Of the countless people I have met since moving from the UK to Copenhagen, perhaps a dozen could tell you something about me that you won’t have learned by the end of this paragraph. Ask even these enlightened few to do so and, as with the countless many, the most common nouns to come out of their mouths would be ‘vegan’ and ‘runner’.
Before I came to Denmark I was neither of these things that define me. I ran occasionally, but not enough for anyone, or my cardiovascular system, to notice. I was a vegetarian, but with over a million others in the country – and a growing consensus that they need to eat – there was always something on the menu for me.
As such, ‘vegetarian’ was unlikely to be one of the first words anyone used to describe me, as people only really notice what you’re eating if you’re eating nothing at all. During my first months in Copenhagen, ‘Nothing at all’ became something of a catchphrase for me. I used it as a question when restaurateurs told me there was nothing vegetarian on the menu. I used it as an answer when my girlfriend asked what I had spent so long shopping in Netto for. And I once used it as an escape from an exchange with a baffled waiter who asked again: “What do you want on your smørrebrød?”
These early struggles were of course partly fed by my ignorance of where to go, and the short-term result was that I didn’t. Today, 18 months later, I would have an easier time dining out if I hadn’t made things harder by going vegan. Not just because I know where to go, but also because I could now go where I couldn’t before.
There’s been a marked increase in the availability of meat-free products in Copenhagen, both on menus and supermarket shelves. Netto, for example, now sells vegetarian minced meat, as does every other Dansk Supermarked store. And even McDonald’s has launched an option, the ‘Homestyle Veggie’ burger – a big improvement on the dry bun with a wet piece of lettuce inside, which they gave me when I last visited.
Getting butter all the time
My interest in this bona fide veggie burger wasn’t tied to a desire to eat one, but rather to the cultural shift it symbolised, although there is still a long way to go. While McDonald’s was rolling out its first vegetarian burger in Denmark, it was introducing its second vegan version in Sweden. The McVegan has also been added to the menu in Finland, but it’s no surprise they feel the Danes have no appetite for the same.
When I tell a Dane I’m vegan they respond with comments that question my sanity or masculinity. When I try to order something vegan from a Dane, they ask questions that comment on their ignorance of the concept, such as: “What about chicken?”
In a sandwich shop last week I resorted to slowly stating “I don’t eat animals or cheese”, but when I unwrapped the sandwich at home it was nonetheless stuffed with mozzarella. Perhaps if I ordered in Danish my chances would improve, but the closest Duolingo has come to teaching me a relevant phrase: has been: “The vegetarians don’t eat children.” And I’m convinced that if I actually used this phrase while ordering, I would unwrap my sandwich at home to find a small child inside.