Food as Our Magic Glasses — Tasting Culture: Nordic Food, Tradition, and Nutrition

While the Olympics are happening back home in Japan, I am now in the last week of the DIS summer semester! Thanks to the eventful days I have been having so far, each day feels somewhat longer. But, thinking that it’s my third week in Copenhagen and have only a few days left of the program, I realize that time really flies. 

Anyways, this time I want to write a bit about my course for the summer: Tasting Culture: Nordic Food, Tradition, and Nutrition. I have heard many people say that they wanted to take this course because it sounded ‘fun’ (and yes, I am one of them), but it wasn’t very ‘academic’ so they decided on another course — but actually, I learned the past few weeks that this is not true. Of course, there are many fun components to the class including cooking classes and tasting of different food that are subject to discussion, but there is so much depth into the topic. 

Starting with our sensory body, we look at food as a lens to many different topics — class, gender, environment, culture, tradition, and ethics. In this cultural studies/anthropology/sociology class, using theories from multiple disciplines, we consider how food plays into the reality that we experience every day. 

One of my favorite topics in the class was how food, combined with public space, helps improve people’s lives. This is overlapped with Jan Gehl’s famous urban design concept applied throughout Copenhagen that buildings and spaces should be designed for people, instead of cars. 

Last week, we set out on a Field Study around Copenhagen, and our professor Anders explained how roads for cars were turned into public spaces with benches, where people can have a little picnic with friends to enjoy the long sunny days during summer, and read while sipping hot coffee in the winter season. 

Public spaces with benches in Copenhagen

While there are regional churches across Denmark, since Danes are less religious, many of them have faced closure. Absalon, the church we visited, was one of those churches, though it was later turned into the flourishing community center that it is now. 

There, not only community events such as communal dinners where anyone can participate at a very low cost are held every day, but it also has open spaces with a café where students can study and people can visit to read, work, or hang out with others. Of course, there are no entry fees, and even foreigners like me are welcomed to use the service. It also functions as a place where people who are new to the area can befriend neighbors by sharing food and space with them. 

Beautifully renovated church / community center Absalon

Though I have heard of similar services in Japan as well as the US, many are privatized, which could bar some populations who cannot afford the cost. It gave me inspiration that open spaces like Absalon, which is truly ‘open’ to everyone, may have the potential of solving multiple issues, including loneliness and food security that are prevalent in many modern cities. 

We also learned about food in connection with the environment and tradition, which often conflict with one another. As someone who grew up in Japan, where eating principles such as vegetarianism and veganism are not as widely practiced, it was very interesting to share tables and discussions with some of my classmates who practice those eating habits. 

While we learned that consumption of meat as well as starchy vegetables are considered as exceeding the standard amount and that we need to practice ‘planetary diet’ — environmentally and ethically friendly eating habits — as a society, some of the European food traditions, including that of Danes, may be on the complete opposite in the spectrum. 

Right after the lecture about the environment and food, we headed out for lunch where we had Stegt flæsk, deep-fried pork belly with gravy and potatoes — the very two categories that were in the discussion. As much as I felt guilty tasting this, I have to say, the dish was just sublime — its crispiness like thick bacon, and the combination with gravy, beets, and potatoes… muah!! 

‘Unplanetary diet’ but delicious Stegt flæsk

After all, we are humans, who try to be as humane and ethical as possible, but cannot do away with occasional guilty pleasures like this one. What we might need may be something bigger as a collective, more than just changing the eating habits of those imperfect individuals who are used to ‘unplanetary diets’ like myself, to save the planet.    

Not only observing cultures and society through food, we have also dealt with actual food as well. Friday’s class was a treat, where we had a chance to visit the Tivoli Gardens — one of the oldest amusement parks in the world — and the kitchen of the cake shop Copenhagen inside the park! We made a Danish traditional cream puff called flødeboller, guided by a professional patissier there!

Making crooked flødeboller!

One takeaway from the class — I might have to give up my dream as a patissier…hahaha 

Taking the class so far, as much as I enjoy the cultural studies of food, one question has always haunted me — so what? What is the use of knowing gender connotations of certain foods, and what good could come out from knowing that historically, people tried to create social hierarchy by complicating the eating techniques? 

Then one class, with the professor’s words, all the dots connected. 

“When we know the system and structure, we can play with it, we can be a little rebellious. We can take control, and it’s liberating.”

As a sociology major, I have mainly taken social justice classes that deal with class, gender, and race. And often, at the end of the semester, I feel deeply depressed — knowing how big and complicated the system that reproduces inequality is, and that it takes more than me trying to change it. This feeling of overwhelmedness often leads me to powerlessness, as if I was left alone with the grim reality. 

But knowledge about the system that governs our lives — and how inconvenient and problematic that is — also gives us control, and the power to make small actions every day. The system no longer controls us, but from now on, we can mess with the system. 

With the concepts and knowledge about the food I learned in this class, my heart is filled with excitement, thinking about how I can hack the food system the next time I have a meal.

Study Abroad This Summer with DIS:

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