Kåldolmensdag – Cabbage Roll Day

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November 30th, a symbolic date

In Sweden, November 30th – Charles XII’s date of death at war in 1718 – has for a long time been associated with the far right and racism. The historical appropriation which turned this warrior king into the symbol of Swedish identity (“svenskhet” or “swedishness”) can be compared to the appropriation of Jeanne d’Arc by the Front National (France’s far right party) and the celebration in her honor on May 1st at place des Pyramides in Paris. There is a statue of Charles XII in Stockholm, in Kungsträdgården (“the king’s garden”) where processions – often violent – have been organized in his honor since 1818. On November 30th 1968, “jews and negroes” were banned from attending. Starting from 1988, the atmosphere became more violent, because of the infiltration of skinheads and openly neo-nazi supporters in the procession. The police eventually prohibited gatherings around the statue. However, a few groups continue to gather with torches and banners, to recite Essaias Tegnér’s heroic poem, Karl XII, or to discuss various subjective threats like Islam’s invasion of Europe or the growing hegemony of China.

Charles XII, a greedy and belligerent king?

Yet Charles XII seems like a bad choice to represent the so called Swedish identity. Although he was greedy for conquest, this king, who thought he was the incarnation of Alexander the Great, spent five years in the Ottoman Empire: his Turkish name, Demirbaş Şarl, actually means Fixed Asset Charles! His alliance with Ivan Mazepa and the amount of time he spent abroad reveal a cosmopolitan and cultural openness. One of the enduring heritages of his long stay in Turkey and of his Swedish-Turkish alliance is the kåldolmen, a word made of the Swedish words kål (cabbage) and dolma (stuffed). This “Swedicized” version of Turkish dolmas uses cabbage leaves instead of vine leaves (which are rare in Scandinavia) and brown sauce with lingonberry, which accompany almost all Swedish dishes.

It is not a recent discovery that Swedish gastronomy and most of the Swedish cultural expressions were created thanks to contacts and exchanges. The story of kåldolmar and Charles XII is particularly enlightening, amongst other things because the recipe’s hybrid name clearly reminds us how culture has always travelled beyond borders. Kåldolmen is admittedly a traditional dish which represents Swedish culture and which is on the husmanskost list, but it is only an example among others.

Towards the institutionalization of the event

Kåldolmensdag was created in 2010 thanks to an associative initiative. Petter Hellström, a doctoral student in history who studied for several years in Syria, came up with the idea. The event was mainly promoted on social media and the amount of people present was not remarkable (a few hundred), but its symbol is strong, as the event was authorized to take place at Kungsträdgården, where all gatherings were forbidden on November 30th. In 2011 and 2012, the event became more important and the number of partners increased. Giving an impression of ecumenism, this event managed to bring together the bishop, rabbi, and imam of Stockholm, a feat accomplished by few other festivals. Other cities such as Eskilstuna, Göteborg, Linköping, Lund, and Malmö have followed Stockholm’s example and celebrate Cabbage Roll Day on November 30th. In 2013, the event was institutionalized by being organized at the Swedish History Museum in Stockholm (Historiska Museet). The event is always free and takes on a dual role this year: scientific and pedagogical. Several conferences hosted by historians, searchers, and journalists were scheduled, as well as several activities for children like games based on songs, painting workshops on tin figurines, meeting soldiers in period costumes.

The event also features several concerts. The event’s flyer refers to “alla Turca” music, which also comes from the Ottoman Empire and was also very popular in Mozart’s time. Just like with cabbage rolls, it is an accessible and playful symbol, and maybe even an excuse to bring up preoccupying political issues – it is not surprising that it is mentioned in this flyer, which is an effective communicative tool that is distributed a few days before November 30th. Music, like food, creates pathways to a collective political reflection. Two well-known musicians from Turkey, Burcu Ada and Kudret Dilik, are scheduled to play on Kåldolmensdag. However, even though Burcu is a talented singer, she lives in one of Stockholm’s typical suburbs with other immigrants, doesn’t master Swedish, and has trouble finding a job. It is an integration issue, a common theme which the organizers feel strongly about. One of the partners of Kåldolmensdag is Katapult för Mångfald[1], a non-profit organization which promotes musicians with an immigrant background and helps them make it in Sweden without having to become taxi drivers.

A well needed historical update in light of the present political agenda

The goal of the event is to nuance the image of Charles XII as a Swedish Führer and to highlight the close relationship he had with the Ottoman Empire. The 19th century as seen by national-romantic historians and poets is long gone. However their vision of the past continues to influence ours and therefore needs to be updated. When Charles XII died, he was criticized for having impoverished Sweden; then praised: Voltaire wrote his first biography: “Isn’t it remarkable that we admire those who destroy and ransack, rather than those who build?”[2] Yet Charles XII was not at all linked to racism at that time, which is not surprising in the least when you know that only 1/16th of his ancestry lived in Sweden. What characterizes Charles XII’s century seems precisely to be the absence of nationalism.

The purpose of this event is not to focus on Turkey, nor on its current relations with Sweden, as Turkish immigrants are not the most represented group in Sweden[3]. One can deplore the absence of direct cooperation with Turkey, which could take advantage of this initiative to illustrate its ties to Europe, in order to convince those who doubt the relevance of its candidacy for EU membership. But the organizers of Kåldolmensdag do not wish to see their event associated with Europhile lobbying. The main topic of the event is indeed Sweden and racism in Sweden, which has changed and targets Islam and immigrants from Muslim countries nowadays. By evoking Sweden’s past relations with the Ottoman Empire, the organizers of Kåldolmensdag remind everyone that what is considered Swedish has a multinational origin. Sweden in 2013 is not a relic of an original Swedish identity nor of a homogeneous Viking culture, but the receptacle of a heterogeneity composed of many groups and diverse cultures.

[1] « Catapult for diversity » , http://katapult.nu/

[2] Voltaire, History of Charles XII, King of Sweden, 1731

[3] For more information, see http://www.immi.se/migration/statistik/20grupper.htm

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