Differences in Food Culture - Traditions & Trends. Exemplified

Differences in Food Culture - Traditions & Trends. Exemplified

Differences in Food Culture - Traditions & Trends. Exemplified


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<strong>Differences</strong> <strong>in</strong> <strong>Food</strong> <strong>Culture</strong> – <strong>Traditions</strong> & <strong>Trends</strong>.<br />

<strong>Exemplified</strong> with the cultural differences between<br />

France - Denmark - Sweden<br />

Dr. Dom<strong>in</strong>ique Bouchet<br />

Professor of International Market<strong>in</strong>g<br />

Odense University<br />

Campusvej 55, DK-5230 Odense M, Denmark<br />

Dom@busieco.ou.dk<br />

Fax : [45] 6615 5129<br />

Dom<strong>in</strong>ique Bouchet: "<strong>Differences</strong> <strong>in</strong> <strong>Food</strong> <strong>Culture</strong> - <strong>Traditions</strong> & <strong>Trends</strong>. <strong>Exemplified</strong> with the cultural differences<br />

between France-Denmark-Sweden."<strong>in</strong> Claus Heggun (Ed.): Quality and Risk Management. Proceed<strong>in</strong>gs of the 25th<br />

International Dairy Congress (21-24. September 1998, Aarhus Denmark), The Danish National Committee of the IDF,<br />

Aarhus 1999. pp. 210-216.<br />

Abstract :<br />

It is a challenge to become acqua<strong>in</strong>ted with the complexity of different food cultures. By<br />

look<strong>in</strong>g at the differences <strong>in</strong> the ways <strong>in</strong> which people <strong>in</strong> France, Denmark and Sweden relate<br />

to the concept of “eat<strong>in</strong>g”, an <strong>in</strong>troduction is here given to the analysis of food cultures.<br />

A culture shock<br />

I was born and grew up <strong>in</strong> France. Nearly<br />

25 years ago - at the age of 25 - I moved to<br />

Denmark and had a culture shock!<br />

The first th<strong>in</strong>g I noticed was the the<br />

difference <strong>in</strong> food culture. In Denmark<br />

people did not m<strong>in</strong>d dr<strong>in</strong>k<strong>in</strong>g someth<strong>in</strong>g<br />

sweet with their food, they served few<br />

vegetables, and the bread often tasted – for<br />

me – like cardboard. It was not unusual to<br />

have to content oneself with one dish for a<br />

so-called d<strong>in</strong>ner, which was usually<br />

consumed <strong>in</strong> the even<strong>in</strong>g. Most meals were<br />

supposed to be eaten quickly and alone.<br />

The food was rarely a topic of<br />

conversation. It did not take much before<br />

the Danes felt that the food was - not<br />

ref<strong>in</strong>ed - but too f<strong>in</strong>e. Brown gravy –<br />

always tast<strong>in</strong>g and look<strong>in</strong>g the same --<br />

over-done meat, onions, and potatoes<br />

seemed to be their favourite food. When I<br />

brought French products with me home to<br />

Denmark, my guests were not very<br />

<strong>in</strong>terested. In their view French sausage<br />

and French cheese looked positively<br />

disgust<strong>in</strong>g. Liquor was more <strong>in</strong>terest<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

Without restra<strong>in</strong> they would taste<br />

everyth<strong>in</strong>g, just like they did not refra<strong>in</strong><br />

from eat<strong>in</strong>g my imported candy - which I<br />

had thought would last for months - <strong>in</strong> just<br />

one even<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

Some differences are noticed straight<br />

away<br />

Different food cultures and cultural<br />

differences <strong>in</strong> general are neither easy to<br />

analyse nor to describe. <strong>Culture</strong>s are very<br />

complex systems of differences -<br />

<strong>in</strong>tertw<strong>in</strong>ed with each other, which the<br />

culture members are guided by <strong>in</strong> their<br />

choices. If you come from a different<br />

culture, it is often easier to wonder at the<br />

strange choices – and differences – you are<br />

confronted by. You do not become<br />

conscious of everyth<strong>in</strong>g, but when it is a<br />

question of food, the confrontation is<br />

almost <strong>in</strong>evitable: you must eat even if it<br />

disturbs you to the core when you are<br />

submitted to a different food code.

The components of food culture<br />

Among the basic differences which the<br />

multiple cultures employ <strong>in</strong> the build<strong>in</strong>g of<br />

their food culture, some are physiological<br />

taste experiences (sweet, salt, sour, bitter,<br />

cold, warm, dry, spicy...). Some have to do<br />

with preparation (raw, boiled, fried...).<br />

Others refer to basic attitudes (ethos)<br />

concern<strong>in</strong>g the relationship with nature and<br />

the universe (pure, unclean, holy, secular,<br />

genu<strong>in</strong>e, healthy, necessary...). Yet others<br />

refer to the social ties (traditional, public,<br />

private, luxurious, festive, everyday-like,<br />

exotic...).<br />

In other words, it is not just what you eat<br />

which is <strong>in</strong>terest<strong>in</strong>g, but also how, when,<br />

with whom, and why. And all these<br />

doma<strong>in</strong>s <strong>in</strong>tersect: everyth<strong>in</strong>g we eat - as<br />

well as the way <strong>in</strong> which we eat it - is<br />

<strong>in</strong>fluenced by all the systems of mean<strong>in</strong>g at<br />

once.<br />

When an <strong>in</strong>novation occurs<br />

If a technological <strong>in</strong>novation is made<br />

which makes new products possible or if a<br />

supplier from abroad tries his luck with<br />

foreign products, the new product will be<br />

viewed accord<strong>in</strong>g to the complex system of<br />

<strong>in</strong>terpretation which makes up a culture.<br />

This happens <strong>in</strong> more or less the same way<br />

as when e.g. car manufacturers wish to f<strong>in</strong>d<br />

out how they can benefit from new<br />

technologies. When the ABS brak<strong>in</strong>g<br />

system was <strong>in</strong>troduced, BMW marketed it<br />

as someth<strong>in</strong>g which enabled the driver to<br />

have even more control of the vehicle.<br />

Volvo, on the other hand, emphasised that<br />

the brak<strong>in</strong>g system meant even more safety<br />

for the passengers.<br />

<strong>Food</strong> cultures, however, are considerably<br />

more complex than brand names.<br />

Therefore, what happens <strong>in</strong> connection<br />

with <strong>in</strong>novation is far less conscious than<br />

the runn<strong>in</strong>g of a bus<strong>in</strong>ess. In addition,<br />

bus<strong>in</strong>esses - no matter which goods they<br />

offer - are not only confronted with<br />

technological <strong>in</strong>novations but also with<br />

cultural changes. The latter are even more<br />

difficult to relate to.<br />

Ecology as an example<br />

The <strong>in</strong>creas<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong>terest <strong>in</strong> ecology and<br />

ecological production methods is an<br />

example of such a cultural change. In this<br />

connection it is observed that ecology<br />

concern<strong>in</strong>g food means someth<strong>in</strong>g<br />

different <strong>in</strong> France and <strong>in</strong> Denmark. With<br />

respect to production methods, i.e. the<br />

relationship between product and nature,<br />

both countries are aware that such products<br />

are gentle to nature. But when the issue is<br />

the relation between the product and the<br />

body, the priorities <strong>in</strong> the two countries<br />

differ: <strong>in</strong> Denmark it is emphasised above<br />

all that the products are healthy, whereas <strong>in</strong><br />

France the ma<strong>in</strong> issue is the better taste.<br />

Thus, a tendency which seems to be shared<br />

and homogenis<strong>in</strong>g, can, on further<br />

analysis, turn out to be multiple and<br />

diverg<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

In the above example the experience seems<br />

to be more important for the French than<br />

the realisation, whereas it is the opposite<br />

for the Danes. Two different rationalities<br />

prevail: the Danish rationality is based on<br />

scientific and juricidal criteria for<br />

evaluation, wheras the French rationality is<br />

dom<strong>in</strong>ated by aestethic - i.e. sensuous -<br />

criteria.<br />

The sensuous and the factual<br />

General cultural criteria are also mak<strong>in</strong>g<br />

themselves felt when consumers relate to<br />

other types of products. If it is a question<br />

of cheese and meat, French consumers<br />

emphasise the sensuous aspect - Danish<br />

consumers the factual. Because the taste<br />

sensation plays such a large role <strong>in</strong> France,<br />

French consumers are less likely to let

themselves be <strong>in</strong>fluenced by e.g. hygienic<br />

arguments, which is a source of wonder for<br />

many Scand<strong>in</strong>avians.<br />

These types of consumer behaviour are<br />

deeply rooted <strong>in</strong> different ways of relat<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to the animalistic - to life and death. Fresh<br />

oysters and red meat are seldom<br />

appreciated <strong>in</strong> Denmark, whereas <strong>in</strong> France<br />

exactly red meat is perceived as be<strong>in</strong>g<br />

more alive, and thereby more powerful and<br />

appetis<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

The animalistic aspect is seen as someth<strong>in</strong>g<br />

positive <strong>in</strong> France and Spa<strong>in</strong>, whereas the<br />

associations <strong>in</strong> Denmark and Germany are<br />

more <strong>in</strong> the direction of death and<br />

morbidity. The reaction is one of disgust,<br />

and therefore it is desirable to kill each and<br />

every trace of what is disgust<strong>in</strong>g <strong>in</strong> a<br />

process of fry<strong>in</strong>g, boil<strong>in</strong>g, or pasteuris<strong>in</strong>g.<br />

Thereby, the animalistic is transformed<br />

<strong>in</strong>to someth<strong>in</strong>g different: the prote<strong>in</strong>s it<br />

consists of. Digg<strong>in</strong>g a little deeper <strong>in</strong>to this<br />

issue, one f<strong>in</strong>ds that there are different<br />

perceptions of the dist<strong>in</strong>ction between the<br />

human and the animalistic which support<br />

the experience of the consumer <strong>in</strong> their<br />

respective cultures. In the Nordic countries<br />

people talk more about nature <strong>in</strong> man than<br />

about culture versus nature, just like many<br />

people try to behave naturally. Contrary to<br />

that, people <strong>in</strong> Catholic countries are fond<br />

of rhetoric and pomp and gladly make use<br />

of culture and stag<strong>in</strong>g for seduction.<br />

The food cultures <strong>in</strong> France and<br />

Denmark<br />

The French use food more <strong>in</strong>tensively as a<br />

means of communication, because they<br />

share a code <strong>in</strong> which both food and<br />

language play an important role. The<br />

mastery of the shades of the French<br />

language and the appreciation of the<br />

pr<strong>in</strong>ciples of the French kitchen are the key<br />

to the <strong>in</strong>tegration <strong>in</strong> a community <strong>in</strong> which<br />

one both feels welcome and has the<br />

possibility to move up <strong>in</strong>dependent of<br />

occupation as well as social status. The<br />

references - the food ideal - are practically<br />

the same for all sections of the population.<br />

In Denmark too, roughly the same food<br />

ideal is shared across social groups.<br />

However, that ideal does not have the same<br />

content or significance as <strong>in</strong> France. <strong>Food</strong><br />

and language are not employed to the same<br />

degree <strong>in</strong> order to show off an expertise,<br />

the food rituals are less impos<strong>in</strong>g. In<br />

Denmark one is <strong>in</strong>cluded <strong>in</strong> the community<br />

without necessarily tak<strong>in</strong>g an <strong>in</strong>terest <strong>in</strong><br />

food.. It is acceptable to eat alone and<br />

hurriedly on a frequent basis, and there are<br />

fewer occasions for eat<strong>in</strong>g together, and<br />

even fewer for exquisite meals.<br />

Thus, the food rituals function differently.<br />

In Denmark a pronounced sense of the<br />

matter of course and <strong>in</strong>difference rules,<br />

everybody is accepted irrespective of<br />

<strong>in</strong>dividual taste. In France everybody has<br />

to confirm their state of membership and<br />

secure their place by show<strong>in</strong>g a<br />

commitment as well as a knowledge of<br />

taste and aesthetics. But, as mentioned, not<br />

very much <strong>in</strong> both countries dist<strong>in</strong>guishes<br />

the food ideals of the various social<br />

groups.<br />

Swedish multiplicity<br />

Matters stand differently <strong>in</strong> Sweden where<br />

the French aristocratic food ideal rules <strong>in</strong><br />

one part of the population, and Danish-like<br />

popular food ideals <strong>in</strong> another.<br />

Compared to the situation <strong>in</strong> France and<br />

Denmark, the Swedish food culture is less<br />

homogenous. It refers less to the national<br />

community and has a higher degree of<br />

complexity from local and group-specific<br />

codes. Thus, the Swedish and French food<br />

cultures share the demand for a<br />

confirmation of a person’s affiliation. But<br />

only <strong>in</strong> few groups do taste and<br />

sensuousness play a central role. In<br />

general, the nutritional and the natural<br />

aspects take up the most central place

across all groups of identification. Unlike<br />

Denmark, they are mov<strong>in</strong>g away from<br />

hav<strong>in</strong>g common references and are go<strong>in</strong>g<br />

<strong>in</strong> the direction of natural rather than<br />

practical characteristics, and the taste<br />

preferences refer less to personal than to<br />

natural and simple aspects.<br />

At a sem<strong>in</strong>ar where the food was prepared<br />

by a proud French cook, the Danish<br />

participants critisised the uniformity of the<br />

food with reference to people’s <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

taste. The Swedes deplored the fact that the<br />

food was too exquisite, they would have<br />

preferred a sliced tomato and a grilled fish.<br />

The French participants, however, made<br />

extensive comparisons to previous food<br />

experiences.<br />

milk-free omelet. The Frenchman remarks<br />

that he prefers this k<strong>in</strong>d of discrete service<br />

to what he has experienced <strong>in</strong> the United<br />

States where the staff with a stiff plastic<br />

smile would <strong>in</strong>elegantly <strong>in</strong>terrupt the meal<br />

at any given time with an importunate and<br />

agressive “Good day, sir. My name is<br />

Peter. How is everyth<strong>in</strong>g?” The Swedish<br />

<strong>in</strong>formal form of service pleases the<br />

Frenchman who perceives the American<br />

formalism <strong>in</strong> that area as an <strong>in</strong>terruption of<br />

the <strong>in</strong>timity and <strong>in</strong>tensity of the meal<br />

where the <strong>in</strong>trusion of the waiter breaks the<br />

spell. The Dane, on the other hand, who<br />

also perceives the waiter’s smile as be<strong>in</strong>g<br />

false, primarily notices the the falseness<br />

rather than the lack<strong>in</strong>g consideration of the<br />

social aspect of the meal.<br />

The perception of service<br />

The differences <strong>in</strong> food cultures are also<br />

expressed <strong>in</strong> other ways, which can be<br />

illustrated as follows:<br />

A Dane, a Frenchman and an American<br />

met for breakfast <strong>in</strong> a Stockholm hotel.<br />

The American stops <strong>in</strong> front of the table<br />

where the waitress is prepar<strong>in</strong>g omelets.<br />

He tells her that he is allergic to dairy<br />

products and asks if that particular omelet<br />

conta<strong>in</strong>s milk. The Swedish waitress does<br />

not appear to react. She does not answer<br />

but turns her back and walks off to make a<br />

new omelet. While the American is<br />

express<strong>in</strong>g his surprise and disappo<strong>in</strong>tment<br />

through his body language, he sees a<br />

different table with hard-boiled eggs.<br />

“Never m<strong>in</strong>d”, he says <strong>in</strong> a firm and<br />

irritated voice, “I’ll just have a hard-boiled<br />

egg.” But the waitress does not register<br />

this. She seems to be lost <strong>in</strong> her own<br />

thoughts. While the three colleagues are<br />

fill<strong>in</strong>g their plates from the buffet, the<br />

Dane comments on the lack<strong>in</strong>g<br />

qualifications of the waitress.<br />

Three m<strong>in</strong>utes later the waitress comes to<br />

their table where, discretely and without<br />

any comment, she serves the American a<br />

Planet system or commode<br />

A great deal of the categories which are<br />

used more or less consciously for an<br />

evaluation of the quality of food and meals<br />

are not objective. Their mean<strong>in</strong>gs are<br />

connected <strong>in</strong> a culture-specific structure<br />

which has more <strong>in</strong> common with a mobile<br />

planet system than with a well-organised<br />

commode consist<strong>in</strong>g of well-separated<br />

drawers. Quality, formalism, authenticity<br />

refer to widely different culture-specific<br />

comb<strong>in</strong>ations. The authenticity, for<br />

<strong>in</strong>stance, which Danes seek <strong>in</strong> a meal is<br />

often a relaxed atmosphere, whereas<br />

Swedes will primarily seek someth<strong>in</strong>g of<br />

that sort <strong>in</strong> purely natural products.<br />

Accord<strong>in</strong>gly, it ought to be clear that it<br />

does not suffice to make superficial<br />

analyses of <strong>in</strong>dividual dimensions, set up<br />

<strong>in</strong>dependently of each other <strong>in</strong> a commodelike<br />

chart where the familiarity forms, the<br />

social aspect, and the taste are taken out of<br />

context. All dimensions are not only<br />

closely connected, they are also <strong>in</strong>tricately<br />

connected like a hologramme. As a<br />

summary, <strong>in</strong> Table 1 I have tried to<br />

illustrate some of the <strong>in</strong>tra-cultural<br />

<strong>in</strong>teractions mentioned <strong>in</strong> this article.

Table 1: How priorities differ <strong>in</strong> the three countries:<br />




<strong>Food</strong> Taste Nutrition Nutrition<br />

Meal<br />

The most important aspect<br />

of the meal<br />

<strong>Food</strong> formalism<br />

Taste preferences<br />

Taste/the social bond<br />

Possible social tie<br />

Taste sensation..<br />

Sensous experience<br />

Social <strong>in</strong>teraction<br />

Cultural characteristics<br />

Taste<br />

High aesthetic priority<br />

• More important than<br />

hygiene<br />

• Social bond<br />

• Sensous<br />

Carrier of social bonds<br />

Cultural code expressed<br />

through speech<br />

National conformism<br />

Differentiation by<br />

means of ref<strong>in</strong>ement<br />

Physiological necessity<br />

Individual pause<br />

Nutrients<br />

Personal pleasure<br />

Practical characteristics<br />

Low aesthetic priority<br />

• Secondary to hygiene<br />

• Individual choice<br />

• Nutritional<br />

Personal pleasure<br />

Cultural code very<br />

seldom expressed<br />

Simple and tolerant<br />

code<br />

The legitimacy of simple<br />

taste<br />

Natural necessity<br />

Individual pause<br />

Nutrients<br />

Personal pleasure<br />

Natural characteristics<br />

Medium aesthetic<br />

priority<br />

• Secondary to hygiene<br />

• Naturally rooted<br />

• Natural<br />

Dependent on social<br />

group<br />

Cultural code<br />

occasionally expressed<br />

Simple and tolerant code<br />

The legitimacy of natural<br />

taste<br />

Relative differentiation<br />

Sourish or mixed taste Seen as archaism Very widespread Very widespread<br />

<strong>Food</strong> talk<br />

<strong>Food</strong> talk - when?<br />

<strong>Food</strong> talk - who talks the<br />

most?<br />

<strong>Food</strong> talk - what about?<br />

The decisive aspect of the<br />

relation to taste<br />

When buy<strong>in</strong>g food<br />

The rhythm of meals<br />

Restaurant<br />

Industrialisation of food<br />

production<br />

Very extensive<br />

Wordy<br />

Already while shopp<strong>in</strong>g<br />

Even more at the table<br />

Demand<br />

Questions<br />

Taste experiences<br />

<strong>Food</strong> experiences<br />

• Be<strong>in</strong>g able to dist<strong>in</strong>guish<br />

the good taste<br />

• Be<strong>in</strong>g able to express<br />

slight dist<strong>in</strong>ctions<br />

See<strong>in</strong>g, touch<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

smell<strong>in</strong>g<br />

Commensal (community<br />

based on food)<br />

The art of food<br />

The social aspect<br />

Damages taste<br />

• Loss of taste<br />

• Banalis<strong>in</strong>g, levell<strong>in</strong>g of<br />

products<br />

• Loss of cultural<br />

identity (upbr<strong>in</strong>g<strong>in</strong>g,<br />

“terroirs”)<br />

Weak<br />

Laconic<br />

Very rarely while<br />

shopp<strong>in</strong>g<br />

Rarely at the table<br />

Supply<br />

Brochures<br />

Safety and health<br />

Individual taste<br />

• Correspond<strong>in</strong>g to a<br />

person’s <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

taste<br />

• No explanations<br />

Perhaps read about it<br />

Physiological<br />

Hygiene<br />

Service<br />

Usually rational<br />

Seldom <strong>in</strong>jurious to<br />

health<br />

• Distribution of norms<br />

for security<br />

• Shorten<strong>in</strong>g of<br />

preparation time<br />

• Easy-to-use<br />

Weak<br />

Laconic<br />

Rarely while shopp<strong>in</strong>g<br />

Rarely at the table<br />

Supply<br />

Brochures<br />

The natural and health<br />

Individual taste<br />

• Natural, correspond<strong>in</strong>g<br />

to a person’s <strong>in</strong>dividual<br />

taste<br />

• No explanations<br />

Perhaps read about it<br />

Physiological<br />

Hygiene<br />

The social aspect<br />

Mostly rational<br />

At times <strong>in</strong>jurious to<br />

health<br />

• Distribution of norms<br />

for security<br />

• Shorten<strong>in</strong>g of<br />

preparation time<br />

• Distortion of the natural

Ecological products<br />

For taste reasons<br />

Terroir<br />

For health reasons<br />

Pollution<br />

Meat Life Death Death<br />

For health reasons and<br />

because of the natural<br />

aspect<br />

Pollution<br />

Preparation of meat Red meat because of its Well-done for safety Well-done for safety<br />

powerfulness<br />

reasons<br />

reasons<br />

Cheese Alive Pasteurised Pasteurised<br />

Eat<strong>in</strong>g cheese<br />

Room temperature<br />

Gourmet<br />

Tasted with w<strong>in</strong>e and<br />

bread<br />

Development of the<br />

product<br />

National taste<br />

classification system<br />

Chilled<br />

Standardised<br />

Rigid norms<br />

Unvary<strong>in</strong>g taste<br />

<strong>Food</strong> code<br />

No reference to a shared<br />

classification system<br />

Ma<strong>in</strong> reference <strong>Culture</strong> Nature Nature<br />

Chilled<br />

Standardised<br />

Rigid norms<br />

Unvary<strong>in</strong>g taste<br />

No reference to a shared<br />

classification system<br />

Historical <strong>in</strong>fluence Aristocratic Peasantry Different sources:<br />

Aristocracy or peasantry<br />

and/or the work<strong>in</strong>g<br />


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