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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Differences in Food CultureTraditions & Trends.

Exemplified with the cultural differences between

France - Denmark - Sweden

Dr. Dominique Bouchet

Professor of International Marketing

Odense University

Campusvej 55, DK-5230 Odense M, Denmark


Fax : [45] 6615 5129

Dominique Bouchet: "Differences in Food Culture - Traditions & Trends. Exemplified with the cultural differences

between France-Denmark-Sweden."in Claus Heggun (Ed.): Quality and Risk Management. Proceedings of the 25th

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

Aarhus 1999. pp. 210-216.

Abstract :

It is a challenge to become acquainted with the complexity of different food cultures. By

looking at the differences in the ways in which people in France, Denmark and Sweden relate

to the concept of “eating”, an introduction is here given to the analysis of food cultures.

A culture shock

I was born and grew up in France. Nearly

25 years ago - at the age of 25 - I moved to

Denmark and had a culture shock!

The first thing I noticed was the the

difference in food culture. In Denmark

people did not mind drinking something

sweet with their food, they served few

vegetables, and the bread often tasted – for

me – like cardboard. It was not unusual to

have to content oneself with one dish for a

so-called dinner, which was usually

consumed in the evening. Most meals were

supposed to be eaten quickly and alone.

The food was rarely a topic of

conversation. It did not take much before

the Danes felt that the food was - not

refined - but too fine. Brown gravy –

always tasting and looking the same --

over-done meat, onions, and potatoes

seemed to be their favourite food. When I

brought French products with me home to

Denmark, my guests were not very

interested. In their view French sausage

and French cheese looked positively

disgusting. Liquor was more interesting.

Without restrain they would taste

everything, just like they did not refrain

from eating my imported candy - which I

had thought would last for months - in just

one evening.

Some differences are noticed straight


Different food cultures and cultural

differences in general are neither easy to

analyse nor to describe. Cultures are very

complex systems of differences -

intertwined with each other, which the

culture members are guided by in their

choices. If you come from a different

culture, it is often easier to wonder at the

strange choices – and differences – you are

confronted by. You do not become

conscious of everything, but when it is a

question of food, the confrontation is

almost inevitable: you must eat even if it

disturbs you to the core when you are

submitted to a different food code.

The components of food culture

Among the basic differences which the

multiple cultures employ in the building of

their food culture, some are physiological

taste experiences (sweet, salt, sour, bitter,

cold, warm, dry, spicy...). Some have to do

with preparation (raw, boiled, fried...).

Others refer to basic attitudes (ethos)

concerning the relationship with nature and

the universe (pure, unclean, holy, secular,

genuine, healthy, necessary...). Yet others

refer to the social ties (traditional, public,

private, luxurious, festive, everyday-like,


In other words, it is not just what you eat

which is interesting, but also how, when,

with whom, and why. And all these

domains intersect: everything we eat - as

well as the way in which we eat it - is

influenced by all the systems of meaning at


When an innovation occurs

If a technological innovation is made

which makes new products possible or if a

supplier from abroad tries his luck with

foreign products, the new product will be

viewed according to the complex system of

interpretation which makes up a culture.

This happens in more or less the same way

as when e.g. car manufacturers wish to find

out how they can benefit from new

technologies. When the ABS braking

system was introduced, BMW marketed it

as something which enabled the driver to

have even more control of the vehicle.

Volvo, on the other hand, emphasised that

the braking system meant even more safety

for the passengers.

Food cultures, however, are considerably

more complex than brand names.

Therefore, what happens in connection

with innovation is far less conscious than

the running of a business. In addition,

businesses - no matter which goods they

offer - are not only confronted with

technological innovations but also with

cultural changes. The latter are even more

difficult to relate to.

Ecology as an example

The increasing interest in ecology and

ecological production methods is an

example of such a cultural change. In this

connection it is observed that ecology

concerning food means something

different in France and in Denmark. With

respect to production methods, i.e. the

relationship between product and nature,

both countries are aware that such products

are gentle to nature. But when the issue is

the relation between the product and the

body, the priorities in the two countries

differ: in Denmark it is emphasised above

all that the products are healthy, whereas in

France the main issue is the better taste.

Thus, a tendency which seems to be shared

and homogenising, can, on further

analysis, turn out to be multiple and


In the above example the experience seems

to be more important for the French than

the realisation, whereas it is the opposite

for the Danes. Two different rationalities

prevail: the Danish rationality is based on

scientific and juricidal criteria for

evaluation, wheras the French rationality is

dominated by aestethic - i.e. sensuous -


The sensuous and the factual

General cultural criteria are also making

themselves felt when consumers relate to

other types of products. If it is a question

of cheese and meat, French consumers

emphasise the sensuous aspect - Danish

consumers the factual. Because the taste

sensation plays such a large role in France,

French consumers are less likely to let

themselves be influenced by e.g. hygienic

arguments, which is a source of wonder for

many Scandinavians.

These types of consumer behaviour are

deeply rooted in different ways of relating

to the animalistic - to life and death. Fresh

oysters and red meat are seldom

appreciated in Denmark, whereas in France

exactly red meat is perceived as being

more alive, and thereby more powerful and


The animalistic aspect is seen as something

positive in France and Spain, whereas the

associations in Denmark and Germany are

more in the direction of death and

morbidity. The reaction is one of disgust,

and therefore it is desirable to kill each and

every trace of what is disgusting in a

process of frying, boiling, or pasteurising.

Thereby, the animalistic is transformed

into something different: the proteins it

consists of. Digging a little deeper into this

issue, one finds that there are different

perceptions of the distinction between the

human and the animalistic which support

the experience of the consumer in their

respective cultures. In the Nordic countries

people talk more about nature in man than

about culture versus nature, just like many

people try to behave naturally. Contrary to

that, people in Catholic countries are fond

of rhetoric and pomp and gladly make use

of culture and staging for seduction.

The food cultures in France and


The French use food more intensively as a

means of communication, because they

share a code in which both food and

language play an important role. The

mastery of the shades of the French

language and the appreciation of the

principles of the French kitchen are the key

to the integration in a community in which

one both feels welcome and has the

possibility to move up independent of

occupation as well as social status. The

references - the food ideal - are practically

the same for all sections of the population.

In Denmark too, roughly the same food

ideal is shared across social groups.

However, that ideal does not have the same

content or significance as in France. Food

and language are not employed to the same

degree in order to show off an expertise,

the food rituals are less imposing. In

Denmark one is included in the community

without necessarily taking an interest in

food.. It is acceptable to eat alone and

hurriedly on a frequent basis, and there are

fewer occasions for eating together, and

even fewer for exquisite meals.

Thus, the food rituals function differently.

In Denmark a pronounced sense of the

matter of course and indifference rules,

everybody is accepted irrespective of

individual taste. In France everybody has

to confirm their state of membership and

secure their place by showing a

commitment as well as a knowledge of

taste and aesthetics. But, as mentioned, not

very much in both countries distinguishes

the food ideals of the various social


Swedish multiplicity

Matters stand differently in Sweden where

the French aristocratic food ideal rules in

one part of the population, and Danish-like

popular food ideals in another.

Compared to the situation in France and

Denmark, the Swedish food culture is less

homogenous. It refers less to the national

community and has a higher degree of

complexity from local and group-specific

codes. Thus, the Swedish and French food

cultures share the demand for a

confirmation of a person’s affiliation. But

only in few groups do taste and

sensuousness play a central role. In

general, the nutritional and the natural

aspects take up the most central place

across all groups of identification. Unlike

Denmark, they are moving away from

having common references and are going

in the direction of natural rather than

practical characteristics, and the taste

preferences refer less to personal than to

natural and simple aspects.

At a seminar where the food was prepared

by a proud French cook, the Danish

participants critisised the uniformity of the

food with reference to people’s individual

taste. The Swedes deplored the fact that the

food was too exquisite, they would have

preferred a sliced tomato and a grilled fish.

The French participants, however, made

extensive comparisons to previous food


milk-free omelet. The Frenchman remarks

that he prefers this kind of discrete service

to what he has experienced in the United

States where the staff with a stiff plastic

smile would inelegantly interrupt the meal

at any given time with an importunate and

agressive “Good day, sir. My name is

Peter. How is everything?” The Swedish

informal form of service pleases the

Frenchman who perceives the American

formalism in that area as an interruption of

the intimity and intensity of the meal

where the intrusion of the waiter breaks the

spell. The Dane, on the other hand, who

also perceives the waiter’s smile as being

false, primarily notices the the falseness

rather than the lacking consideration of the

social aspect of the meal.

The perception of service

The differences in food cultures are also

expressed in other ways, which can be

illustrated as follows:

A Dane, a Frenchman and an American

met for breakfast in a Stockholm hotel.

The American stops in front of the table

where the waitress is preparing omelets.

He tells her that he is allergic to dairy

products and asks if that particular omelet

contains milk. The Swedish waitress does

not appear to react. She does not answer

but turns her back and walks off to make a

new omelet. While the American is

expressing his surprise and disappointment

through his body language, he sees a

different table with hard-boiled eggs.

“Never mind”, he says in a firm and

irritated voice, “I’ll just have a hard-boiled

egg.” But the waitress does not register

this. She seems to be lost in her own

thoughts. While the three colleagues are

filling their plates from the buffet, the

Dane comments on the lacking

qualifications of the waitress.

Three minutes later the waitress comes to

their table where, discretely and without

any comment, she serves the American a

Planet system or commode

A great deal of the categories which are

used more or less consciously for an

evaluation of the quality of food and meals

are not objective. Their meanings are

connected in a culture-specific structure

which has more in common with a mobile

planet system than with a well-organised

commode consisting of well-separated

drawers. Quality, formalism, authenticity

refer to widely different culture-specific

combinations. The authenticity, for

instance, which Danes seek in a meal is

often a relaxed atmosphere, whereas

Swedes will primarily seek something of

that sort in purely natural products.

Accordingly, it ought to be clear that it

does not suffice to make superficial

analyses of individual dimensions, set up

independently of each other in a commodelike

chart where the familiarity forms, the

social aspect, and the taste are taken out of

context. All dimensions are not only

closely connected, they are also intricately

connected like a hologramme. As a

summary, in Table 1 I have tried to

illustrate some of the intra-cultural

interactions mentioned in this article.

Table 1: How priorities differ in the three countries:




Food Taste Nutrition Nutrition


The most important aspect

of the meal

Food formalism

Taste preferences

Taste/the social bond

Possible social tie

Taste sensation..

Sensous experience

Social interaction

Cultural characteristics


High aesthetic priority

• More important than


• Social bond

• Sensous

Carrier of social bonds

Cultural code expressed

through speech

National conformism

Differentiation by

means of refinement

Physiological necessity

Individual pause


Personal pleasure

Practical characteristics

Low aesthetic priority

• Secondary to hygiene

• Individual choice

• Nutritional

Personal pleasure

Cultural code very

seldom expressed

Simple and tolerant


The legitimacy of simple


Natural necessity

Individual pause


Personal pleasure

Natural characteristics

Medium aesthetic


• Secondary to hygiene

• Naturally rooted

• Natural

Dependent on social


Cultural code

occasionally expressed

Simple and tolerant code

The legitimacy of natural


Relative differentiation

Sourish or mixed taste Seen as archaism Very widespread Very widespread

Food talk

Food talk - when?

Food talk - who talks the


Food talk - what about?

The decisive aspect of the

relation to taste

When buying food

The rhythm of meals


Industrialisation of food


Very extensive


Already while shopping

Even more at the table



Taste experiences

Food experiences

• Being able to distinguish

the good taste

• Being able to express

slight distinctions

Seeing, touching,


Commensal (community

based on food)

The art of food

The social aspect

Damages taste

• Loss of taste

• Banalising, levelling of


• Loss of cultural

identity (upbringing,




Very rarely while


Rarely at the table



Safety and health

Individual taste

• Corresponding to a

person’s individual


• No explanations

Perhaps read about it




Usually rational

Seldom injurious to


• Distribution of norms

for security

• Shortening of

preparation time

• Easy-to-use



Rarely while shopping

Rarely at the table



The natural and health

Individual taste

• Natural, corresponding

to a person’s individual


• No explanations

Perhaps read about it



The social aspect

Mostly rational

At times injurious to


• Distribution of norms

for security

• Shortening of

preparation time

• Distortion of the natural

Ecological products

For taste reasons


For health reasons


Meat Life Death Death

For health reasons and

because of the natural



Preparation of meat Red meat because of its Well-done for safety Well-done for safety




Cheese Alive Pasteurised Pasteurised

Eating cheese

Room temperature


Tasted with wine and


Development of the


National taste

classification system



Rigid norms

Unvarying taste

Food code

No reference to a shared

classification system

Main reference Culture Nature Nature



Rigid norms

Unvarying taste

No reference to a shared

classification system

Historical influence Aristocratic Peasantry Different sources:

Aristocracy or peasantry

and/or the working


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