Beyond 'New' Nordic

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For a while now, discussions around the lunch table or the spontaneous hours of the afternoon have revolved in and out of a web of topics we might call ‘what makes Nordic food Nordic?’

In our work at the lab, for example, we wonder if it should satisfy us to take some raw materials which grow here, stick them into a formula of technique (however connected it may already be to another region or cuisine of the world) and christening the resulting hybrid ‘Nordic x’ or ‘Nordic y’. 

Similarly, when we engage with the work of our colleagues and friends in kitchens and workshops around the region, we wonder if it should satisfy us to refer mainly to commonly agreed-upon ideas of what our cooking is and should be, without necessarily digging more deeply into the questions at its roots: why do we work with the ingredients we do, why do we choose to work with them in the ways we do, and are these decisions, taken together, a ‘cuisine’?

Take, for example, the tomato. Why do we reject it, or at least, why are we hesitant about it?

Is it that ‘it cannot survive in this climate’ – though there are farmers and gardeners producing tasty and suitable varieties of tomato in the relatively short growing season of Denmark, and even further north

Is it that it does not have an ‘established tradition of use’ here – even though most contemporary Nordic people are more familiar with tomatoes than many of the other ingredients now prized by the New Nordic Cuisine (NNC), which either have a long history of use and were shunned at some point along the way, or have never been used here at all?

Is it that its symbolic attachment to other cuisines is already too strong – being, for example, an edible icon of Italy or Mexico?

Is it that it is indigenous to another part of the world? If so, why then are potatoes acceptable, when both nightshades have by now become naturalised to Europe and have continued variegating according to different regions’ constraints – even those of Greenland – and different breeders’ interests?

As a counterpoint, why do we embrace lemon verbena, a plant indigenous to Brazil, which, perhaps even more than tomatoes, requires in our region at least a covered if not heated hoophouse or greenhouse to grow? Is it because we have already eschewed the lemon, that blunt, ubiquitous image of exotic necessity, and must look elsewhere to replicate its flavour? 

Or take, for example, dill.
It is unanimously (though no exclusively) Nordic, in the hands of our chefs and home cooks alike.
And what if it is grown in Israel or Spain? 

Our cooking shows some tasty incongruities. It is a good time to re-examine our system of ideas, the principles of our ideology, to acknowledge what this movement has made so far and identify what it has not yet figured out. From this re-examination our cooking can only get better, our thinking stronger, our visions for what it means to cook and eat and live in this region more clear.

Let’s start at the cited beginning.

“NEW NORDIC KITCHEN MANIFESTO
As Nordic chefs we find that the time has now come for us to create a New Nordic Kitchen, which in virtue of its good taste and special character compares favourably with the standard of the greatest kitchens of the world.

The aims of the New Nordic Kitchen are:

1) To express the purity, freshness, simplicity and ethics we wish to associate to our region.

2) To reflect the changes of the seasons in the meals we make.

3) To base our cooking on ingredients and produce whose characteristics are particularly excellent in our climates, landscapes and waters.

4) To combine the demand for good taste with modern knowledge of health and well-being.

5) To promote Nordic products and the variety of Nordic producers - and to spread the word about their underlying cultures.

6) To promote animal welfare and a sound production process in our seas, on our farmland and in the wild.

7) To develop potentially new applications of traditional Nordic food products.

8) To combine the best in Nordic cookery and culinary traditions with impulses from abroad.

9) To combine local self-sufficiency with regional sharing of high-quality products.

10) To join forces with consumer representatives, other cooking craftsmen, agriculture, fishing, food, retail and wholesales industries, researchers, teachers, politicians and authorities on this project for the benefit and advantage of everyone in the Nordic countries.

[originally signed by the following chefs:]
Hans Välimäki, Finland
Leif Sørensen, Færøerne
Mathias Dahlgren, Sweden
Roger Malmin, Norway
René Redzepi, Denmark
Rune Collin, Greenland
Erwin Lauterbach, Denmark
Eyvind Hellstrøm, Norway
Fredrik Sigurdsson, Iceland
Gunndur Fossdal, Færøerne
Hákan Örvarsson, Iceland
Michael Björklund, Åland”

- newnordicfood.org

Certain points of the New Nordic Kitchen Manifesto are ripe for discussion.

‘Purity’, for example, probably refers originally to a sense of cleanliness or unadulteratedness of raw materials and ingredients. It also, though, can generate overtones of political or ethnic purity, which are some of the likely causes for receiving allegations of xenophobia or ‘culinary fascism’ (even in light of the interest in ‘impulses from abroad’ in point 8). What does it mean to us that our food is ‘pure’? 

‘Self-sufficiency’ is an even more convoluted idea. At its simplest we can understand it as a shorthand for ‘making do with what one has at hand’, which must probably be part of any kitchen ethos in general. It becomes provocative when it shifts soundlessly from heuristic to absolute ideal, a kind of impossible disconnectedness and independence from cultural and biological others, and a fantasy of mastery over one’s environment by directing its processes for one’s sustenance. The fantasy of self-sufficiency is exposed bluntly in the Spanish dill; and if not there, then in the Dutch equipment for indoor propagation of herbs we can use to grow our own dill, outside our season; and if not there, then certainly in the raw materials used to make this growing equipment, originally extracted and refined in China, Australia, Brazil.

Yet we are primarily concerned with the regional epithet itself, the ‘Nordic’, and to what degree these principles are specific to it. Most of the principles of the Manifesto describe many of the attitudes already implicit in existing traditional food cultures around the world that have undergone centuries or millennia of evolution. ‘Self-sufficiency’, for example, has been less a choice so much as a predominant fact of trying to eke out an existence in a particular place. Similarly, the principles described in the Manifesto could be reapplied to try to reinvigorate gastronomic development other places in the world where humans have managed to organise their sustenance. The current application of these principles in the Nordic region has yielded something apparently new – though the principles themselves are not.

Drawing the ‘Nordic’ line

The booklet ‘New Nordic Cuisine’ published by the New Nordic Food Programme by the Nordic Council of Ministers in 2008, despite its primary purpose as a promotional tool, acknowledges this openness and empirical, descriptive methods for developing an image of what New Nordic Cuisine (NNC) is:

“New nordic cuisine can’t be defined by what it should not include. Exotic spices were introduced to the region more than a thousand years ago. The potato only arrived a couple of centuries ago, but is now an integrated and characteristic element of our cuisine. Instead of defining Nordic Cuisine by what it is not, we should look at the activities of the people who enjoy and develop New Nordic Cuisine.”

Cuisine, or at least a way or system of cooking, emerges from what and how people produce, cook, eat and share food. The manifesto crystallised a moment when many hands and minds were converging on something, perhaps a shared desire to develop an identity around food and cooking, and helped drive its development forward. Yet these hands and minds have also continued making food over the past ten years or more, and have grown in number and scope. The goal of the NNC is not, has never been and cannot be to draw a clear and non-arbitrary line separating what Nordic food is from what it is not – such an act would be neither productive nor possible.

The principles of the Nordic culinary ideology lay value on tasting locality, seasonality, ecological mindfulness, and diversity of the region’s climates and cultures. These ideas are as relevant to our cooking and our goals for a better food system as they were in 2004 when they were outlined on paper – even if what the cooking looks and smells and tastes like has developed since then. These principles also stretch back much further in time than 2004 and to many other parts of the world than only here. They are principles which have emerged in their own form in almost every traditional food culture, and are probably those that will continue to drive food cultures committed to taste as an emergent property of celebrating diversity, resourcefulness and ecological mindfulness – in short those food cultures that are also committed to their own future. This could be why certain other food cultures have viewed the recent gastronomic flourishing of our region skeptically – bemused by the Northerners who have so lost touch with the foundations of a strong food culture that they believe in drafting a manifesto they have made anew not only their own cuisine but the very idea of ‘cuisine’ itself.

We must now pose the unyielding question at the conversation’s root: what is a cuisine, and can our current cooking constitute one?

Many generally recognised cuisines of the world share some common features, aside from some of the principles also described by the Manifesto. The popular understanding of cuisine has been what happens when many people in a certain region come to develop a shared concept of how they cook and eat. This process has often begun in people cooking day to day with what they have, when they have it – the everyday interactions between choice and limitation. It is also a process that has taken place over long periods of time – and perhaps necessarily so – with many turns along the way.

The shift to individual practices united by a shared concept of cuisine can happen for different reasons – yet is has often developed in order to distinguish one group from others, from within and/or without, for regionalist, nationalist, and/or other purposes. The concept of ‘French Cuisine’, for example, was largely constructed as a bourgeois Parisian concept leading up to and after the French Revolution, centralising choice parts of the different regional cuisines in the capital (Grimod, 1803-1813; Freedman, 2007; Pinkard, 2009). Similarly, the concept of ‘Italian cuisine’ was developed throughout the nineteenth century alongside the incremental process of Italian unification, which was one of the main forces leading each region to “defin[e] a culinary identity in competition with the identity of other regions” as well as the crystallisation of ‘Italian Cuisine’ as a tool to cultivate both internal national unity and a strong outward national identity during Italian Fascist rule from 1922 to 1943 (Montanari, 2003, pp.26-34)

Yet when asked, how many French or Italian people think of their daily food as contributing to or emerging from a ‘French Cuisine’ or an ‘Italian Cuisine’, and how many think of it simply as ‘food’? The concept of a cuisine may emerge from the similarities between certain ways of cooking and eating, and it may certainly be useful for the nationalist with an agenda or the foreigner without a clue. Yet what happens when we make such a concept before the cooking already happens in daily life? Is the concept alone enough to constitute a cuisine, or does it need people and time – and if so, how much of each to reach its critical mass of practice to justify the concept? If cuisine emerges out of limitations we do not choose, can choosing our limitations ever achieve an adequately similar result? Does it matter?

Cuisine vs. culinary ideology

Last year we at Nordic Food Lab received a request from a Turkish restaurateur to help him open a ‘New Nordic’ restaurant in Istanbul. We imagine he envisioned a restaurant that would make food like that of many of our region’s leading restaurants today. We imagine he also might not have realised that if we had gone to help him unpack the tools of the Nordic culinary ideology in Turkey, the food on the plates would likely have looked, smelled and tasted very different from the food here. This difference should be explored and celebrated, for its contributions to ecological and cultural diversity, to resilience and to deliciousness. Which is why we said no. His request made sense, but in the context of our purpose it did not make sense to us.

Here we can make a potentially useful distinction. We can understand this culinary ideology as ‘the New Nordic Kitchen or ‘the New Nordic approach to cooking’ (which, as described, is not unique), as compared with the cooking this ideology has given birth to in this place at this time, which we could call ‘Nordic cooking’ or ‘Nordic cuisine c.2015’.

If our mission were to share Nordic cooking, it would entail trying to facilitate Nordic restaurants and Nordic cooking as a cultural export in as many regions of the world as possible. This may well be a fine aim but we believe most of us share a different pursuit. We are committed to Nordic cooking not primarily because of its value as a cultural export, but because of its value as an exploration of our own identity and identities in an increasingly globalised world culture. Nordic cooking, here and now, looks and smells and tastes the ways it does in part because it is what emerges from applying the ‘New Nordic’ culinary ideology in this place at this time. It is historical, contingent, and engaged in its own processes of mutation and evolution.

Sharing our terrain

This distinction perhaps allows us to start to understand the mild discomfort some of us feel with the idea of a ‘New Nordic’ restaurant in Istanbul, New York, London, or any other place outside the region of its name. Such a restaurant refers to and relies on the ideology, but uses all the trappings of our cooking without the system of ideas which gives birth to it. They take the wood sorrel without the woods. Which is also fine, because no one owns wood sorrel. But then comes the question: what makes a cooking Nordic – is it the use of certain ingredients, or certain techniques, or terroir, or some combination thereof? Is it even worthwhile to venture into the murky discussion of ‘authenticity’? Can we with straight faces wonder, for example, why there are not more and better Korean or Vietnamese or Mexican restaurants in Copenhagen, and at the same time decry ‘Nordic’ restaurants popping up in other cities around the globe? Perhaps, though, this is the fate of any cuisine which gains an audience outside of its birthplace: that it becomes essentialised, tokenised even, emptied of its historical context, rendered internally consistent and packaged neatly for foreign consumption. Let us not forget that the very concepts of ‘French’, ‘Italian’, ‘Korean’, ‘Vietnamese’ or ‘Mexican’ cuisines might only make sense in the imagination of the foreigner. 

Our external audience – certain global media, diners, food-obsessed, entrepreneurs – have shown our fledgling project intense interest. And we should consider that if we are truly interested in having our efforts take root, it may all be too much interest too quickly. This intense attention has conflated the ‘New Nordic’ culinary ideology with the current version of Nordic cooking, obscuring the contingency of its development to the point where it may be impeding its evolution. We may all, in different ways, be smothering this sprout before it has its chance to firmly grow. We should also recognise that we ourselves, the cooks, chefs, sommeliers, producers, researchers, journalists and other industry folk working in and committed to this region, have been complicit in this precocious exporting. Certainly this attention has been a big part of what has brought so much success to our endeavours, and so sometimes we actively perpetuate it. We have a complicated relationship with our own success – which is why now is precisely the time to wake ourselves up to our complicity, and our complacency with it, and really ask: is this how we want to move forward? Should we be satisfied that not only our efforts but increasingly the very content of our work are being shaped more and more by this audience, rather than ourselves, each other and those who comprise our Nordic community? We acknowledge that once we put things – tastes, techniques, products, dishes, concepts – out into the world, they take on their own life we can no longer guide and significances we cannot dictate. What is more interesting and important, then, is engaging proactively in this exchange, for it is how we can negotiate the stewardship of the ‘Nordic’. We should participate proactively in this dialogue, rather than simply ‘letting it play out’, for otherwise the ‘Nordic’ will likely continue to become more and more commodified, eventually alienating us entirely from what we want our food culture to be.

We have worked hard to carve out a shared ideological and culinary territory – now, we are met with the struggle for its sovereignty. Many of us have become tired being labelled ‘New Nordic’ by observers many of whom have little or no sense of what it means to cook and live in the Nordic region today. It is hardly surprising that even many of the chefs and key figures who were originally involved in codifying the NNC ideology have since tried to shake off the term, often even disavowing it completely. Perhaps ‘New Nordic’ has been going on long enough that now we can make just Nordic food – its current iteration circa 2015 sitting in a series of versions that stretches back long before 2004 – and maybe even someday, make just food.

Unlike what some framings of the NNC movement may suggest, there was no revolutionary break with history in that year; and similarly, now, what we need is not a revolutionary break with the ‘New Nordic’. To the contrary, the vision laid out in the NCC Manifesto is still applicable when it comes to improving our agricultural practices, developing our ecological relationships, cultivating food-literate eaters and leaders, and broadening and strengthening our everyday food culture. But the culinary vanguard has reached many of its borders and is ready for what lies beyond them: new territory to explore and chart so that the main forces can also advance towards a more robust, resilient regional gastronomy with parts of the path already paved. 

How can we make sure that our cooking keeps digging deeper into what it means to live and eat in the Nordic region today, rather than becoming stagnant, satisfied with its own images reflected back to us in the mirrors (and sometimes through the smoke) of the Media of the World? They have raised us to the crest of fortune’s wheel, but we would do well to remember it is a wheel that always turns. And whether on its rise or fall, we must still eat and feed each other well.

A final crucial question is: how do we think about the series of gastronomic developments that comprise our history and, we hope, our future? Does it necessitate establishing a dramatic but somewhat preposterous ‘post-New-Nordic’ approach, or rather the acknowledgement of an evolution more subtle and incremental and true? Our most constructive way forward probably has little use for the total ‘death’ of New Nordic Cuisine or the Manifesto. Instead, it requires learning from the last decade and more to clarify and refresh both our sense of purpose and also, absolutely, what and how and why we cook – here, now, this.

 

 

Thanks to Matt Orlando, Edith Salminen, and our recent interns Jason Ball, Johnny Drain and Meradith Hoddinott for sharing valuable conversations around these ideas. We would also like to thank Kelly Donati and Guillemette Barthouil for their critical feedback on drafts of the text.

 

References

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Pinkard, Susan. A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine, 1650-1800. UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Salminen, Edith. ‘Do we all live in a New Nordic Food world?’ Norden. 3.2015. 14.5.2015. <http://www.norden.org/en/news-and-events/articles/do-we-all-live-in-a-new-nordic-food-world>.

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