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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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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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