Can a meatball define a culture?

The Local Denmark
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Can a meatball define a culture?
Photo: Colourbox

Some seem to fear that deviating from traditional Danish foods weakens national identity. But weekly columnist Michael Booth argues that if your national pride is wrapped up in a bland frikadelle, you've got bigger problems on your hands.


What’s your feeling about the frikadeller? Danish meatballs: pretty much like any other meatball everywhere else in the world, albeit unburdened by the nuance of flavour of a meatball from, say, Asia, southern Europe or Latin America. Or Africa.
I have to admit, I am not a fan. But I don’t think even the most fanatical nationalist would claim that Denmark’s food was its greatest cultural highlight, would they? Design, architecture, ballet, chairs and nice flooring, yes, sure, these are all things the Danes can be proud of, but ollebrød, tarteletter and leverpostej? Not so much.
What about the New Nordic Cuisine? No one was more surprised than I to see Copenhagen become one of the most talked about food destinations in the world. The whole notion of a ‘best restaurant in the world’ is plainly silly but I do think Noma has been the most important restaurant for the last decade. It’s influence has been truly global, at least among top-flight restaurants and opinion leaders within the food world. But one great, world-beating restaurant does not a national cuisine make.
Which brings me back to those delectable frikadeller. These humble meatballs have become an unlikely but potent political symbol in recent years, a porky totem wielded by the right wing to ward off what they see as the cultural threat from invasive foods and customs (by which they mean ‘non-European foods and customs’). It happened in Hvidovre last year when the issue of frikadeller on the menu in local institutions became a bargaining chip for the mayorship (a future plot line for House of Cards, perhaps?). 
Taking things one step further, Copenhagen’s deputy mayor for culture, Carl Christian Ebbesen of the Danish People’s Party (DF), appears to be on a mission to eradicate non-Danish food from the city altogether. His new target is the ‘ethnic’ food market by Nørrebro Station where he claims the smørrebrød stand has been sidelined by others stalls selling foreign muck like marinaded olives and ‘Marokkansk hønningkage’. Terrorist food, basically.
Now, I’m no multiculturalist: if you move to a country then you should learn the language (I’ve done my best with the brain cells I have left), obey the laws and abide by the cultural norms while in the public realm. Maybe you should even consider supporting the national football team. Frankly, as an Englishman I have nothing to lose there. 
On the other hand, the world - which does include Denmark, at least until DF wins the next election - would be a very dull place if it weren’t for a certain amount of cross-cultural culinary exchange (the Danes would be without the delights of ‘boller i karry’, for starters). And, so, my usual response to this kind of overwrought cultural protectionism is to say, “Well if that particular aspect of your culture is so frail that it can not survive without artificially-generated hysteria, then perhaps it ought to be left to perish naturally.”
But many Danes are genuinely frightened: if DF’s current poll ratings are to be believed, almost a quarter of the electorate. They really do believe their culture and norms are under threat from the invading hoards. That’s what DF wants, of course. Its success is based on that very fear. 
When I met him recently at Folkemødet on Bornholm, I asked DF’s smooth leader, Kristian Thulesen Dahl, whether his particular brand of fear-mongering worked because Denmark was such a small country, or whether it reflected an inherent weakness in Danish culture. (What do you mean, ‘leading question’?).
“I think Denmark is a fantastic country,” he replied. “Like other places in the world, people have organised it as they would like, and the question is whether we can continue to have a country like this in the future.”
As with all clever politicians - and he’s a smart one, no mistake - Thulesen Dahl’s argument seemed quite reasonable to me as we stood there talking in the hyggelige environs of Bornholm’s political jamboree. But to those Danes cowering under their Ekstra Bladets awaiting the invasion of the Muslim butchers (there’s a good one in Torvehallerne, by the way), and the threatening forces of exotic mixed nut and spicy olive vendors, perhaps it might be worth remembering that the man who has done more for Danish cuisine and brought more glory, attention and tourists to Denmark than any other in the last ten years, the greatest chef in the world, the most globally celebrated Dane of them all right now, René Redzepi… is half Macedonian with a Muslim father.
Michael Booth is the author of The Almost Nearly Perfect People: The Truth About the Nordic Miracle available now on Amazon and is a regular contributor to publications including the Guardian and Monocle.


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