Memory and Food

I am arrogant. Also, ignorant. I presume too much and really know so little. For example, I sent out my last blog about Sweden and the television series The Restaurant assuming in the back of my mind that few if any of my readers would know about this series from a country the language of which few of my readers speak. And it was a family melodrama. Surely, even though I was interested, MY readers would not spend their time watching that kind of material. What a surprise!

I will not list all of the responses, but a selection of criticisms. I will end with two relatively complimentary ones and then explore a dimension I did not emphasize at all, for the series was as much about food and how ways of eating and what we eat change our culture. This was a very different kind of food show and a much more holistic way of dealing with food than your typical cooking show set in a kitchen. In fact, one whole episode in the series was, in effect, a critique of the usual way cooking shows mis-represent the preparation of food, on the one hand, and fail to capture the creativity and cultural nuances that go into the selection of food to be served, the presentation of that food, the decisions on menus and the atmosphere for dining.

But first my outright possible errors and misleading statements.

I was chastised for expecting any TV series to mirror and explore in any depth cultural shifts over seven decades. Downtown Abbey does not do that. And, certainly, a much earlier version of a TV family drama, Dallas, did not do that. There have been many TV shows that probe one aspect of a culture, whether it be race or the new ways in which singles engage in friendships and relations. However, I was focused on a family drama stretching over decades, but one also deliberately intended to provide an historical sketch of a country and its people. America may be too complex and various to make such an effort and, thus, shows like Frazier or Friends, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, do that. But The Restaurant ranges from class warfare to revolutionary claptrap, from cultism to homophobia, and mostly poking holes in the image of the solid good Swede with a commitment to equality and fairness.

However, puncturing holes in stereotypes is not the same as any in-depth critique. TV just cannot do that. Such an expectation is misplaced. That perspective should have been emphasized.

Further, even in presenting the characters, I evidently tended to take the individual’s character at one point in the person’s history as the defining one around which there were some mild shifts. However, the show, in fact, has an anti-essentialist message. People do change. They are not and should not be reified. Though my review did not quite do that, it nevertheless failed to capture the very opposite presumption of the narrative. A point well taken.

Though I complimented the acting and production qualities, I merely generalized about them instead of pointing to the particular skills and talents on view. True enough, but that simply has never been the main point of my reviews and certainly was not the main point of this one. The number of reviews on-line that one can read in this vein are bountiful. I tend to take an angular view to reviewing.

However, that does not excuse either my historical mistakes or my errors in depicting the TV series. For example, even though I gave the figure, I did not pay proper attention to Sweden’s efforts after WWII to take in 10,000 Jews immediately after WWII when countries like Canada continued their policies of turning their backs on Jews. I think this was a fair point. Putting a fact in a comparative context is often so much more revealing than the data on its own.

But my comments on the absence of any reference to the Chicago riots or the death of Martin Luther King in 1968 were simply wrong. However, that is not what I wrote and certainly not what I intended to say. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination was mentioned as an important trope in the Maoist cult’s preoccupation with an imminent revolution. In one scene in the third series, around episode 3 or 4, the cult group sits around an old black and white television mesmerized by the reports of King’s death.

Those observations are correct, but what I wrote was: “Though the protests against the Vietnam War are part of the background of this episode, the 1968 Chicago riots in the United States following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. are not.” I should have been more expansive. The Maoist rebels in Sweden took the riots around the world from Paris and in many cities in the U.S. as forerunners of the coming revolution. What I should have written is that the riots are merely slogans and the series did not bothered to juxtapose the actual reality of those riots and demonstrations in relationship to the generalized and empty rhetoric of the radicals. Or perhaps the writers presumed that the audience would know that. My point, however, was that these events were dealt with too superficially to gain any depth of insight into the significance of the events.

More significantly was my implied difference with the writers. They clearly characterized the Maoists as a small group that evolved into a cult. My memory recalled a very large Maoist movement in Sweden that had more to do with the character of a controlled and disciplined Swedish society than the ragtag of long-haired unkempt ruffians and criminal cultists portrayed in the series. I took no stand on whether the Maoist ideological turn in Swedish history also had this as an aspect. But I certainly suggested, based on my direct experience rather than scholarship, that the larger flavour and character of the movement was misrepresented.

There was other information I left out that was germane to that debate. When I was working on African politics in the late nineties, I read a scholarly paper on Sweden that, using access to archives, documented that it was neither China nor the USSR that served as the many financier of African independence movements, but that half of their funding came from one country, Sweden. One would never known that from the critique of social democracy in Sweden in the series or the extremism and irrelevance of the presentation of Maoism in Sweden at the time.

Perhaps if I had more time and space, I should have given at least some indication of the nuances of the different social democratic elements in Swedish society, though I did hint at the contradictions between the supposed unity of the left and yet the dramatic differences in the priorities of the Canadian student movement versus the Swedish one. Certainly, the series, using a blonde bartender at Nina’s nightclub, was very vociferous and convincing in pointing to the lack of any base and understanding of the struggle of workers that was really what united the New Left radicals in Canada, the United States, France and Sweden. At the same time, the series did a great job of capturing both the appearance and the content of the radical newspaper which the Swedish Maoists published for almost two decades.

As far as my portrayal of the draft dodgers in Sweden in comparison to the presentation in the series, again this was my memory and experience. And I have not read anything to dissuade me that the sketch that I presented was incorrect and that the caricature in the series had little historical merit.

Of course, in both cases, it would have been helpful to make at least a reference to the split in the Swedish Communist Party when the Chinese enamored youth split from the established Communist Party in 1967 to forge their own radical agenda. Their important social contribution was not their role as a minor almost religious cult, but their alignment with the ideology of North Vietnam even after its very repressive nature had been revealed. But that alignment played an important part in influencing the Social Democrats and the views of Third World countries with which Sweden was so aligned and supportive.

It was also pointed out that I had slighted the development of the Pentecostal fundamentalist movement in Sweden and the other Scandinavian states, especially Norway. That became an important element is pro-Israeli support in those countries as the majority in Sweden shifted towards a very critical anti-Israeli position. This is important to note because the usual emphasis is only on Christian evangelicals from the United States.

Finally, let me add two communications which I interpreted as complimentary.

  1. Howie.  A perceptive view of the Swedes.  Mine comes from an intense friendship and collaboration with a Dane who had a vacation home in Sweden which we visited over Christmas many years ago. Being in rural Sweden was like returning to my summer employment in a gold mine near
    Timmins Ont.  The many Swedes there were reputed to become depressed in late winter and suicide in February by walking in front of the ever-present trains that wailed or moaned their way on through the dark scrub pine forest north of Superior.  Someone could do an epic Swedish style
    film about that region and that society.
  2. Dear Howard, I am touched by your mentioning my name. Fredzia and I left Sweden in 1957 and have only been back for brief visits, less so in recent years. As our parents died, and not having any siblings, we have had little cause to visit. We still keep in touch with a cousin and some friends. Sweden had been very important for us. Fredzia got there with her mother a few days before the end of the WWII from Ravensbruck. (The white buses of the Red Cross). Her father, who survived in another camp, joined them a year or so later. I came to Sweden with my parents from Poland in 1948. We had survived in the Soviet Union (Ukraine, Siberia and Uzbekistan). Sweden was paradise in many ways. I only started school there at age 13. Learning was a revelation! But Sweden was never home (despite our Swedish passports), though the language has remained the nearest to a mother tongue. You will find there the best and the worst in human beings – just as in the rest of the world. The rest is in my memoir “Six Lives.” Thanks again for the piece. Dow

You win some and you lose some. And I never got to the topic that I originally intended to write about, “Memory and Food.”  


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