Norway has a unique feature in its culture, and with it, a unique word: Matpakke. The word literally means “food package” and is the traditional Norwegian work lunch.
Norwegians have traditionally had four meals a day – breakfast, lunch, dinner and supper – of which three are made up of very plain, open-faced sandwiches. Only dinner is a hot meal. The open-faced sandwiches may have a slice of cheese, lunch meat or fish on them and are not to be confused with the sort of sandwich an American would make and put a lid on. Since there is no “lid” (top slice of bread) on a Norwegian sandwich, the solution is to slip a slice-sized square of waxed paper between the open-faced sandwiches. Then the stack is wrapped in a larger sheet of “matpapir” (literally, food paper, which feels and acts like a thicker version of baking paper), creating the easily recognized white package.
Part of the entertainment at work is watching how people handle the used food paper. The frugal stroke it smooth and fold it carefully for reuse. One co-worker twists his into a T-shape that then rests on the lip of his emptied glass of water until it gets tossed at the garbage can. Another makes a version of an origami box with hers before she throws it out. And of course, the crinkling the paper into a ball is a classic.
The Norwegian food package has produced a unique phrase for the typical commuter: Matpakkekjører (food package driver). The only thing sitting the passenger seat next to the driver alone in his car during rush hour, is, of course, the little white pack of slices of bread, meant to be devoured during a 30 minute break, most often between 11 am and 12 pm.
I am about to join this group of people, but being American I will use little plastic bags to put my food in, and my sandwiches will have lids on them, and entire meals in their own right. I also intend to add some lettuce and tomatoes and mustard and such to my lunch meat. I figure that 1.5 sandwiches (3 slices of bread) a day will be perfect.
Why, after over 25 years of buying my food in our excellent employee cafeteria am I now going to “brown-bag it”, as an American would say? Well, we renovated our cafeteria and redid the whole menu. But now some things I could eat when my stomach wanted an “easy” day are gone. On those days, I’d eat three slices of bread, one with cheese, and two with jam. But now jam isn’t offered any more, and because of an increased intolerance to lactose (something that happens to most people as they age, even those used to eating dairy products), I can’t eat more than one slice of cheese a day at work. Odd, but if I have two slices of bread with cheese two days in a row, my stomach protests. So my alternatives are lunch meats or fish. Meat does not always appeal to me when I want to give my stomach a rest, and the fish offered at work is often smoked, which has never agreed with me. The salad bar is varied and tasty, but there, too, items I prefer not to eat get slipped in without me noticing until I taste it (I have requested a number of times that ingredients be listed). If I want to avoid those surprises, I end up with the world’s most boring salads. And they no longer offer olive oil and vinegar as dressing; again, I don’t know what the other dressings contain. And still, on those days where everything appeals, there is also the risk of eating a bit too much.
So, partly as an experiment, and partly out of frustration, I start eating my own sandwiches this coming week. Sourdough bread, ecological meat (no preservatives!), tasty mustard, and some veggies for decoration and variation, and I and my stomach should be quite happy. The biggest challenge will be in remembering to pack a lunch in the first place!