A Swedish child sits at a dinner table while his friend and that friend’s parents eat meatballs, mashed potatoes and blueberry sauce. The wonderful aroma floats under the child’s nose, but there is no plate for him.
This setting, while quite common in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, has shocked people around the world to learn that some Swedish families don’t invite their children’s visiting friends to eat with them at mealtime.
Instead, when it’s time to eat, a child can go home, stay in the friend’s room and play with the family or sit at the table and not eat.
The custom has been the subject of much discussion (and a bit of concern) online after a recent reddit mail widely. The post asked “what’s the weirdest thing you’ve had to do in someone else’s home because of their culture/religion?” and in one of the more popular answers, someone described going to their Swedish friend’s house and being told to wait in a room while the family ate. “I wish my Abuela was still there,” said Lynda Carter, the actress who played Wonder Woman. said on Twitter† “She would try to transport tamales to Sweden.”
The residents of Sweden, a country UNICEF rated as the most family-friendly country in 2019, had to explain why there didn’t seem to be enough pickled herring to go around.
Hakan Jonsson, a professor of food science at Lund University in Sweden, said that sharing food is the foundation of culture, so he understands why other people might view this habit as a “hostile” act. A few years ago he was part of a program to discuss Swedish cultural customs with immigrants and this practice was “regularly mentioned” as very strange.
Professor Jonsson said he had not studied the habit, and that it was not a habit his family practiced, but he suspected it could be traced back to different parts of Swedish identity.
Before any progress was made on food storage, he said, Swedish people would have three to four months to harvest food for a year in the cold climate, so impromptu dinners have never been part of the culture. He said that Swedish people also want to respect the independence of the family and that offering a meal to another’s child could be seen as a criticism of the other’s ability to support a family.
“There has been a very strong urge for independence, not to rely on the good will of others for a good and independent life,” said Professor Jonsson. “It was a very strong incentive for the welfare state to create this impersonal help where you didn’t have to rely on anyone else.”
Zara Larsson, a Swedish pop star, said the custom was Sweden’s top culture, although her family and many others she knew did not practice it.
Mrs Larsson said on Twitter that at the people who did practice it at home she would be told to go home for dinner or to stay in the friend’s room, something she said “pretty nice because that gave me time to poke around. “
The use isn’t exclusive to Sweden, though the country gets most of the ire of the internet. People in Finland, the Netherlands and other parts of Northern Europe said online that the practice was known.
Lotte Holm, a sociology professor at the University of Copenhagen who studies how people eat in Scandinavian countries, said it was common for children not to eat at friends’ homes when she was growing up in Denmark in the 1950s and 1960s.
When she was raising her children, she allowed their friends to stay for dinner, but asked their parents to call them to make sure it was okay.
“It can seem a bit stingy and very unkind to exclude someone when you’re eating,” she said, “but I think it’s about respect for the family unit.”
Professor Holm said she was surprised by American students who described to her how to open their friends’ refrigerators and eat whatever they wanted.
Sofi Tegsveden Deveaux, director of LYS förlag, a Stockholm publishing house focusing on works related to the process of moving to Sweden, said in an email that it was not considered rude to decline an offer in Sweden. to point. For example, children sometimes decide that they don’t want to eat with their friend’s family, but are still invited to the table while the family nibbles on fish fingers with rice.
When Ms. Deveaux was a child in the late 1980s and early 1990s, she said, she spent many afternoons after school at her friends’ houses, and dinner was a natural time to end playtime. As a mother, she said she has never asked her children’s friends to wait while they eat, but has asked them to leave when it is dinner time.
“In some cultures, food is very important,” said Ms. Deveaux. “In Swedish culture, it is very important to respect the privacy of others and their rights to make their own decisions and do things the way they want to.”