Amelia Taylor-Hochberg • San Francisco, CA
The pork cutlets in the supermarket in Haderslev, Denmark were stacked as high as an elephant’s eye, right next to the dairy case. My boyfriend Anders and I picked up a brick of butter, a liter of good Danish cream and four pork loins for a dinner that we were to cook for his Danish parents. The butter would be used in everything, the cream was for a béchamel sauce and the pork would be pan-fried in olive oil and rosemary.
As a teenager, Anders worked a stint at a local Danish sausage factory and was followed home every day by dogs that hungrily expected a loose snout or ear to fall from his pockets.
Denmark is the world’s largest exporter of pork. Eighty-five percent of its pigs leave the country for foreign plates, while the national population of five and a half million makes sure to consume the remainder. Denmark manufactures the whole hog, from snout to tail, and produces unique pork products, including a thick taupe-colored paste known as Leverpostej, which is essentially a pâté of pork liver. Leverpostej is the structural glue that binds sandwiches—and much of Danish culture—together. It is spread on rye bread with a variety of accessories: cucumber, sautéed mushrooms or more pork in the form of bacon.
Aside from the porkier aspects, Danish food is otherwise thought of as a “milk diet”, dominated by sweet, fatty and creamy flavors, saturated with leftovers from a dairy industry whose creamiest products are destined for export. Just like with pork, the best dairy does not go to the average family’s home.
This deeply rooted yet very un-picky relationship with pork and dairy leads to modest (some might say low) expectations of Danish home cooking. Because of this, it was even more important that the meal that Anders and I cooked for his parents be spectacular and a bit exotic, without condescending to the traditions of the older generation. Somewhere between carnitas and Oscar Mayer.
Our meal ended up hitting many of the classic Danish buttons: cream was present in nearly every dish, but alongside the complexities of rosemary, balsamic vinegar and red wine. Served alongside bruschetta and homemade pasta, the Italian culinary influence was not lost on Anders’ parents: they had challenged their own parents’ culinary culture years before with their embrace of a Mediterranean diet rich in olive oil and fruit (and limited dairy).
Our meal was a huge success. It was a hybrid that hadn’t been passed down, but adapted up. Pork was the fulcrum course between our own generational independence and our respect for the customs of Anders’ parents and grandparents. It’s a lot of power to bestow on a lowly pork cutlet, and its symbolism is certainly an elaboration of memory, a neat figurative representation of togetherness. At the time, did the parents know they were eating a generation’s culinary diplomat? Maybe not, but it certainly was delicious.