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Milk as a symbol of Norwegianness

Thomas Hylland Eriksen

Norway Now
, 1994

 A 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 commodity.

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 milk.

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