Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Home Thoughts From Abroad, Part IV: Food & Drink Culture

Danish people can often be observed to assemble in groups to drink beer.

Truth be known, they also often assemble to drink coffee, but observers don't notice that as much, since most coffee drinking takes place indoors. The drinking of beer pretty much takes place anywhere, for any reason... in public, or in private. "Oh look, the sun came out-- let's sit outside and have a beer!" is not an unusual thing for someone to say.

Of course, this might mean going to a bar, but would more likely mean grabbing a couple of cold ones from the grocery and sitting on a random bench somewhere. Or in your neighbor's garden.

Food and drink culture in Denmark is quite different from food and drink culture in the US.

The average American eats out 4-5 times a week while the average Dane rarely eats out at all. Growing up here, I remember that "going to a restaurant" was something we only did for very special occasions, like someone having a "big" birthday, or somebody's anniversary. And when we did eat out, it was a lengthy affair (often lasting three hours or more), and also very costly. My father-- who could certainly afford to-- chose not to eat out very often, with the reasoning that "it's just not very good."

Denmark is possibly the most expensive country in Western Europe in which to eat out, and similar foods "eaten out" will often cost 3-4 times more than in the US. I have been thinking about this, over the past few days, and recall when a group of family members went out to celebrate one of my Aunt Ulla's "round" birthdays. She rather protested the idea, but we went anyway-- to a "nice" (but by no means "luxury") restaurant, not too far from here. I vaguely remember that the "fixed price" 5-course dinner with wine for eight people ran somewhere in the range of $1400.00. Over a decade ago.

A non-Dane might be given to ask how it can be so expensive. Much of the answer can be found in the exceptionally high taxes in Denmark, and in the fact that waitstaff is paid very highly. Service, however, tends to be very slow and often grumpy.

People in Denmark get together to eat and drink at each other's homes, most of the time. Such visits are not just about food and drink, but a social event... a way to spend time with friends. Much like "going out to eat" is often a several-hour affair, so is going to someone's house for dinner. In the summer, you might start out with a few beers and snacks on the patio before dinner; then a 3-4 course meal with wine (which takes a couple of hours to slowly work through), followed by coffee and brandy/liqueurs and more snacks/chocolate.

The idea of "going out to grab a bite" with a friend, and the whole meal and visit being over and done with in 60 (or maybe 90) minutes is all but an unknown concept in Denmark, although it is becoming more common in cities, especially among affluent younger Danes. Even a company/work lunch tends to be much more elaborate than a "grab it and run" affair... hence "fast food" has never really caught on in Denmark... aside from the ubiquitous sausage and hot dog street vendors, particularly common in cities. "Grill bars" are also increasingly common, and are an "extension" of the hot dog vendor, with a larger selection.

In Denmark, a plate of french fries is often "a meal" for people... or, at least, a substantial snack.

Visitors to Denmark-- especially from the US-- will probably notice certain differences in the food. Often these are most pronounced in the area of condiments-- in Denmark, french fries are often served with mayo or the local equivalent of tartar sauce. And some condiments-- like ketchup-- might look the same, but taste quite different. If you get a pickle with your burger, it will most likely be sweet, not salty. Baked goods, butter and snack foods often seem bland to visitors, as they often contain up to 50% less salt or sugar than we're used to.

"Sandwiches" in Denmark are almost always open-faced... a slice of rather dense heavy bread (wheat or rye), buttered, often with just one kind of meat, or a simple slice of cheese. For most people, not very exciting. Conversely, I remember some Danish friends visiting the US and remarking about US sandwiches that the bread seemed "insubstantial" and the sandwich had "enough meat and cheese to feed a family of four."

Having lived on both sides of the Atlantic, these are all points well taken. I'd be hard pressed to say that I clearly prefer the food-- and the "style" of eating/socializing-- of one country over the other. I'm appreciative of the "slow" nature of food in Denmark, but also know it's set against a cultural backdrop where 37 hours constitutes a full work week... and where what one does with one's leisure time is far more important than what one does for work.

The house in which we are staying here in Denmark was "about food" for me, and for a lot of other people who came here to visit. My aunt Ulla enjoyed feeding her guests very substantial meals... and I always looked forward to the food here, especially the chicken and gravy, as well as some of the pork roasts... not to mention the large lunch spreads that would appear daily.


  1. Thank you for sharing more about the Danish culture with us Peter, I've been like the proverbial sponge reading your posts. I too like to eat french fries with mayo....yum!

  2. And I thought the 4-7 hour "dinner" was just a Portuguese thing!


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