Last November, as the days grew increasingly short, I flew to Tromsø, Norway, then boarded a ship and sailed far above the Arctic Circle to Kirkenes. The occasion was the annual conference of the Norwegian Arts Council, which this year focused on the Barents Sea and its imminent transformation from a region of pristine beauty to a site of multinational oil extraction. Arts practitioners and administrators from all over Norway convened to discuss ways in which to celebrate local culture in the four countries comprising the region: Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. I went along to see whether food traditions, or (dare I say) cuisine, could be a useful part of this discussion.
At nearly every meal we ate reindeer and fish, and as we sailed through the wintry half-light of the Arctic, I kept thinking about what constitutes a cuisine. For centuries, reindeer have sustained the indigenous Sami, the nomadic people who once survived by herding them. The Sami supplemented the reindeer meat with elk and fish, devising labor-intensive methods to dry and smoke them for long keeping. Coastal Norwegians relied largely on cod, which they processed in many ways. For everyone in the far north, food meant subsistence, not fine dining. That’s not to say that people lacked a sense of taste, only that in such a harsh climate food’s primary purpose had more urgency: calories = body heat = survival.
Now, in affluent twenty-first-century Norway, the foods of the Barents region are being very differently construed. In the hands of a new generation of talented chefs, traditional dishes become exquisite and refined. At Vin og Vilt in Kirkenes, reindeer tongue is smoked and thinly sliced, then served with a garnet beet sauce and wild mushrooms on the side. Saddle of reindeer is roasted and offered up with a rich brown sauce and lingonberries stirred lightly with sugar. At Tromsø’s Store Norske Fiskekompani, boknafisk, once the food of survival, became the stuff of my dreams: semi-dried cod gently boiled and served with creamed carrots and an entire bowl of bacon fat. I also savored reindeer bresaola with blueberry vinaigrette and wild mushroom fricassee, all washed down with icy aquavit. Saithe, a large, meaty cod, complemented the saltiness of westjfordschinke, the “ham of the western fjords,” which turned out to be none other than whale.
The notion of “cuisine” involves not just cooking or the transformation of foodstuffs by means of processes like curing. It also implies something more, something that has to do with taste and aesthetics: food that has been artfully prepared. As I sampled the foods of the far north, I experienced them both within their original context-local foods prepared by age-old methods-and outside of it-food served in restaurants, prepared by professional chefs. It was the duality of the experience that made me aware of another element that must enter into any discussion of what constitutes cuisine: self-consciousness, or at least a certain awareness. For instance, by calling attention to suovas, the traditional salt-dried and smoked reindeer meat prepared by the Sami, the Slow Food movement in 2004 turned this preparation into something beyond subsistence food; it became a product of artisanal craftsmanship, something to be cherished and protected. Traditional dishes may also be understood as part of a cuisine when they are compared to foods that have been more recently introduced. Thus, the image of the traditional Norwegian Christmas dish pinnekjøtt-lamb ribs that have been salted and dried (or salted, smoked, and dried) and then slowly boiled in water over birch twigs-has changed now that foreign foods have invaded the Norwegian repertoire. No longer disparaged as old-fashioned and smacking of less abundant times, pinnekjøtt is now considered a badge of Norwegian identity, an important link in a traditional food culture that is in danger of being lost. Rescued from ignominy, it commands a high price at stores such as Oslo’s tantalizing Fenaknoken.
Can the preservation of indigenous foodways actually help a culture survive, or is the culture already halfway lost when it becomes self-conscious? How much self-awareness is necessary for cultural coherence in a world of media onslaught? And how much compromise is possible? Without a distinct identity, indigenous cultures vanish, but there is inherent danger in devising food festivals and tourist events to promote native bounty, lest they come across as a Disneyfication of the culture-something consumed and enjoyed but no longer genuine. Cultural policy regarding food, then, is a matter of both local and national concern. Now, when the Barents Sea is about to be exploited for oil, it’s important to consider whether the region’s traditional food cultures can be used in any meaningful way. It’s easy enough to manipulate food to construct an appealing image of the past. What’s more difficult is to decide how food can be used in the future to help build a strong identity for the entire Barents Region, one that reaches across political and linguistic boundaries and enables local cultures to survive.