French Kiss | Smørrebrød and politics

Every expat probably remembers their first smørrebrød. It’s understandable. Shame, after all, is a long-lasting feeling. I certainly won’t forget mine – I used my hands, because it’s what people usually do with a sandwich, and at the time I still thought Danes were people. 

So let’s talk a bit about smørrebrød. As you already know, the potential combinations of ingredients outnumber the combinations in chess, yet only a fraction of them are acceptable. If you make a mistake, the Danes laugh and amicably share a shot of aquavit. If you make two mistakes, your roasted skin is served in the next batch, and your bones may be found decades later. What makes it complicated is that the rules of combining a slice of beetroot are based neither on taste, aesthetics, convenience or texture. It’s completely arbitrary, but isn’t arbitrary another name for ‘culture’?

So I’m wondering: why do the oh-so-pragmatic Danes care so much about organising their sandwiches? Why is it such a faux-pas to put salmon on light bread, but it’s ok to call anyone in the street by their first name (behaviour that in France would send you to jail)?

At first I thought it was a test: if you can remember how to build it right, how to eat it right, and if you’re kind enough to wipe the floor after the sandwich crumbles everywhere, then you’re considered a friend. But here is the thing: the Danes themselves fail at smørrebrød. Because there’s absolutely zero chance that a slippery slice of boiled egg can stay perched on a slippery piece of herring, at least according to the laws of physics ruling this universe (who knows if those rules govern the Danes).
So why do they inflict smørrebrød torture not only on us, but also upon themselves?

There’s obviously something about the height. The smørrebrød is a typical delusion of grandeur, and one that only psychogeography can explain. You probably noticed that Danes like to put things on things: buns on their head, pieces of Lego on top of other pieces of Lego. You would do the same if you were blessed with the flattest landscape in the universe: it’s only natural that the Danes have something to prove about verticality. You thought smørrebrød was food – you know, ‘good’ fat calories for the fight against the infinite winter? Wrong. What you are really eating are towers.

Moreover, since Danish open-faced sandwiches are immune to the laws of gravity, and therefore incredibly ill-balanced and fragile, every glorious construction of bread plus shrimp plus remoulade plus pickled anything plus liquorice, without exception, will fall apart, probably on your lap, probably ruining your shirt. Embarrassing? That’s the whole point.

Smørrebrød isn’t about food – if it was, it would taste better. No, it’s all about values. Smørrebrød is the way Danes try to teach us the harshness of Jante Law: humility, equality, and a very special sense of humour. Were you maybe taking pride in your audacious construction of absurdity – omelette on blue cheese, really? Did it cross your mind, if just for a nanosecond, that your sandwich looked better than the other ones, or that it at least looked less painfully awkward?

Well nothing lasts, my friend, and you’re no better than your neighbour. Despite our age, creativity, education or income, despite our willingness to do it right, our efforts to make sense of crazy rules, our pathetic attempts to glue the ingredients together with butter, all of our smørrebrød will be the same after two seconds: a mess of weird ingredients, half of them on the floor. It happens to the queen. It will happen to you.

And this is the very reason the Danes are obsessed with the rules of smørrebrød. They see the politics of it. Fish first, cheese last – towers of food, flat society. You can’t manage? Then focus on the essentials: skål, skål, skål again. Politics will be forgotten and mistakes will be forgiven. Or at least I hope so.!

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