Editor’s Note: This story first appeared in the West Virginia Gazette-Mail and was submitted for republication in the Daily Yonder by its author.
A few years ago, The New Yorker published a piece by Anna Altman titled “The Year of Hygge, The Danish Obsession with Getting Cozy.” The accompanying photo showed logs glowing in a fireplace in the background and a steaming mug of cocoa set on an ottoman between two pairs of feet covered in colorful, hand-knitted socks, a plaid wool blanket barely visible.
The caption read: “Hygge, a Danish quality of ‘coziness and comfortable conviviality’ is making inroads …”
As I settled deep into my favorite upholstered fireside chair to read the article, I chuckled a bit that this Danish term referencing a feeling of contentment and well-being was, to my way of thinking, a feeling that ran through the rich veins of Appalachians. I wondered if the Danish had adopted it from us and nobody was told.
The correct pronunciation, by the way, is hue-guh. Its origins can be traced as far back as the 16th century. Altman points out that at least six books about hygge were published in this country alone in 2016.
Perhaps there was a bit of divine intervention involved in bringing attention to this way of life, on the heels of a deadly pandemic that would take the lives of far too many throughout the world. And if we had not been knowingly practicing this Danish approach to living, it has most certainly caught on like a wildfire out of control, serving each of us well.
Altman goes on to say that “the true expression of hygge is joining with loved ones in a relaxed and intimate atmosphere.” While the past year and the word “relaxed” most assuredly have experienced a disconnect, we eventually arrived at a point where, if we were to survive not only physically but emotionally, we needed to hold tight to our friends and family and enjoy the moments together that were gifted.
So, this all brings me back to something that we, as West Virginians, just might have beat the Danes to, without calling attention to ourselves, which is in keeping with the hygge philosophy.
In referencing the attachment to the simple things in life, my thoughts drift to neighbors catching up over a cup of coffee at the dinner table or at the fence post, quilters coming together to piece not only colorful fabrics together but their lives, candle flames flickering on front porch banisters as dusk settles in, churning apple butter at state fairs and festivals, and gathering the harvest from a rich garden crop to share. Oh, and let’s not forget forest bathing, which Appalachians were doing long before it became the thing to do.
After a friend shared the best-seller “The Little Book of Hygge” with me a few months ago, I kept repeating throughout the book, “But, of course.” West Virginians have embraced this way of life forever — literally. We just didn’t know it had Danish roots. We called it life, which is much easier to pronounce and less obtrusive.
If you want to take the concept one step further, Altman introduces the Swedish concept, lagom: humility and moderation. Again, how is this concept not Appalachian. And hygge’s emphasis on community … well, that’s as obvious to Appalachians as the appearance of a rhododendron bush in everyone’s front yard.
Altman proceeds to introduce the emphasis on superiority in execution with Scandinavian design. My chuckles grew in intensity.
All any West Virginian has to do is visit Tamarack or any fair or festival throughout the state to know that we’ve been doing this for years, too. Simply gaze at a sculpture by Burl Jones or marvel at the exactness of a pieced quilt by Margaret Babb or close your eyes and run your fingers along a kane table or bubinga cabinet built by master craftsman John Wesley Williams.
As they say, “the proof is in the pudding.” And that proverb brings me to the culinary talents of West Virginians.
Hygge and Cuisine
“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him … the people who give you their food give you their heart.” — Cesar Chavez
Of course, Chavez is correct; and we each know it from repeat experiences.
Keeping in mind the Danes’ emphasis on coziness and community, they also make it a point to not simply gather food on a plate and park themselves in front of the television set, but they bring an air of welcome to something as simple as setting a welcoming table, complete with some fresh flowers brought in from the garden and perhaps a lit tea light of two or three scattered here and there.
And like Appalachians, their fare is often seasonal, gathered from their gardens or friends’ gardens. The Danish food culture is very much like the delectable fare offered in the Appalachian region. They find joy and pleasure not only in flavors, but in sharing with one another the day’s activities.
I know. It sounds simple, and it is, thankfully. But in this case, the question needs to be asked: “Which came first: the chicken or the egg?” And since our escapades are well-known, there is little doubt of the outcome in this debate. But we’ll run the gauntlet, just for the record.
At the Log Cabin School in Asheville, North Carolina, West Virginia native Barbara Swell, who facilitates classes in her 1930s log cabin, said, “It’s not just about what’s on your plate, but who you are eating it with. It’s a sense of place.” And no place is more firmly planted in its core than the Appalachian region.
While the Danes love sweets (albeit with a great deal less sugar than Americans), their cinnamon rolls and apple crumble are not new to Appalachians. And in keeping with that “warm, cozy” vibe they encourage, meaty, savory meatballs are eagerly consumed, as the Danes cover themselves with wool blankets in front of a blazing fireplace, knitted socks peeking out. Add a measure of creamy tomato soup and a generous portion of meatloaf, and appetites are soon satiated.
Again, this appreciation for flavorful meal options is not new to Appalachians. The choices are myriad: biscuits and gravy, pepperoni rolls, skillet cornbread, venison, and soup beans with a sprinkling of diced ham chunks and finely chopped onions. And speaking of seasonal offerings, who could forget ramps paired with potatoes.
Since its early days, most everything offered at the table of an Appalachian family was grown on their own land. They worked together as a family, picking and snapping and boiling and canning their harvest of fine crops.
Hygge? Quite simply, it was called life. The abundance of corn was eaten from the cob, fried and creamed. Even the shucks were used for mattress filling. Eating and talking and simply being together were daily occurrences that impressed upon families the importance of community.
Sharing recipes often came not in the form of having been written down on a recipe card; instead, it was passed from one generation to another verbally. It was learned by watching a parent or grandparent as they prepared a dish that had been prepared hundreds of times before and by several generations.
In continuing their emphasis on hygge philosophy, the Danes make taking coffee nearly “ceremonial.” It is most often celebrated by inviting friends and family to join them.
Appalachians would give the Danes a run for their money, having known the power of sharing a cup of coffee with their neighbor for longer than can be recalled. Have you ever visited anyone in Appalachia who, upon arrival to their home, didn’t offer you a cup of coffee? I didn’t think so.
And as we contemplate the shared philosophy of the Danes and the Appalachians and wonder at that age-old question of which came first, we would be the first to admit that it doesn’t really matter. We’re that certain of who we are, of who we always were, and of who we will continue to be: a people who know the importance of gathering together to share good food with good friends.
It really is life, the Appalachian way of life. And it really is that simple.
As you continue to embrace a 16th century philosophy, walk with your shoulders squared and head held high and a bit of a smile on your face, knowing that it began in your own backyard, leaning against a fence post, chatting with a neighbor.
Kathleen Jacobs writes books for young readers, was recently chosen Runner-up Best Author of WV for 2020, and lives in Charleston.