little while ago, the manager of Norske Meierier (Norwegian Dairies)
was liberated from his obligations, as one would put it in diplomatic
terms. Mr. Per Hatling, it was alleged, had mixed his private business
interests with the company's in unacceptable ways, and left ingloriously.
In the aftermath of Mr. Hatling's departure, a hidden agenda became
publicly known. It turned out that there had long been miscontent
with Mr. Hatling's style of management in the dairy cooperative. Mr.
Hatling, it was claimed by dairy farmers and others, represented an
enterprise culture alien to the farmers. His approach was described
as that of an aggressive liberalist with a poor understanding of the
farmers' way of life and economic style.
The issue could be described as a cultural conflict between a modern
urban style of management and a traditional rural one. However, the
conflict runs deeper than this. It has to do with the peculiar position
of milk in Norwegian culture. By running the dairy cooperative like
any other business, Mr. Hatling has unwittingly violated a religious
taboo in our society: Through his marketing strategies and his managerial
style, he has turned the sacred drops of cow's milk into a glossy
What makes milk so special? Some time ago, poet and critic Håvard
Rem asked why on earth people couldn't drink orange juice instead.
In terms of litres per acre, oranges produce a greater quantity of
breakfast refreshments than cows. Of course, Mr. Rem is perfectly
aware of the fact that Norwegians are not going to let go of their
The symbolic meaning of milk is apparent already in the design of
the cartons. They feature a picture of grazing cows in one of those
picturesque landscape typical of 19th century national romanticism.
There are also small stories on the cartons, intended for reading
during breakfast, highlighting in different ways how milk is a natural
and wholesome ingredient of Norwegianness.
Other dairy products also have a central place in the Norwegian identity.
Whipping cream is indispensable for birthday cakes all over the country.
The brown cheese G35 won the competition for "the most Norwegian
of everything Norwegian" staged by a nationwide radio programme
some years ago. "Real butter" is without question considered
superior to both margarine and olive oil. Finally, one of the most
famous advertisements in the country talks about Freia's milk chocolate
as "a little piece of Norway".
In most other countries, milk is in its pure form imbibed only by
small children. Foreign adults may use a few drops of milk in their
coffee or tea, full stop. Not so in Norway. Norwegians of all ages
love their milk, indeed to the extent that East Asians living in the
country complain that the natives smell of sour milk.
Milk symbolises health, the honest work on the land, the beauty of
the Norwegian scenery and -- not least -- pure whiteness. In this
latter respect, milk holds a position comparable to snow, and it goes
without saying that an urban-minded no-nonsense capitalist like Per
Hatling must fight in vain against a national totem of this magnitude.
©Thomas Hylland Eriksen 1994