Our Icelandic North American Heritage: food

 Icelandic Canadian perogis with high bush cranberry jelly
Our Icelandic food heritage is greatly different from our Icelandic North American food heritage. How could it not be?
Ingredients in Iceland were severely limited. With one crop, grass, with meat and milk as staples, with fish that had to be preserved by drying, with no grain except what could be imported and that was nearly always rye, with even the hay crop failing sometimes because of cold summers, Icelandic women had few resources. Throw in a lack of fuel and, as a result of that, no stoves or ovens, and what Icelandic women did create bordered on the miraculous.
In the beginning, New Iceland was a food disaster. Nets too big, a lake that froze over, no cows for milk, land overgrown by thick bush, no experience hunting.
But that didn’t last long. With aboriginal help, hunting was learned, fishing under the ice was learned. Ground was cleared, root crops were planted. Grain was planted. Cows were obtained. There was lots of wood for stoves.
Right from the beginning, New Iceland wasn’t exclusively Icelandic. There were non-Icelanders already settled there. The most obvious were the local aboriginal people. There were Scots and Orkney men. They could not be expelled and the boundaries of New Iceland could not be hermetically sealed.
The first Icelandic settlers arrived in 1875, followed by the big group in 1876. In 1887 in the origins of the population were 835, Icelandic, 31 Scottish, 7 English, 1 French, 12 Scottish Metis, 1 Swedish and 1 Danish. In 1897 this dominance of Icelandic settlers would end. Icelandic immigration had fallen off and many Icelandic  settlers, attracted by better land and greater opportunities elsewhere, left New Iceland. The government opened up the area to anyone. Immediately, the first Ukrainian settlers arrived and settled in the Foley and Willow Creek districts. These were followed by Poles, Ukrainians and Germans.
The first Ukrainians to settle in the New Iceland area had come a long and difficult way. Emigrants who left the village of Kopychentsi, traveled by train to Lviv. From there to Antwerp. Then to Liverpool and, after a two week crossing of the Atlantic, to Halifax, then by immigrant train to East Selkirk. From there to Gimli. Their arrival made them part of our New Iceland heritage. By the time I was born in the late 1930s, while Gimli still had an Icelandic character with Icelandic being spoken in many homes, my school mates were from all the groups mentioned and many students, like me, had one parent who wasn’t Icelandic.
My Gimli food was the smorgasbord of a new land. My meals were made of rabbit, venison, beaver tail, moose, pickerel fillets, stuffed whitefish, smoked sunfish, smoked Goldeye. I ate Ukrainian, German, Polish food. My mother cooked, not on a hearth in a stone floor but on a wood stove with an oven and every year someone brought cords of wood to stack in the back yard and, then, someone else came and sawed it and split it. Once I was big enough, it was my job to throw the wood into the basement. I took it for granted that we had a basement,  that our house was made of wood, the roof shingled, instead of being made of layers of rock and turf.
Cookbooks reveal society and one of my mother’s locally made cookbooks reveals our culinary heritage. It’s made up of Mrs. T. E. Thorsteinson’s Apple Pie with crumb topping, Mrs. H. G. Hunter’s Pumpkin Pie (pumpkin was a new world food unknown in Europe), Mrs. S. Eyjolfsson,s Tomato mince meat, Marshmallow Delight by Mrs. E. Montague, Mrs. Vopni’s Green Pepper salad, and there is Strawberry Jam, Apricot Preserve, Cranberry Jelly. Mrs. A. Sigurdsson from Foam Lake, Sask makes Nine Day Cucumber Pickle while Mrs. F. Lindal makes Seven Day Sweet Mixed Pickles.  
There are 128 pages. Only two pages of Icelandic Dishes.  Flatbruað, Kæfa, Skyr, Mysuostur, Pönnukökur, Rúllupylsa, Fiskibollur, Lifrarpylsa, Sago Soup. Enough has changed that Mrs. B. Pell, of Leslie, Sask. felt it necessary to explain that Mysuostur is an Icelandic whey cheese.
The women nearly all have Icelandic names and those who don´t, I expect, are Icelandic but have married non-Icelanders. They’re cooking with items they could not have dreamed of having in Iceland. Lots and lots of wheat flour, canned pineapple, chicken, peppers, corn, spaghetti, apples, pears, oranges.
In our house, we ate no dried cod, no singed sheep heads, no rotted shark, no Icelandic moss, no ram’s testicles. We only ate barley in vegetable soup.
My food heritage was made of occasional Icelandic food, blood sausage, skyr, ponnokokur, vinarterta, kleinar but equally often, of perogis (although we often ate them with high bush cranberry jelly instead of sour cream), hollopchi, borscht, kubysa, poppyseed cake. It was made up of freshwater fish. Of wild game. It was made up of fruit pies (Saskatoon pie, Saskatoon pie, If I don’t get some I think I’m going to die), a wide variety of seasonal vegetables, of white bread, of green grapes and apples and oranges and, in season, plums and pears and peaches. My fondest food memories are of beef stew and dumplings, of lemon pie, of shepherd’s pie and my grandmother’s unmatchable baking powder biscuits with homemade strawberry jam.
We weren’t rich. My father was a commercial fisherman and, in the off season, a barber. But we weren’t poor, either. My Canadian food heritage has been a cornucopia from which spill out things like maple syrup, clover honey, crab apples, high bush cranberry, stuffed whitefish, morels, moss berry tarts. It includes short breads and making toffee on winter evenings, popcorn, hot chocolate after skating. Weiners roasted over an open fire, relish, mustard. Hamburgers with the works. Rolled sandwiches with Velveeta cheese and a pickle in the centre.
My food heritage, at just one level, was Canadian because the ingredients were mostly sourced in Canada. It was Canadian because it was the result of a multi-cultural mix even before the community itself had become multi-cultural, when all the contributors to my mother’s cookbook still had nearly all Icelandic names.
We tend not to think about our Icelandic Canadian food heritage but the smorgasbord of food we ate (Sam Toy’s Chinese food in the Gimli Cafe; the food we shared at Ukrainian weddings; the English, Irish and Scot’s foods we ate at the neighbours; the aboriginal foods (bannock, wild rice, blueberries) on our table are all part of that Icelandic North American heritage.  


My Mother’s Cookbooks

There are six of them. One’s missing a cover. They’re all well-worn, tattered edges, split spines. Two of them are actual cook-books made by someone else. Gimli Gourment Recipes published by the Johnson Memorial Hospital Auxiliary is in pretty good shape. It’s still got its cover. The recipes are identified by women in the community who donated them. Pie Pastry by Joey Thordarson. Doughnuts by Mrs. A. Kasupski. There’s Lekuchen and Snickerdoodles. Jello Graham Wafer Cake and something called Broken Glass Dessert. It’s made with lemon, lime and cherry “jellow” (sic). There are a lot of hamburger recipes. But the Icelandic quality of Gimli is evident with Kyofa, an Icelandic Meat Loaf. There’s no date on the cookbook but you know there wasn’t much money around because there are a lot of jello recipes and casseroles. People still made their own pickles. There are recipes for Bread and Butter Pickles and Fourteen Day Pickles.

It is impossible to tell where the second published cookbook came from because its cover is long gone. The pages are well thumbed and a bit stained from the ingredients of many recipes. It, too, owes its contents to various housewives, although these come from farther afield. Raisin, Date, and Nut Pie has been contributed by Mrs. T. S. Arason from Cypress River, Man. Million Dollar Pickle is from Mrs. F. A. Finson of Port Arthur, Ont. There are a lot of pies and tarts. Vinegar tarts. Lemon cheese tarts. Coconut tarts. Puddings are important. Part way through the book there is a loose page of Household Hints. “When silver becomes dull” it says, “rub it with a piece of potato dipped in baking soda.” “When making mayonnaise and the white of the egg to the mixture after the vinegar is added. This will prevent curdling.” These were the precursors to Martha Stewart, TV and the Internet.

Here, there are pages of recipes for pickles, relishes and jams. With these recipes you can make Watermelon Rind Pickle or pickle cherries. With all this chopping, kneading boiling, baking there was still a few minutes for leisure because there is one page for making cocktails and cooling drinks.

This book provided all sorts of support to the new housewife. In a tine of little medical assistance and few medications, it provides pages dedicated to Invalid Cookery. It details the contents of a liquid diet, a soft solid diet, a light diet, a full diet. It explains how to make gruels, how to albumenize milk, to make junket, and beef tea. It reveals its heritage with two pages on how to make flatbrauð, mysuostur and pönnukökur. That’s flatbread, a whey cheese and crepes rolled hot with brown sugar. All Icelandic.

But it is not these books that interest me as much as the other four my mother made for herself. Many of the recipes are in her tidy hand. Others have been clipped and pasted into the pages with her notes beside them. Although her parents both came from Northern Ireland, there are no Irish recipes here. She married at sixteen into an Icelandic Canadian family and community and became so much part of the Icelandic tradition that she even learned to make Rosettes.

The first recipe in the book gives the recipe for rosettes: a cup of flour, a cup of milk, a pinch of salt, 2 eggs and a teaspoon of sugar. It explains how to mix the ingredients but in a separate note to one side it says to “Dip Rosette iron into hot fat to heat. Shake off surplus fat. Dip into batter, making sure no batter goes over the edge of the mold. Dip into fat and fry till Golden Brown. Then remove and place on brown paper.” These Rosettes when made properly have the shape of a rose are light, crunchy and usually topped with a dollop whipped cream and a dab of strawberry jam. The recipe floods me with memories of watching my mother holding what looked like a branding iron, making each rosette individually, while I and my brother waited away from the hot of hot fat, knowing that we’d each get one along with instructions to go outside and play.

The pages are nearly as soft as tissue. Many of the recipes are blurred from having water or milk dropped on them. The recipe for Chinese Chews, becomes more obscure as it goes down the page.

There’s a recipe for homemade Marshmallow, for Julia’s Perogies and Holopchi. The recipes are not organized as in a formal cookbook under categories. They follow one after the other as my mother discovered them.

In the three ring binder there is a recipe for Snowballs. I pity anyone who did not grow up; having Snowballs at Christmas. They were made weeks in advance and packed into small boxes and put away until guests came for Christmas. Sinfully rich, made of mashed potatoes, icing sugar, peppermint flavoring, Baker’s chocolate, corn starch, and coconut, they melted in your mouth.

My mother loved desserts. Her lemon pies were legendary. No guest could leave without having had a raisin tart or two. However, she made other things we clamored for. Many Sundays when she asked us what we wanted for supper, we said rabbit pie. Browned rabbit, baked with vegetables and gravy, sealed with a tender pie crust.

There is a recipe for pinwheel sandwiches. When my mother made these for special occasions, my brother and I would volunteer to help make round sandwiches in return for getting to eat the ends. The bread loaf was sliced lengthwise, spread with softened cheese, then rolled around a pickle so when the roll was sliced, the sandwich had a green centre and a spiral of yellow cheese.

There’s a recipe for stew and dumplings, a dish that filled the house and had us looking around the corner into the kitchen to see how soon it would be ready. It was a family meal, first just for us, then after married, for our families as well. And in her recipe books as we grew older there is evidence of our lives. My ex is enshrined with “Mary Anne’s Pancakes.” My son with “Val’s Waffles.” My brother’s teenage girlfriend is remembered with “Nina’s Icebox Cookies.”

There are recipes for puffed wheat cake and rice crispy cake. My mother made it in large pans. She kept sacks of puffed wheat under the cupboard. No matter how busy she was there was always time for making puffed wheat cake or rice crispy cake. She had a sweet tooth and it shows in her cook books. She passed that sweet tooth on to me. I have a love for cream puffs, calla lilies, vinarterta, and pies of all descriptions, including green tomato pie.

We all learned to cook. My mother was tolerant in the kitchen. It was a domain she was happy to share. My father cooked. His specialty was fresh water fish. I cook. My brother cooked. You can’t be around someone who enjoys cooking so much and not catch some of that enthusiasm.

The last hard covered scribbler stops part way through. There are blank pages but then I stumble on a recipe for pumpkin pie. There is nothing special about it. Not like my daughter’s ice cream Sunday pumpkin pie. It’s just a regular pumpkin pie recipe. But it is written with a black marker in large letters. My mother wrote it out, I realize, after she got macular degeneration. She could no longer read her usual recipes. In these large dark letters is her tragedy. Finding ways to be able to read, to be able to cook, for a little while longer before she had to stop altogether, then go into a nursing home.

It’s all there. A woman’s life. A family’s life. The memories. The people. The years when times were hard and hamburger and jello filled the pages and later, when times were better, there was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding recipes. It’s all there.

(A slightly different version appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla)

comfort food

I had Kraft dinner for supper. Well, actually, it wasn’t Kraft dinner. It was Annie’s Rice Pasta & Cheddar.

I was diagnosed with Celiac disease three years ago. Three years without Kraft dinner. Not that I ever ate it that often but it was a great favorite when I was a kid. As an adult, I probably ate it once every couple of months but once I couldn’t have it, I longed for it. I dreamt about it. In the grocery store, I stood in the pasta section and stared at it.

Then I discovered Annie’s Rice Pasta & Cheddar at the local Co-op store. That was a surprise but an even bigger surprise was that it was reasonably priced. Most companies sock it to celiacs. You want gluten free food, you are going to pay for it. Four cookies for five dollars—or more. When I discovered the Pasta & Cheddar, I bought all three packages. Just having them in the cupboard helped stop my craving. It’s taken me three months to eat all three packages. I’ll have to stock up again.

Comfort foods come from childhood. They usually come from mom. My mother was a great cook and baker. When my mother and father got married, he said he was going to have a lemon pie every day. I know my mother didn’t make lemon pies every day but she made them often. Great lemon pies with flaky crusts, with deep, tart lemon filling, with egg whites whipped into high, twirly mounds and finished off in the over so there was just a light brown on the tips. When you cut down with your fork, you could feel the layers: the crumbling egg white, the jelly like lemon, the crispy crust breaking apart. Putting each piece in your mouth was erotic. The three textures, the three tastes, separate and together. It tasted so good that after that first bite, I used to shut my eyes and sigh.

Stew with dumplings on a cold winter day. Coming home from school, my boots crunching through the snow, I could smell the stew from the edge of the yard. I’ve tried to duplicate my mother’s stew but have never succeeded. She made it in a large blue enamel roasting pan and cooked it for half a day. Chuck roast for flavour, peeled potatoes, carrots, parsnips, onion, garlic, salt, pepper, bay leaf, maybe a pinch of nutmeg and, I suspect, some Demerara sugar under the roast. She would never say. Lots of gravy because after the table was set, she put in the dumplings, dumplings that fluffed up so they were light, cut easily at the touch of a fork, dumplings bathed in gravy, speared with a piece of meat. Imagine a meal like that followed by lemon pie.

My father made the pickerel fillets. Great golden mounds of pickerel fillets from fish he’d caught that morning. In season he fried the roe to go with them. Roe that was crispy and mild. Sometimes, if the pickerel were big enough, he’d take out the cheeks, dip them in batter and deep fry them. The fillets he dipped in a mixture of milk, egg and tomato ketchup, dredged them in flour, then dipped them again and dipped them in fine bread crumbs. No matter how bad my day had been by the end of a meal like this and the world had righted itself.

Comfort food. Food made with love, shared with love, containing memories of childhood, of family meals, of going to sleep with a full stomach and a smile.