The previous evening, I ate dinner at Jungle Jim's restaurant. Everyone had looked up at me when I entered, a sort of ripple traveling through the room, heads lifting, necks turning, only to subside as I sat down at one of the tables. The walls were clad in bamboo, there were a few plastic palms strewn about and some of the dishes had jungle-related names. The contrast to the dark and empty town outside, the freezing cold air, which made it painful to breathe, the snow and the vast sky full of stars, couldn't have been bigger. Several TVs were on with the sound muted, showing a hockey game between Sweden and Russia, a semifinal for the World Junior Championship. Everyone in the place, except the waiter, was fat, some of them so fat that I kept having to look at them. I had never seen people that fat before. The strange thing was that none of them looked as if they were trying to hide their enormous girth; quite the opposite, several people were wearing tight T-shirts with their big bellies sticking out proudly.
I couldn't quite figure out a lot of the dishes, all those chicken wings and barbecue. I didn't know what went with what, and was none the wiser after checking out what other people were eating, because they seemed to be having myriad dishes, served in baskets; some tables were entirely covered with them, some even stacked on top of one another. So I picked a spaghetti dish — that I could relate to. It consisted mainly of cheese, and tasted like something I could have cooked myself, back when I was still a student and would mix myself something out of whatever was in the fridge.
This evening, I ate at a place called Pizza Delight. It was located in the Viking Mall, and I was the only guest. The waitress, a girl of maybe 18, seemed permanently amazed at everything I said and did. I ordered a pizza; she asked me several times whether that was all I was having. Yes, I said. When it was brought to my table and I started to eat, she stood behind the counter, glancing at me surreptitiously. I knew I was doing something wrong, but I had no idea what.
Karl Ove Knausgaard stirred some controversy over remarks he made about how large the people were in a northern Newfoundland restaurant.
"Yawn," you might wonder. Here's an European criticizing how North Americans eat. Dog bites man. No story here.
You could also make the case that Knausgaard wrote a really horrible story for The New York Times. The saga over why he doesn't have a drivers license and the chase to get one is more pathetic than interesting.
Katy Waldman in Slate makes a very compelling case that "Karl Ove Knausgaard Is the World's Worst Travel Writer."
So despite Knausgaard's cluelessness, there are elements to take away from his analysis of the North American diet.
St. Anthony, Newfoundland, is a remote city in northern Newfoundland, hundreds of kilometers away from St. John's, the largest city in Newfoundland and Labrador. As Knausgaard notes, you can see Labrador from there.
Even in the United States, there is a sharp contrast between obesity rates in cities versus suburbs versus rural areas. Even in Maritimes and Newfoundland terms, St. Anthony is pretty far north. Limited windows of reasonably warm weather, plus Knausgaard is there in the winter time, and that can add up to high obesity rates.
Knausgaard could have made a contrast between Newfoundland and his home country of Sweden with similar geographical conditions. Are people in northern Sweden more obese than southern Swedes? We won't find that out from Knausgaard.
From looking at the Jungle Jim's menu, Knausgaard likely ordered the Chicken Linguine Carbonara.
Linguine noodles tossed in a creamy Alfredo sauce with sliced seasoned chicken, bacon bits, finely diced onion, mushroom & garlic. Capped with mixed cheese & Parmesan. 13.99
Jungle Jim's has an extremely broad menu to an almost ridiculous standpoint. If it's food, you can find it at Jungle Jim's.
I have never been to Sweden, but my first time in a restaurant in Sweden could be similar to Knausgaard's experience. He was confused by "a lot of the dishes, all those chicken wings and barbecue." I would be confused by pickled herring or other Swedish delights. However, I would jump into those dishes to experience what this country would be like. Pickled herring might not be my cup of tea, but in Sweden, it might be pretty good.
(I'm using pickled herring as a symbolic dish. I don't want to be reduced down to Knausgaard's level of writing.)
Knausgaard made an odd dish by picking the Chicken Linguine Carbonara, unless he wanted to pick an extreme to make a point. In reading his writing, he doesn't seem to think at that level. But in traveling somewhere new, people often make poor choices from restaurant menus.
Knausgaard would have been better off asking what the specialty was to get a true flavor of where he was.
In Knausgaard's other major Newfoundland food observation, he ordered a pizza. The waitress "asked me several times whether that was all I was having." That could simply be the difference in customs. In North American restaurants, servers are often trained to make sure people don't want more. She could have wondered if he wanted a salad, or possibly breadsticks or chicken wings.
Perhaps a North American might go to Sweden and wonder why the server didn't ask if they wanted more food.
We also don't know whether Knausgaard observed obesity patterns in his other stays: St. John's, Toronto, Detroit, Cleveland, and Minnesota. Would Knausgaard be more repulsed by the American south than rural Newfoundland?
North Americans are at a huge disadvantage in the obesity battle versus Europeans. Some of that is food regulation, but Europeans get better subsidies in terms of health care and public transportation. Cultural differences account for differences in food portions.
Even if you are biased against Europe or Europeans, what North America is doing with food, exercise, and obesity has gone horribly wrong. Even if Knausgaard is not eloquent in his take on North American eating habits, he does have a point.
"Eat to live" makes way more sense than "live to eat." In a small town such as St. Anthony, Jungle Jim's could be the place to see your neighbors, especially in the winter. Stereotypically, Europeans would tend to do that more in cafes than restaurants, offering up fewer temptations.
Using restaurants as entertainment is way more of a North American ritual than an European one. Take advantage of eating out, but don't go off the deep end. If you aren't sure where the line is, try "Capped with mixed cheese & Parmesan."