Food, culture, memes and ‘taste chords’

Food for thought – influence of ‘National Food Culture’ on Cultural evolution

We are all, in essence, products of nature and nuture, which include all the Memes (units of social inheritance) that have made us who we are.
We are products of our parents, and we have all been influenced by our parents, our families and the societies we were brought up in. We are a result of our contacts, relationships and the environment(s) that ‘cultivated’ us. we are representatives of the education we received, the knowledge and experiences we have had, the languages we use and all the other factors, not least the religion, beliefs and values we share.

When we look further into what makes us who we are, the geography, topography, climate, regional and local ‘landscape’ of where we were brought up, have all strongly influenced us.

This impact is represented in the history, music, art that we appreciate and, not least in importance, the national, regional and even local food culture we share.

Taste Chord (coined by R Tellström and defined as ‘harmony that comes from flavour – it lives a long time, it is important to people and provides meaning’) is a cultural meme we should not ignore.

Do food habits affect memes? Are these reflected in beliefs, attitudes and values?

According to Tellström, since the 1800s, Nordic industrialisation and new technologies (e.g. electricity, the iron stove, etc.), new ideas, products and processes have not only altered the way the people in the Nordic area work, but what they eat. For example, potatoes became important after 1800, replacing bread as a staple part of the diet, sweetness (from sugar beet) became more important and the overall raw material base changed.

Prior to the 1880s and without electricity and other ‘modern technologies’ people had to deal with, as a matter of life or death, supply-management and not just rely on a culture of strictly seasonal food. Two things were crucial for survival:

The underlying food culture is characterised by people taking advantage of seasonal surpluses and thus maximising potential use of supplies. Most importantly, this created a rationing mentality, in other words cautious and controlled eating on a daily basis. One can wonder if this mentality is part of the ‘lagom’ mindset broadly applicable across the Nordic area. However, is this not contrasted by the distinctive excesses prevalent during Midsummer, when crops and foodstuff are readily available?

One can also wonder, if these Taste Chords and Memes changed substantially after industrialisation and the influx of new ideas, up to the 21st century. Has the diffusion of alternative raw materials and culinary variations reduced the influence of traditional Taste chords?

Across the Nordic area Umami flavours (pleasant savoury taste), salt, acid and a little bitterness still have a fundamentally important place at the table today. All those pickled vegetables, pickled herrings, surströmming, etc. are still widely appreciated. Nowadays, nobody needs to hunt elk anymore to survive, but today’s hunting is a remnant of a ‘traditional culture’. Every year a quarter of a million Swedes go out and hunt 80 000 elk.

Today, 3 Swedish idiosyncratic cultural nuances are observable to the casual observer:

a) Pea soup is still eaten on Thursdays – some people get upset if it is not served on that day. No-one can pinpoint exactly where this tradition comes from. Was it Thor’s favourite food, or was a king assassinated while eating pea soup?

b) Excessive saltiness is noticeable in many dishes from husmanskost to Jansson’s Frestelse.

c) Although, steel is widely manufactured in the Nordic area, people like to use wooden butter knives when spreading butter on bread. Not surprisingly when surrounded by huge forest areas. Is wood part of the Swede’s cultural DNA?

Are Swedish and other Nordic influential food memes dwindling or changing through natural variation, availability of diversity, competition, mutation (hybridisation), evolution and taste-bud selection?

Of course, together with all the other cultural memes, we should recognise and pay attention to variation in nuances of food cultures. It will partly help us understand ‘why others do what they do.’ Seeing and understanding details, gives us greater depth of knowledge about people from ‘other place’ and help us pay respect to ‘who they are’.

This newsletter is based on thoughts and ideas from reading a ‘Brief History of Nordic Cuisine’ by Richard Tellström in The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson.

Recommended film to watch: Babette’s Feast