On the whole, Ikea’s $5.99 KÖTTBULLAR plate is pretty good for cafeteria food: The meatballs are juicy, if unnervingly uniform; the cream sauce is thick and savory; and the lingonberry preserves are a nice complement to the richness.
Sure, it’s maybe hard to assess the objective quality of Ikea’s meatballs because they’re often eaten under severe emotional duress — like Disneyland or a Vegas casino, Ikea’s self-contained, brightly lit path can become a waking nightmare for the tired, decision-fatigued shell of a person just looking for a decent sofa to partially merge with while watching Grey’s Anatomy reruns on Hulu after work. But on more than one grueling visit, a plate of meatballs has felt like the only thing preventing me from throwing myself onto Ikea’s poured concrete floor and melting down into a small puddle of angst and broken hygge dreams.
In Sweden, köttbullar are such a canonical recipe that they’re often referred to as “mother’s meatballs.” The allspice-laced meatballs themselves aren’t fundamentally different from Italian polpette or the Turkish kofta in their DNA. But when they’re draped with luscious brown gravy that’s fortified by butter and heavy cream, they become one of the world’s great comfort foods — and a perfectly packaged slice of homey Swedish idyllism, ready to be sold from Brooklyn to Taipei.
Ikea’s not just selling furniture, after all; it’s also selling the world’s perception of Sweden as a happy, functional place to live, the critic Sara Kristoffersson writes in her book, Design by Ikea. Its Swedishness comes through in its blue-and-yellow color scheme, heavily umlauted product names, and its food — both in the restaurant and post-checkout Swedish Food Marketplace, which stocks everything from cloudberry jam to preserved herring.
In recent years, a lot of work has gone into making the restaurant an emotionally safe space with something for everyone: long tables for families, private booths for couples having a reckoning, a highly visible play area to park the kids. “The restaurant is located in what I call the heart of the store,” Peter Ho, Ikea’s U.S. food manager, told me recently. Like a cozy inn at the crossroads, it’s strategically located between the showroom, where you can touch and test out everything, and the marketplace, with its infinity of small items you didn’t know you needed. Floor-to-ceiling windows often provide the only source of natural light in the store. “It’s a comfortable place where customers can sit, relax, think about what they saw in the showroom and make decisions, if decisions are to be made,” Ho said.
Almost every table has a plate of meatballs, which remain the cornerstone of its growing Ikea Food sector, whose steady growth — an internal study found that 30 percent of Ikea restaurant diners weren’t even shopping in the store, and some were coming in every day to eat — has led the company to flirt with the idea of opening standalone cafeterias in Europe and potentially beyond. Ikea sells about 110 million meatballs a year in its in-store cafeterias worldwide; freezers near the exit contain nothing but bags of köttbullar, which you can take home, along with packets of dehydrated gravy and jars of lingonberry preserves, to make for your own family in your shiny new kitchen.
Or you can do what I did during a few depressed months last winter following a big move, and eat naked Ikea meatballs straight from the oven for dinner every night. I’d bought the cream sauce packets too, but didn’t have the energy to make them; on those nights, I didn’t possess the willpower to do anything but turn on the stove, heat up a handful of frozen meatballs in my smallest ramekin, then cut them into pieces and chew each one slowly, sometimes standing over the sink.
Eaten this way, they weren’t exactly the picture of Pinterest-worthy domestic tranquility, just curiously dense spheres of pulverized protein. But pleasure wasn’t why I was performing this grim ritual night after night. I’d moved 3,000 miles, in part, to build a life that looked a little more like the vision Ikea presented in its catalog and showrooms: laughing dinner parties in small-yet-functional dining rooms centered around an INGATORP drop-leaf table, happy families in well-organized playrooms with a pair of STRANDRÄG curtains, and contemplative solo moments on a fold-out sectional. Instead I was running on fumes, relying on the faint spark of life-bettering magic in the meatballs to find enough emotional sustenance to get through the next 24 hours.
The first U.S. Ikea opened in 1985 outside of Philadelphia, 30 years after the original opened in the Swedish province of Småland. I was taken to the Philly store that year as a toddler, and after that we became an unabashed Ikea family. There wasn’t an outpost yet in Seattle, where we lived, but Ikea would be my family’s first stop on regular trips to Vancouver, where the playroom’s ball pit would often be the high point of my trip.
After I aged out of the playroom, my sister and I wandered the showrooms, making up stories about the people who lived in each of the rooms, envisioning their fabulous adult lives — a game we’d continue at home each time the new catalog came. When Ikea finally opened just south of Seattle in the ’90s, my friends and I took advantage of our newly acquired driver’s licenses just to eat the meatballs, though we’d often leave with a CD holder or pack of picture frames to hold our snaps from the drugstore.
Since leaving home at 18, I’ve moved to five cities and a dozen apartments, and Ikea and the meatball plates were there for all of them: getting my first double bed at 19, livening up my flat during a bleak winter in Edinburgh, furnishing the first apartment with the man who became my husband, and then rebuilding my life after we divorced. Because it’s been a player in most of the major transitions of my life, I’ve grown up with the store in a real way — as have a lot of us older, mostly middle- and upper-class millennials, who are sometimes dubbed the “Ikea generation” because our first apartments were furnished with POÄNG chairs, BILLY bookcases, and other particleboard furnishings that represent the store’s most wallet-friendly lines (EXPEDIT, RIP).
But in winter 2016, when I made a difficult, grown-up decision to relocate from California to New York for a job, and my company-paid broker found me a fabulous duplex in a century-old Brooklyn brownstone, I decided there was no fucking way I was going to Ikea. The apartment felt like proof of my newly achieved level of adulthood, a place to fill with a solidly built couch and end tables actually from the mid-century — forever furniture, not items that filled the space until I could find better ones. I was done perpetuating the system.
What I did not anticipate was the black hole that swallowed me soon after I moved in, as I tried to process this dark, cold new home and the monumental task of constructing a life in it. Sometimes it took an hour just to pull myself out of bed in the morning, and the dream of antiquing until I found the perfect coffee table was swallowed by the void as quickly as the blonde streaks in my hair from 10 years in the California sunshine. Most nights, I was eating takeout perched on an REI camping chair at a packing-box table, surrounded by more unpacked boxes. I needed almost a whole apartment’s worth of stuff — and I knew I needed to acquire it before I sunk even further. There was only one place to turn.
The best way to approach the Brooklyn Ikea is by ferry across New York Harbor from Manhattan, and the blue-and-yellow behemoth rises from the industrial buildings of Red Hook like a bizarro Statue of Liberty, welcoming you in. As soon as I entered the warm, brightly lit atrium and took the elevator up to the showroom, I began to thaw. From the first staged living room it was all comfortingly familiar, like returning to a planet I knew after a long trip in outer space. The store was mobbed, but I didn’t care; I walked the showroom path in a euphoric daze, testing sofas and mattresses, fingering curtains and pillowcases, writing down nonsense names and warehouse coordinates with the little pencil. I’d felt lost nearly every day since I’d moved to New York. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to navigate something with confidence.
I lingered in the restaurant in the darkening afternoon far longer than necessary, savoring the KÖTTBULLAR plate and a sugary slice of princess cake as I watched the sun go down over the Manhattan skyline. Things weren’t okay in my world, not yet, but my overflowing cart was a promise that they would be; this wasn’t the first time I’d sat in an Ikea restaurant putting in the hard work of rebuilding. On the way out I added two bags of frozen meatballs and four gravy packets to the other trappings of my new life. Ikea was the first place that had felt like home in a while. Even if the store was manipulating me into that feeling of belonging, I still wanted to hang onto it for as long as I could.
As the days grew longer and warmer, I started to assign köttbullar their proper place in my life again: not the emotional core of my day but just another delicious thing to eat on occasion. When my second bag of Ikea meatballs ran out, I replaced it with a bag of frozen wontons from Chinatown and taught myself how to make another lifelong comfort food, wonton soup.
I eat it in a FÄRGRIK bowl, with a SEDLIG spoon, often at the VEJMON coffee table that I bought that winter day. It’s a good-looking table and I frequently get compliments on it, but I sort of hate it: It’s made of particleboard, the inner shelf gets wobbly, and it doesn’t have the object backstory I’d like. But I’ve come to terms with it for the moment. Like the meatballs, it got me to where I am now, not living the perfect life of the Ikea showroom but a perfectly imperfect one, maybe one step closer to the vision than I was before.
Life in Chains is Eater’s essay series exploring essential roles played in our lives by chain restaurants — great and grim, wonderful and terrible.