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#SwedenGate sparks food fight: Why some countries share meals more than others

Cinnamon and cardamon bun served in a Swedish cafe, often eaten at <em>fika </em>– a Swedish word that's often translated as "coffee and cake break." <em></em>
Malcolm P Chapman
/
Getty Images
Cinnamon and cardamon bun served in a Swedish cafe, often eaten at fika – a Swedish word that's often translated as "coffee and cake break."

If a friend was visiting your home and it was dinnertime, would you invite them to the table? Or would you ... chow down without sharing a bite?

These questions are the crux of a Twitter thread that went viral in May. It all began when a user on Reddit told how they once went to a Swedish friend's house "and while we were playing in his room, his mom yelled that dinner was ready. And check this. He told me to WAIT in his room while they ate."

Some Twitter users shared that this kind of non-hospitality was common in Sweden and other parts of Northern Europe. "As a Swede, I can confirm this," tweeted @CarlWilliamKul1. "I would find it weird to feed someone else's kid if they [were] just over to play."

But the anecdote stirred up a stew. There was a lot of criticism of the Swedes from the so-called Global South — shorthand for countries in the Southern Hemisphere. Many said they wouldn't dream of being so stingy in their culture. So the online conversation has expanded far beyond just feeding kids at a playdate.

"In Saudi Arabia, we had to make a video to stop people from inviting and insisting on the census workers to eat," tweeted @AmjaDtranslate.

"As my Moroccan parents say, if we have guests and we don't have anything prepared, at least give them tea [and] biscuits," tweeted @thefatcatm.

"In Indonesia ... if guests are visiting, we make sure they are eating and eating. Nobody is allowed to [starve]," tweeted @capybaraMJ.

To understand the differences between food culture and hospitality around the globe, we spoke to anthropologists and food researchers.

So what's the deal with Sweden?

First things first: Would a host in Sweden really not invite a guest to join their meal if its dinnertime?

It does happen, says Richard Tellström, a food historian at Stockholm University and author of a book about Swedish food culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. He says this practice was customary when he was a kid in the '60s and '70s. If he was over a friend's house and it was time for dinner, he would go back to his own house to eat. Or he would stay and wait in another room while his friend finished his meal. Then they'd continue playing.

It wasn't so bad, he says. "It was quite interesting to wait — you could look at the things in the room, read a magazine. It wasn't such a long time, about 7 to 9 minutes or however long it took to eat."

And it wasn't a universal rule, he says. Families in the countryside, for example, were more likely to feed guests. People lived farther apart, so it wasn't as easy for people to go home and eat.

The "no dinner for you" policy has slowly faded, says Tellström. "Since the 1990s, food has become a new symbol in society. We have open kitchens. People like to dine [there] and show off [their cooking]."

But non-sharing hosts haven't entirely disappeared, says Mohini Mehta, a culinary anthropologist, food scholar and Ph.D. student at Uppsala University in Sweden. She remembers one of the first things her international colleagues told her after she moved to the country from India: A host may ditch a guest to eat dinner alone in the next room.

Nothing like this had happened to her while she was in Sweden, she says, but the anecdote "shocked her to the core. I thought it was ridiculous and also incredulous. How can somebody do that?"

Mehta admits she had a tough time adjusting to life in Sweden when she moved during the pandemic in 2020. She was used to cooking dinner every day for friends and hosting dinner parties almost weekly in India. Once lockdown measures were lifted in Sweden, she began inviting new friends and colleagues over for dinner only to be turned down.

She learned that in some cultures, like her own, sharing a meal with someone is a way to break the ice – but this isn't always the case for Swedes.

That's because some Swedes think feeding a guest creates a sense of obligation, explains Tellström. And in a society that values equality and independence, people don't want to put a burden on someone or feel like they owe someone something, he says.

Hospitality in other parts of the world

Still, the online debate does raise the question: If folks in certain countries are more willing to share meals, what's the reason for this generosity?

Krishnendu Ray, a food studies professor at New York University who grew up in India, says there is a sense of hospitality in every culture but that some ethnic groups have a stronger moral imperative to feed others.

The reason may lie in the past. In communities with a long history of poverty, the "memory of hunger [creating] pressure to be hospitable to your kind of people," he says.

For instance, during the Bengal famine of 1943, an estimated 3 million people died from starvation and diseases worsened by malnutrition. Bengalis today often reference this tragedy as a reminder to share food with their neighbors, says Ray.

"My grandmother, who otherwise could be stingy, would never turn a poor [person] away from the door without feeding him," he says. "She explicitly connected her hospitality to the memory of the famine."

Ray points to another example in Chinese culture. During the Great Chinese Famine from 1959 to 1961, some 30 million people died from starvation.

"Some scholars argue that [the culture's] competitive hospitality and gestures of abundance — over-ordering at a restaurant, offering too many dishes at a banquet, insisting that guests take more of the choicest pieces — are related to those memories of deprivation," he says.

"Societies often remember poverty, scarcity and abstinence by excessive generosity, gift-giving and hospitality as compensation."

Meanwhile, Ray finds the online controversy — dubbed #SwedenGate by some Twitter users — entertaining.

"People are just having fun piling on to the Swedes because the Swedes almost get everything else right," he says.

Jacky Habib is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi and Toronto. She reports on social justice, women's rights, and global development. Follow her on Twitter @jackyhabib and read more of her work at www.jackyhabib.com.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jacky Habib
Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.