Detour: Lactose and gnomes in Copenhagen

When I left Berkeley for a summer in Copenhagen, I was living a comfortable vegan lifestyle. Cared for by my co-op’s walk in refrigerator and larder of magical vegetable proteins, I had become both spoiled and complacent within a food paradise. Diversity of choice and accessibility were what gave me the opportunity to eat only vegan foods, bolstered by a strong community of similar eaters. The volume of food allowed me to experiment and cultivate a varied vegan diet, and intensified attention to culinary choices made me a more conscious eater.

At this point the camera cuts to a neatly choreographed metaphor of the body, made up of happy gnomes turning the gears on a rhythmic clanking machine of various tubes and gears.

Issues of food ethics and moral misgivings aside (put aside until I know more about how Danish industrial farming), Veganism simply made me feel better. Modern margarine marvels may still give me pause (if any one food can be the poster child for the most recent nutritional uproar, it is margarine), but I have happily embraced Veganism with few looks back to an omnivorous diet. I intended upon sustaining my choices upon reaching Copenhagen, but not to the point of prohibiting any experimentation with traditional Danish dishes.

After one week in Copenhagen: cut to the same choreographed gnomes-at-work body metaphor. Things are in complete disarray, there seems to be some coup d’état being staged against one of the larger gnomes who is weeping from what only can be sheer terror. Oil and steam spurt erratically from the pipes, which emit a low-pitch drone that is punctuated only by the occasional gnome-swear. Things are not going smoothly.

This delicately composed image of my internal digestive system is meant to convey how even the slightest change in consumption can radically disrupt the ecology of the stomach. Cuisine is a biological art form designed to cultivate and preserve the internally digestive and externally cultural citizens of its nation. In Denmark, this means pumping them full of dairy.

In my privileged position inside the Berkeley cornucopia, I had fashioned a completely non-national food identity that was (through the magic that is the San Joaquin Valley) based on informed choice rather than regional necessity. Denmark is not seen as such a land of bounty, and has been historically stigmatized by a food culture that relied keenly upon sweet and milky “baby food” flavors. Geographically, Denmark’s latitude had limited its viable crops and encouraged the preservation techniques of smoking and pickling. What emerges is a largely colorless, sweet and salty food culture, based on lots of fish, dairy and rye bread.

An increasing immigrant population and rapid globalization gives Copenhagen a special culinary position amongst a blithely banal national food culture. Within the past twenty years, the capital city has undergone a staggering amount of public works projects, transforming its infrastructure to support more of a social and cultural community. Its tourism image shifted from the Scandinavian Fairy Tale to urbane hipsterville, pushed along by a rumbling electronic music subculture and fairly active social democratic radicals.

But cuisine is not a selling point for Copenhagen. Recent public droolings over the restaurant Noma, a portmanteau on the Danish words for Nordic food (Nordisk mad) and the recipient of two Michelin stars as of 2009, are more of an exception than the rule. Noma has managed to utilize local Scandinavian ingredients in a contemporary stylish way, that is small portions that focus on fresh ingredients, but this is after all the tenth most expensive city in the world. The majority of citizens subsist off of the same conservative cuisines of their parents’ generation, and seem to view food less as an individualistic creative and social endeavor, and more as a utilitarian fuel for the body.

So given the social democratic welfare state that is this bustling, masterfully planned world city, why doesn’t food receive more of its citizens’ attention? The focus seems to be more (financially and popularly) on external accouterments of status, that is, clothing and household goods. Dropping $160 on a pair of jeans is unremarkable, whereas the crappiest industrially produced snack-bag is fretted over for its price.

Since arriving in Copenhagen, I have slowly managed to get the gnomes (to reinforce an already tired metaphor) back to work. After scouring the city’s supermarkets and specialty stores, I have collected the basic nutritional necessities of an animal-free diet. It is remarkably easy to become complacent in a city where the cost of living is so high, to sacrifice food choice in order to save some dough (pun intended). But I’d gladly buy another bag of overpriced quinoa in order to savor that occasional indulgence of liver paste on rye bread. It’s a matter of asserting personal taste.