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Let Us All Fika
Let Us All Fika
By Katherine Spiers
I just got back from Sweden this week. It was a fairly last-minute trip to a place I’ve never had a particular passion for, despite growing up in Seattle, which has heavy Scandinavian roots. (Turns out Stockholm looks a lot like Seattle, and the people are just as standoffish!)
Anyway, when I was doing my little bit of research for the trip, I came across a concept called fika. Fika is a meal, it’s a time, it’s a concept. It’s a noun and a verb. It’s a coffee break, but it’s both stricter and more informal than what Americans think of as a coffee break. At work, you don’t work through a coffee break - you have a fika, so you step away from your desk to drink coffee and have a snack. The snack seems important. And apparently it’s considered a little weird if you decline to participate. But you can fika away from the office, too - even just having a little pastry by yourself counts. (Swedish pastries are amazing.) Apparently it’s a popular first date option too, which makes sense to me.
So, Swedes are pretty coffee-focused, it’s safe to say.
Coffee first showed up in Sweden in the 1680s. Like in many other places, it was first considered medicine. Then it slid over to groceries. Then coffee houses started to appear - and, cool little note, about 20% of the coffee houses were owned by women in Sweden in the 1700s. It could be sold in other places too: I came across an interesting story of a butter shop that actually sold coffee to-go, in jugs that were lined up on a bar. Everything’s been done before!
Swedes really loved coffee. And their obsession with it actually led to the government banning both the importation and consumption of coffee five times between 1756 and 1817.
There are multiple reasons why coffee was banned. For one, Sweden didn’t have coffee-producing colonies (it didn’t really have colonies at all), so they couldn’t make money off of coffee. (Reminds me of marijuana in the US: if you can’t figure out how to capitalize on it, just ban it!) Sweden called coffee unpatriotic, and if you were caught with it, your name would be printed in the newspaper, for shaming purposes.
It might’ve also just been banned for xenophobic reasons - it was specifically considered “too French.” No one wants that. But probably more importantly, back to economics, coffee started to replace beer, which was made domestically. Even when coffee wasn’t banned, it was taxed heavily, but nothing really made a dent in coffee sales and consumption. In fact, during the prohibition periods, there was a huge underground coffee market in Stockholm.
This black market was mostly run by poorer women, who had fewer economic opportunities. Making coffee certainly seems easier than prostitution. It’s often thought that consumer goods weren’t easily accessible in Sweden until the early 1800s, but there are studies - linked to below - that show that plenty of people had access to coffee and sugar, it was just all under the table.
There were three separate coffee crimes you could be convicted of: selling it, making it, and drinking it. The fines were much higher than those for selling hooch. There are court records where maids were convicted of making it, rather than their employers, who claimed they had no idea coffee was being made in their house: after all, they were asleep when it happened. That right there would turn me into a socialist, so I get it, Sweden.
They finally gave up on the bans in the 1820s, and ever since then, Scandinavia has had some of the highest per capita coffee consumption rates in the world. So of course Swedes take their fika seriously - as do the other Scandinavian countries, they just don’t use a specific word to describe it.
And it might have been Scandinavians who brought the coffee break to the US. The story goes that a lot of Norwegian immigrants arrived in Stoughton, Wisconsin in the 1800s to work in a particular wagon factory. There was also a tobacco factory in town, and the owner reached out to the wagon worker’s wives to work for him. They collectively agreed to the job, with the condition that they could go home twice a day to rest and have coffee. There’s now a yearly event in Stoughton called the Coffee Break Festival and Car Show. OK, now go have a warm drink and a rich pastry. Happy fika!
Below is my discussion with Diana Garvin, a professor of Italian, about the food in Fascist Italy. You can buy her book, “Feeding Fascism: The Politics of Women’s Food Work,” right here. Use code Garvin25 for 25% off the price.
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