Kim Aronson’s life changed twice. First, when he met and fell in love with Rosy, a vivacious American woman on sojourn in Denmark, second, when he visited her large, Jewish family who introduced him to the delights of American dining in Chicago.
Kim and I are sitting in his sunny Berkeley backyard, sipping bubbly water and nibbling pumpkin seeds, but we could just as easily be dishing his Danish food heritage at local eateries like May Flower Chinese or Taste of the Himalayas, because the variety of ethnic restaurants in the Bay Area and America in general is one of things Aronson loves best about his new country.
With his boyish face, Aronson doesn’t look his 49 years. Until his move here in 1997, he lived in his native Copenhagen and didn’t travel much. Food was not a big focus in his life.
“I came from a poor family. My dad was a mail carrier. Our food was simple. My mom’s cooking was all I knew,” he says. “She cooked things like potatoes in brown sauce, meatballs and rice and curry sauce, maybe some pork. If there was a vegetable on the plate, it was just a tiny garnish. Sometimes we had the same soup for three days straight. Then, on the third day, she would make pancakes or have ice cream for dessert to kind of make up for having the same soup again.
“Breakfast was very simple: raw oats with cold milk and lots of sugar — like muesli but without the nuts and raisins. When I was 5 or 6 we got corn flakes. That was something new and exciting.
“Lunch was smørrebrød – the typical Danish open-faced sandwiches,” he continues. (Read about my obsession with smørrebrød here.)
“Two slices of dark rye bread, cut in halves and topped with liver spread, salami, egg, maybe fig jam or a thin piece of chocolate. We had these special divided boxes that I took to school; they stacked so that the open-faced sandwiches didn’t get smeared.
“In middle school they opened a canteen. Every day while I was eating my cold sandwiches, I could smell the melting cheese in the toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. We just couldn’t afford them. Once in a great while, I scraped together enough money to buy one. I dreamt of those sandwiches my whole childhood.
“I never ate out at a restaurant until I was 15, it was a pizza place I went to with a friend.”
At 16, Aronson moved away from home, rented a room, got a job, and ate canned food and hot dogs. Later, when he worked at a school, he bought lunch there. He worked as a special educator with emotionally disturbed children for 17 years. But on the side, he always did art, photography and graphic design.
In 1992, at an art therapy conference in northern Denmark he met Rosy, an attractive American with dark hair and a warm smile. They hit it off and lived together for five years during which time Rosy began to broaden Kim’s culinary horizons. “She made me the best salads and introduced me to vegetarian and Indian restaurants in Copenhagen,” he says.
Rosy, who was fluent in Danish, was happy in Denmark and wanted to stay there, which they might have done, were it not for a food epiphany that occurred on Kim’s first trip to America to meet Rosy’s family. He was entranced from the get-go.
“The first time I came to Chicago, Rosy’s parents and sister picked us up at the airport and took us straight to a restaurant. Her sister ordered a humongous salad. It was so amazing to me, that salad was enough for six people. More salad than I had eaten in two years. Look at that, I thought, I’m sold! And you could take some home for later. You could also customize your plate and get things just the way you want them, like asking for tomatoes instead of potatoes or salad dressing on the side.”
Kim, usually a quiet, measured speaker, gets visibly excited remembering these food revelations.
“Plus, you get free refills on coffee; that would never happen in Denmark. Rosy’s family ate out all the time. It wasn’t that expensive, so you could. It blew my mind. Ten people going out for dinner, all sharing and tasting each other’s food. Her relatives were friendly and open and actually socialized around food. I remember lots of people sitting around with food as the social center. And they talked politics. It was exciting and inspiring. My family didn’t talk politics. Dinner was not a time to communicate, just an occasion to quickly stuff your face so you won’t be hungry for a while.”
“In America, the food was different too, more diverse, with more access to all these different cuisines. In Chicago, Rosy’s family loved that I was curious about food, so they took me to Jewish delis, Chinese and Italian Restaurants, and The Cheesecake Factory. I was in heaven! That’s a big part of my love for America. I had never experienced never-ending Indian buffets before. I got introduced to lots of different cultures in America. It was so exciting. When I was growing up in Denmark, there weren’t many people from different cultures. Even the Italian restaurants were owned by Danes.
“One thing I found funny was when they took me to a pancake house for brunch. In Denmark, we never eat pancakes for breakfast or brunch. Always for dessert after dinner.
“And the grocery stores had wide aisles and so many different kinds of cereal! I embraced it. Then I discovered hot fudge sundaes. I was ready to move.”
So Kim and Rosy moved to Chicago. Kim was 35. Two years later, in 1999, they moved to Berkeley.
“The Bay Area is different. I feel like a Berkeleyite more than an American or a Dane. I identify with the values, the social consciousness, the creativity, the way diversity is embraced here.”
It wasn’t until about eight years after his move to the US that Kim started to miss certain Danish foods. “It took me years to get used to the butter here. Denmark has better butter, cheese, Danish pastry and cinnamon rolls. They are sweet in a different way, more crispy. I never eat Danish pastries here. And I missed the hot dog stands that are everywhere in Denmark.”
Kim, who established a popular online Danish dating service, travels to Denmark once or twice a year. “When I go back now, I always have smørrebrød tartare, with ground raw meat, eggs, capers and onions.”
There are certain traditional Danish holiday foods that Kim wanted to enjoy again, too. During the entire month of December, Danes host gløgg and æbleskiver get-togethers. (I was lucky enough to attend Kim and Rosy’s December party last year and wrote about it.)
Kim’s gløgg (warm, mulled wine) packs quite a punch, thanks to the added raisins and almonds that he soaks overnight in a combination of vodka and port. He mixes red wine with a bottled gløgg drink mix sold at Nordic House in Berkeley.
“I do make special food for Christmas Eve. It’s a stretch – I’m not a big chef. The traditional meal is crispy pork ribs, caramelized potatoes and gravy, red cabbage. (But we don’t do pork).
“We’re spiritual, not religious. And we respect each other’s culture. We often have Shabbat dinner at friends’, with the challah and chicken. I’ve learned about the Jewish traditions, the kugel and latkes. I actually make some mean latkes. Really Jewish food is not that far from Danish food. We have a lot in common (like the herring and the sweet noodle dish.)”
Besides his Danish online dating service, Kim has worked as a web designer, but his new passion is filmmaking, which he is currently studying at Berkeley City College. (He has made several short films for Berkeleyside.)
“My latest project is to make a full-length feature film about Danes in America, called Happiest Immigrants. There were a couple of recent studies that rated Danes as the happiest people in the world.”
“But I don’t think Danes are really that happy; there’s still suicide and [mental] illness. Maybe when they answered the survey, they meant that they were ‘satisfied’ because they just don’t have big expectations. Perhaps they didn’t want to say negative things? Danish people are proud of their cozy little Denmark. Coziness is a big thing in Denmark. We have a word for that: hygge. I think it’s the feeling of being the butter in the center of a bowl of oatmeal.
Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley. Follow her food adventures on her blog, East Bay Ethnic Eats, where this article first appeared, or on Twitter @EBEthnicEats. This is the second in a series of immigrants’ stories told through a food lens. The first one was “Food makes friends”: Cooking Turkish in Berkeley.