In many of my contributions to this blog since I moved across the pond, I’ve effused about the wonders of Norway: The scenery! The slower pace of life! The egalitarianism! Aside from the challenges of Norway’s many dialects and their absurd driver’s license requirements, life in Norway has been a fairly positive experience. But as we come upon that time of year when food takes center stage in our lives, I feel it is time to disclose one area in which the United States, compared to Norway, definitely has all the advantages: Food.
I love food. I’m one of those people who starts thinking about lunch just after breakfast, and dinner just after lunch, and goes to bed dreaming about breakfast. I believe food is, in the wise words of my friend Doug, life’s only consistent joy.
So as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed a few weeks ago and saw a link to an article promoting The Scandinavian Diet, I could only wonder what kind of desperation a person must be experiencing to want to knowingly subject themselves to such flavor deprivation. I assumed anyone who’s ever considered dieting knew that the best way to increase the likelihood of success is to find foods that allow you to minimize your intake of calories and fat without compromising flavor. If you can’t find some enjoyment in what you’re eating, you’re not going to stick with it. From an American point of view, there is not a lot to enjoy in the Scandinavian diet.
You see, I am currently serving a six-year sentence on the Scandinavian Diet (also called the Viking Diet or the Nordic Diet). I live in a land in which tradition and convenience dictate what’s available in supermarkets and restaurants, and those traditions are bland, bland, bland. Until they struck oil in the late 60s, and learned how to turn it into huge sums of money in the 70s and 80s, Norway was a poor, rocky country, where people survived off of root vegetables and the sea. Though Norwegians can certainly afford more variety these days, and they certainly love to indulge in exotic foods on their many travels, for whatever reason, old, bland habits die really hard at home in Norwegian kitchens.
While I’m more of a ‘variety-is-the-spice-of life’ kind of girl, Norwegians don’t value variety in their diet quite as much. For breakfast and lunch, every day, most Norwegians eat open-faced cold-cut-and-cheese sandwiches called skiver (slices), or smørbrød (sandwiches) if they’re fancy. Sometimes instead of cold cuts, they’ll top bread or crispy rye flatbread with liver paste or a tin of mackerel in tomato sauce (colloquially called ‘plane crash in a can’ for its chunky, gory appearance), or add a yogurt or a boiled egg, but that’s about as exotic as breakfast and lunch usually get. Most restaurants in the city center don’t open before mid-afternoon, because there’s just no lunch crowd; if workers aren’t savoring the soup-from-a-mix in their company’s cantine, they are most likely tucking in to their dry skiver from home. As for the evening meal, although more flavorful international fare such as tacos and pizza has made it on the scene in recent years, dinner is traditionally some form of meat and boiled potatoes. Norwegians love plain boiled potatoes.
This may not sound like such a big deal unless you can really understand how much I like food. And I know I’m not alone because food is about all we talk about in our 1,600 member Americans in Norway Facebook group. In fact, it has been proposed that the group be renamed Hungry Americans in Norway. There is even a whole set of unwritten rules about how one may talk about food on Facebook, and woe to those who break them (and posting pictures of food, say, from a trip home to the US? Just not done. So cruel, so gauche.). Food is a very serious topic among expats in Norway.
“Surely,” you might object, “no one is putting a gun to your head, insisting you eat like the Romans simply because you are in Rome!” Ah, but if it were that simple, there would not be 1,600 Hungry Americans in Norway. It is, of course, possible to make tastier food in your own home. We have learned to make our own Mexican and Chinese dishes, but not only can the preparation be rather labor intensive, so is the hunt for ingredients. And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, food is very expensive, with grocery prices 65% higher in Norway than the European average. Beef is $17-20 a pound; chicken is about $10/lb. In this context, cold cuts as a staple of the Norwegian diet is not so surprising.
The convenience issue brings us to another American criticism of food culture in Norway: the hypocrisy. Some Norwegians need to remove the frozen pizza plank from their own eye so that they might see well enough to cast out the potato chip from their brother’s eye. Norwegians may not eat a lot of fatty restaurant food and they may love to criticize Americans’ bad eating habits, but like busy people everywhere, Norwegians and their diet present no picture of health. If bland white fish and potatoes fill the fresh outer aisles of Norwegian supermarkets, the inner aisles are filled with frozen and other prepackaged processed foods, as in any American supermarket.
While there are lots of conflicting articles in the media about whether Norwegians are trending toward more or less healthy eating habits these days, it is clear that they do drink a lot of soda and eat a lot of prepackaged and frozen foods, just as we do in the States. For example, Grandiosa frozen pizzas are as much a part of the Norwegian diet as white fish and boiled potatoes- in fact, these two dishes now follow each other through many a family’s Christmas Eve feasting. Five million Norwegians eat 45 million frozen pizzas a year, of which 24 million are Grandiosa pizzas. About 2.5 million of these are sold during the holidays (side2.no); 200,000 Norwegians responding to a 2011 poll serve Grandiosas outside the main meal on Christmas Eve.
Norwegians also drink more Pepsi Max than any other country in the world, in 2011, an average of 22 liters per person (the Swedes manage to drink only 9.5 liters per person, the article proudly notes). Little Norway, with a population smaller than North Carolina’s, accounts for 9 percent of Pepsi Max sales worldwide.
So my experiences here have taught me a few things about food and culture. I’ve learned that Norwegians may be much more physically active than Americans, but their illusions that their greasy meatballs and potatoes swimming in gravy are really healthier than our burgers and fries are a bit silly. And I’ve learned that man literally can’t live by bread alone. As God is my witness—as God is my witness!—I’m going to live through these six years in Norway and when it’s all over, I’ll never eat skiver again.