvey considers that the 1960s and the decades that preceded it showed a development of extreme time-space compression which in certain individuals and groups generated a backlash—a need to connect to stable identities and places—something permanent that one can hang onto when the winds of globalisation are blowing in an evermore changing and transient world.
Ethnologists such as Orvar Löfgren and Jonas Frykman have noticed that nationalism and patriotism were completely “out” in Sweden in the 1950s and a large part of the 1960s. The interesting paradox arose whereby a “good Swede” distinguished himself by his internationalist attitude and “un-Swedish” was a commonly occurring word of praise. Sweden was regarded and presented above all as the most modern and least nationalistic country in the world, where anything that could be called tradition in large part was corny and obsolete—in Sweden people looked to the future instead of rooting around amongst old junk! But certain groups, primarily parts of the old cultural avant-garde, began as early as the 1960s to look back nervously. They began to get an uneasy feeling about the fact that they might have been blinded by speed in their eagerness to strive forward and away from the old, and that they had lost contact with something important, a folk tradition that was about to disappear. Which is why, throughout the western world at the end of the 1960s, as part of the so called ’68 movement, there arose a newly awakened interest in folk music, folk dancing, country furniture, handicrafts and anything associated with “folk traditions.”
IN Allt som är fast förflyktigas (“Everything that is Solid Evaporates”, Arkiv, 1985) Marshall Berman calls this development among the ’68 generation “rehabilitation of the ethnic memory and ethnic history.” It is also precisely this rehabilitation of the ethnic and national that is reflected in the efforts that were made at this period to establish a Swedish culinary cultural tradition. The symptomatic shift in the spirit of the age, from the blindly forward-looking and outward-looking to the rather desperately inward-looking and backward-looking. The cookbook production of the very influential Tore Wretman, discussed earlier, illustrates this shift particularly clearly. At the end of the 1950s Wretman was one of those cooks who propagandized most vigorously for the introduction into Sweden of as great an influence as possible from French cuisine, in order during the 1960s to develop into one of the most stubborn defenders of what he himself in his books sometimes calls the “out-and-out Swedish.” Wretman’s rhetoric, when in the 1960s he presented his ideas about Swedish cuisine, was also distinctly defensive. There was a threat to something that is about to be lost—and that something was “typical Swedish” food, the traditional and national, threatened by an imploding and modernised world that has gone astray, with its mass tourism, mass migration and rationalisation. The Swedish way, our “way of life”, and our “way of eating” as part of this, needed to be defended and rescued.
The rescue plan presented by Wretman and his colleagues was, as has been indicated earlier, based on the principles of codification and creating a canon—and through their efforts a Swedish national cuisine began to take shape. The result of the type of work they did in order to create a Swedish national cuisine is by extension a clear demarcation of national cultural boundaries—a defining of what is “genuine” and in this way reinforces the we-feeling in a group by marking the outside and the inside of a cultural community such that those who find themselves on the inside can feel secure in a changing world. The certificate “genuine” food acquires the role of a powerfully symbolic recognition signal to identify those who belong on “the inside” and those that are relegated to the outside of the community. An example of this is when, in Mat och minnen (”Food and Memories”, Bra böcker, 1987), Tore Wretman writes that the memory of mother’s meatballs “seems to be associated with a real Swede.” Anyone who does not have memories of “mum’s meatballs” is here defined as lacking in “Swedishness,” as not quite “one of the gang.” Here the meatballs are thereby transformed into what philosopher Jacques Derrida, inspired by the Old Testament, calls a shibboleth, a cultural key or a password to obtain access to a social or cultural community. What we can see here is, therefore, how the meatball, or the childhood memory of it, is used as a sign to distinguish who is a “real” Swede and who is not (those of you who do not have meatballs, or aspirations to these, can never be a real Swede.)
IT IS ALSO HERE THAT social problems arise with the type of cultural actions intended to reinforce a we-group’s cohesion through the creation of identity symbols which are linked to an ethnic-national essence—such as the meatball memories. For at the same time as these symbols reinforce cohesion inwards, an exclusion outwards is also secured which can be devastating for people in a world which today is characterised by geographical and cultural mobility and dynamic. Particularly in a country like Sweden with a large immigrant population, a serious problem arises when the nation is ethnified in this way, when the national and ethnic “memory” is upgraded and boundaries in this way are drawn between those who are “genuine” Swedes and those who are not. These people are then not really included in the national “we” and risk ending up—as regards identity—in a terra nullius.
Another problem is also the slow rate of change that often characterises this type of construct of cultural ideas when they have been codified and fixed. To go back to the question of national cuisines, a complicated problem arises when our image of what is typically Swedish food today in large part has been created by fixing carried out in the 1960s. Then the image of Swedish cooking was fixed through codification, and even if it is often said that the thought is more mobile than the world, thought structures can often demonstrate a surprising inertia.
What we today often talk of as typically Swedish food is, therefore, often something that more often is to be found in ambitious cookbooks than on the average Swede’s plate every day. The result of this discrepancy between what at the level of an idea is seen as “genuine” Swedish cooking and what we in reality eat every day in Sweden leads to the somewhat strange situation where perhaps the greater part of everyday cooking in Sweden is not experienced as “Swedish” and the experience that in Sweden we eat primarily “foreign” food such as pizza, kebab, sushi and hamburger. But if this is what the typical Swede eats every day, then should this not be what we regard as typical and genuine Swedish cooking?
We have to dare to open up our cultural heritage to the development dynamic and the renewal and reshaping to which our experienced social culture is constantly subject—we have to dare to allow pad thai and tabbouleh into our cookbooks on “Swedish cuisine” and “Swedish husmanskost.” We have quite simply to accept and affirm that it is this food that today is the Swedish cuisine, at the same time as the historical and nostalgic cooking, meatballs with macaroni or steak and onions, obviously must have its place too—because these kinds of culinary icon often act as important anchors in time and place—where the mere idea of them sometimes can create a warm and secure feeling. But nor should we forget that, for a great number of today’s Swedes, it is not pea soup and pancakes that produces these warm feelings but rather burek, char siu bao or cazuela.

PhD of Economic History.

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