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Why does Sweden have a salad dressing named ‘Rhode Island’?

How did Sweden end up with a salad dressing named after the smallest state in the US? American Ken Appleman discovers that the answer is clouded in mystery.

Why does Sweden have a salad dressing named 'Rhode Island'?
Rhode Island is similar to the Thousand Islands dressing, but otherwise not related. Photo: Oliver DelaCruz/Wikimedia Commons

When moving to a new place, a new country, it's nice to see things that remind one of home. It can make one feel more comfortable, more welcome. When I first arrived in Stockholm, a city that is very different than the one I grew up in, I was happy to see many things that made me realise that it wasn't quite as different as it first appeared. There was one thing among these, though, that had me really baffled.

I'm a New Yorker. A Brooklynite, to be precise. New York is a tall, noisy city. The sounds of a New York City streetscape – honking horns, sirens, midnight trucks grinding gears, people shouting, radios blaring, an unidentifiable, sourceless, pervasive din that makes it necessary to shout just to think – these things are lullabies to me, the sounds of warmth and energy that, without which, for a good portion of my life, I struggled to sleep.

Stockholm isn't like that. I still tell friends back home this thing which makes the place sound almost idyllic – but you'd have to be a New Yorker, or a native of any of the other very noisy metropolises in the world, to know why it isn't – that there are parts of Stockholm where the loudest thing one hears is the sound of children playing.

It's a low, quiet city, dimly-lit. Do I mean “sleepy” – no, not really. Just more like a place that doesn't feel it needs to shout – or build tall buildings – to get one's attention.

But, as I said, there are plenty of things to comfort a homesick New Yorker. Brooklyn Beer. I-Heart-NY logos and its local derivatives. Baseball caps from the New York teams. The strange presence of lots of 7-Elevens (I haven't seen any place in the US where they are as densely packed as here – though since in the US they are known for providing huge sizes of extremely unhealthy food – “Big Gulps” of soda, for example, or the “Big Bite” hot dog – perhaps in calorie density their distribution is similar). McDonald's. Starbucks. Subway.

But, with all of these actual, authentic, US referents, why is there this weird, baffling, inauthentic thing mixed in? Why, everywhere salad is sold, in bottles, in single-serve packets, on menus, is there a salad dressing named “Rhode Island”?

Rhode Island is the smallest state in the US, a state that consists of suburbs and beaches (great, if you like either of those things) located pretty much where the arm-making-a-fist-shaped piece of land that is Cape Cod connects to the mainland.

A few years ago, I had to leave New York to move there. I was not happy to be there. Nor, I soon discovered, were most Rhode Islanders.

“The armpit of New England,” a native Rhode Islander told me of the place, not long after I moved there.

“Everyone here is crabby, but no one ever leaves.”

“If it takes more than 20 minutes to go someplace, no Rhode Islander will go there.”

So, clearly, as you can see from these unsolicited Rhode Island facts I received from helpful locals upon my arrival (I was an Uber driver at the time; I met a lot of locals quickly), it's not exactly the best place to live, and certainly not a place to name something after, even if it's just salad dressing.


One of many lovely beaches in Rhode Island, but no trace of the eponymous dressing. Photo: JJBers/Flickr.com

I will say, though, that with those beaches – and there are lots of them – it is (again, if you like beaches) a nice place to visit. And, if you do like the beaches, and you do travel from distant locations just to get to them, then there are also terrific restaurants in which to eat after a long day of sun or water bathing. And, inevitably, when those restaurants sell salads, they are all almost certainly dressed, in one way or another. There is no dressing, though, in any of those restaurants, that is uniquely Rhode Island – or, if there is, that resembles the eponymous stuff sold all over Sweden.

Even the president of the Rhode Island Swedish association – a US organisation that celebrates Swedish people and culture in Rhode Island and the surrounding states – had no idea why there would be a salad dressing with that name in Sweden.

So, what is the deal? Why does this dressing have this name throughout Sweden? Is it named after the US state? Or, perhaps, are it and the US state somehow named after the same thing in Sweden? (This is not a difficult theory to come up with for a kid who grew up in “New” York, a city that had once been known as “New” Amsterdam, across the river from “New” Jersey). Is the Rhode Island in the US a “new” Rhode Island? Is there an old one somewhere in Sweden (and do they make salad dressing there?).

While an interesting theory, a little bit of Googling told me that it is not the case. While there is, in a sense, an old Rhode Island, it is the Isle of Rhodes, in the Mediterranean – which early explorers found an island in the bay of the state someday to bear that name vaguely reminiscent of. So, no shared Swedish origin of the name. And, while both the state and the dressing could still possibly be named after that Mediterranean island, it seems unlikely. The explorers saw reddish clay hills on both that island in the Mediterranean and the nascent US state. Reddish clay is really not an evocative substance for beige lettuce sauce.

So, what is the story? I asked the maker of the most popular Rhode Island dressing brand in Sweden, Felix, why the dressing had that name. I got the following response:

Dear Ken,

Thank you for your e-mail and how nice to hear that you seem to appreciate our products!

Classic Rhode Island sauce has actually nothing to do with the state of Rhode Island in the US. It is a Swedish innovation by our well-known Swedish chef Tore Wretman. Wretman was also one of the founders of the Academy of Gastronomy. Tore came up with the basic recipe of Rhode Island Dressing which since then has been developed in many ways.

I hope you enjoy living in Sweden 🙂

Have a wonderful day!

Best regards,

Orkla Foods Sweden

Okay. Is it not immediately obvious that they – despite the interesting response – did not answer my question?

And when I went to Tore Wretman's Wikipedia page, this creation of his was not even deemed important enough to mention.

All of which leads me to the only possible conclusion. No one here can tell this occasionally homesick New Yorker why he is regularly accosted by reminders of a place near his home for which he is not at all sick. The reasons are just not known (one entertaining discussion that I found on the net conjectured that the original creator – who, as we just found out, was Tore Wretman – saw a blob that was roughly the shape of the State of Rhode Island upon first pouring it out on a surface, and so named it thus – but the likelihood, I think, of a chef in Sweden thinking first of the State of Rhode Island upon observing a salad dressing Rorschach test just seems to me to be very slim).

All of which leads me to my favorite response, offered up by a long-time Stockholmer when I asked her what she knew about the origin of the name. She looked at me a bit baffled and said, “Why? What is Rhode Island?”

This article was written by The Local's reader Ken Appleman. Would you like to share your story about life in Sweden with The Local? Get in touch with our editorial team at [email protected].


Swedish chef Tore Wretman (right). Photo: TT

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FOOD & DRINK

Five sweet treats you should be able to identify if you live in Sweden

Do you know your biskvi from your bakelse? Your chokladboll from your kanelbulle? Here's a guide guaranteed to get your mouth watering.

Five sweet treats you should be able to identify if you live in Sweden

Kanelbulle

The most famous of all Swedish cakes outside Sweden, the classic kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) is the symbol of Sweden abroad, no doubt helped by the fact that Swedish furniture giants IKEA stock frozen buns in their food stores for customers to bake off at home.

Forget American tear-apart cinnamon rolls baked in a pan and slathered with cream cheese frosting: a classic Swedish cinnamon bun is baked individually using a yeasted dough spread with cinnamon sugar and butter. The dough is then rolled up, sliced into strips which are then stretched out and knotted into buns, baked, glazed with sugar syrup and sprinkled with pearl sugar.

Home-made varieties skip the stretching and knotting step, rolling the cinnamon-sprinkled dough into a spiral instead which, although less traditional, tastes just as good.

Kanelbullar in Sweden often include a small amount of Sweden’s favourite spice: cardamom. If you’re a fan of cardamom, try ordering the kanelbulle‘s even more Swedish cousin, the kardemummabulle or cardamom bun, which skips the cinnamon entirely and goes all-out on cardamom instead.

Sweden celebrates cinnamon bun day (kanelbullens dag) on October 4th.

Photo: Lieselotte van der Meijs/imagebank.sweden.se

Chokladboll

A great option if you want a smaller cake for your fika, the chokladboll or ‘chocolate ball’ is a perfect accompaniment to coffee – some recipes even call for mixing cold coffee into the batter.

They aren’t baked and are relatively easy to make, meaning they are a popular choice for parents (or grandparents) wanting to involve children in the cake-making process.

Chokladbollar are a simple mix of sugar, oats, melted butter and cocoa powder, with the optional addition of vanilla or coffee, or occasionally rum extract. They are rolled into balls which are then rolled in desiccated coconut (or occasionally pearl sugar), and placed in the fridge to become more solid.

Some bakeries or cafés also offer dadelbollar or rawbollar/råbollar (date or raw balls), a vegan alternative made from dried dates and nuts blended together with cocoa powder.

Chocolate ball day (chokladbollens dag) falls on May 11th.

Photo: Magnus Carlsson/imagebank.sweden.se

Prinsesstårta

The lime-green prinsesstårta or ‘princess cake’ may look like a modern invention with it’s brightly-coloured marzipan covering, but it has been around since the beginning of the 1900s, and is named after three Swedish princesses, Margareta, Märta and Astrid, who were supposedly especially fond of the cake.

The cake consists of a sponge bottom spread with jam, crème pâtissière and a dome of whipped cream, covered in green marzipan and some sort of decoration, often a marzipan rose.

Prinsesstårtor can also be served in individual portions, small slices of a log which are then referred to as a prinsessbakelse.

Although the cakes are popular all year round, in the Swedish region of Småland, prinsesstårta is eaten on the first Thursday in March, due to this being the unofficial national day of the Småland region (as the phrase första torsdagen i mars is pronounced fössta tossdan i mass in the Småland dialect).

Since 2004, the Association of Swedish Bakers and Confectioners has designated the last week of September as prinsesstårtans vecka (Princess cake day).

Photo: Sinikka Halme, Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0.

Budapestbakelse

Belonging to the more traditional cakes, a Budapestbakelse or “Budapest slice” is a type of rulltårta or “roll cake” similar to a Swiss roll, consisting of a light and crispy cake made from whipped egg whites, sugar and hazelnut, filled with whipped cream and fruit, often chopped conserved peaches, nectarines or mandarines, and rolled into a log.

The log is then sliced into individual portions and drizzled with chocolate, then often topped with whipped cream and a slice of fruit. 

Despite its name, the Budapest slice has nothing to do with the city of Budapest – it was supposedly invented by baker Ingvar Strid in 1926 and received the name due to Strid’s love for the Hungarian capital.

Of course, the Budapestbakelse also has its own day – May 1st.

Kanelbullar (left), chokladbollar (centre) and biskvier (right). Photo: Tuukka Ervasti/imagebank.sweden.se

Biskvi

Another smaller cake, a biskvi (pronounced like the French biscuit), consists of an almond biscuit base, covered in buttercream (usually chocolate flavoured), and dark chocolate.

Different variants of biskvier exist, such as a Sarah Bernhardt, named after the French actress of the same name, which has chocolate truffle instead of buttercream.

You might also spot biskvier with white chocolate, often with a hallon (raspberry) or citron (lemon) filling, or even saffransbiskvier around Christmastime.

Chokladbiskviens dag is celebrated on November 11th.

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