“That’s actually pretty good.” The clerk ringing me up pointed to the picture on the cover of the book I was purchasing, “Does Anyone Actually Eat This?” The cover featured a sheep’s head—teeth intact—that had been split lengthwise.
“Have you tried it yet?” he asked, as if eating a sheep’s head was an inevitable rite of passage in every person’s life.
He was so gorgeous—tall, blonde, blue eyed, and beaming at me with a warm and friendly smile—I would have been prepared to stand there and discuss sheep skulls with him all day if there hadn’t been a line behind me. So I admitted I hadn’t, yet—no. He enthusiastically encouraged me to give it a try and included instructions for the closest restaurant that served it. I thanked him, collected a stack of purchases, and smiled inwardly at the fact that 15 years ago I would have asked him for an escort to the restaurant when he got off work. But those days have passed. Instead, I looped my arm in Jock’s and we headed back to our camper to pick up “The Ring Road” and continue our travels around Iceland.
In the camper I began to read aloud to him from the book, which included recipes for making svid (the aforementioned sheep head dish) and surir hrutspungar, sourer ram’s testicle, which are cooked then put into molds and cut into shapes (the book had pictures of them in heart shapes), and abrystir—or pudding made from colostrum. Colostrum is the first milk from a cow after giving birth. Obviously, this book was written with a certain amount of shock value in mind. On that front Nanna Rögnvaldardóttir succeeded. But as my interaction with the cute store clerk bore out, people do actually eat the food she talks about. Clearly, all ethnocentrism aside, there is value in reading further and learning why these foods have developed and continued to be part of Iceland’s culture for the last 1,000 years. A culture’s daily life and values can be seen easily through food traditions.
Rögnvaldardóttir seems to have figured out how to bridge the gap between foreigners who are trying to learn about Iceland and the evolving world of Icelandic cookery. She was born on a remote farm without electricity and a coal-burning cooking stove; she learned to cook with her mother. Out of curiosity about how to actually prepare some of what she discusses (especially the fish and potato stew that is served on a plate almost everywhere), I picked up a copy of the new and revised “Icelandic Food and Cookery.” It partly is a recipe book, but mostly an ethnographic history of food in Iceland, beginning with Viking and Celtic settlement and the introduction of livestock, then coming through the British and American occupations of WWII. She brings her work into the 21st century and notes the changes in available food for an island that imports most commodities.
Her writing style is fascinating. She blends incredibly well-researched and detailed history with personal experiences, family heritage and saga references (the Icelandic Saga’s are the national literary heritage of Iceland cataloging early settlement and referenced in more walks of life than outsiders will ever understand). Just when it’s unclear how much more can be learned about Icelandic cooking, she introduces “Holidays and Festivals” with an accompanying history of foods.
Iceland is unique; there is no way around it. Bread can be baked in cauldrons in hot springs, and fresh fruits and vegetables are really recent introductions to the Icelandic diet (many are currently grown in geo-thermal greenhouses). Rögnvaldardóttir half jokes the low-carb diet fads sweeping the developing world are just mimicking Iceland’s traditions of lots of fish and meat with very little in the way of grain products. Actually, much like American cooking has absorbed waves of immigration, so has Icelandic cooking. Early Norwegian influences give way to traditional Danish cooking—both tempered with available ingredients in one of the harshest climates in the world.
Largely the cuisine stabilizes for centuries until WWII. Then the British introduce fish and chips to a country that fishes constantly. Certainly fish and chips are on menus almost everywhere, but it is the American dinner with hamburgers (eaten with a fork and knife) that seem to capture the imagination of Icelanders. It is easier to find pizza or a burger in Iceland than to eat lamb. Since mutton is one of the few major exports of the island that is a real surprise. Just like Americans put their stamp on immigrant food, so does Iceland. A hamburger may come with a fried egg and a slice of canned pineapple on top. Pizza liberally will be sprinkled with fish and other “candy of the sea.”
But the second book, at least, just doesn’t do history; it presents really wonderful, approachable recipes. Yes, I did find a very simple recipe for the fish stew we loved. It began with: “Pick over the fish to ensure that all bones and skin have been removed.”
Some of the other recipes are a bit intimidating: Preparing roast puffin breast, for example, is a bit more than I am ready to imagine, let alone attempt. But “Mother’s Dream Cake” from the standard school home-economics textbook puts the constancy of life in perspective. It is a fairly straightforward cake recipe that reminds what women have been expected to do from the beginning: create a home life that not only sustains but makes life worth carrying on.