Don’t Blame My Icelandic Heart (Part II)

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There is the myth of immortality. At some time we all believe in it. More people believe in it than in any organized religion. Without it, there would be no armies. High risk jobs would be shunned. Crazy antics and stunts would not happen. Although, before we enter into dangerous activities, we do not kneel and pray to the god of immortality, we do offer him obeisance in our complete trust in his power.

I distinctly remember, at noon hour on a school day, racing along the highway outside of Gimli in a new Ford Fairlane owned by a friend’s parents. The goal was to see how fast it would go. No seat belts in those days. No air bags. Big motor. Big car. Public highway. Going at a speed that allowed for no mistakes, no farmer crossing the highway with his tractor, no rocks on the road, no potholes.

The land outside Gimli is flat. There’s no downhill skiing. Didn’t stop us. We found an old pair of cross country skies, tied a rope to the car bumper and raced along the highway, one of us driving, another in the ditch, skiing. Whooohoooo. We didn’t know how to stop so when we were coming up on a traffic sign or a post or anything else, we let go of the rope and fell over.

We worshiped the god of immortality. Yet, around us, teenagers died from drinking and driving (oh, did I mention that? Drinking and driving. Only an idiot would have thought you could drive properly without a few drinks to loosen up, sometimes, quite a few drinks.). Changing drivers at 60 miles an hour was a good trick. So was trading positions with someone in the back seat. You climbed out the window and into the back, then the person in the back climbed out the window into the front seat.

Hunting was usually an exercise in bowing to the god of immortality. You know, two friends in a duck boat in the marsh at Willow Island, one yells duck, his partner stands up and says where just as his buddy lets fly with his twelve gauge shotgun. The god of immortality took care of them that day. Left one of them with a throbbing headache but at least he still had his head.

Sometimes, worship wasn’t enough. There was an airbase next to Gimli. The young pilots were learning to fly Harvards, bright yellow trainer planes. From time to time, while we were watching, one of the planes would fall out of the sky. We’d be shocked, say something like “Did you see that?” and there would be sirens followed by a day of gossip but it made no difference, we never wavered in our belief in our immortality.

Getting older robs the god of Immortality of adherents. Older men don’t make as enthusiastic front line soldiers. They are inclined to wear seat belts. They calculate the odds, insist on wearing safety helmets and steel toed work boots. They lose friends and family members to accidents, disease. They sit at bedsides and hold the hand of someone who is dying. They have kids, kids are hostages to fortune, kids may believe in immortality but mom and dad know too much about head injuries, have read too much. They’ve lost the faith.

Later, later, as the years slip by the god of immortality is revealed as a fraud. No one gets out of life alive. No one has found the fountain of everlasting life.

Recently, I had a triple bypass. My belief in my immortality was long gone but now with an unexpected disease that was on the verge of killing me ((I saw the cardiologist’s report. It said “Urgent”), I felt vulnerable, fragile, exposed, of little more substance than the fish flies that rise from Lake Winnipeg each summer, then turn into empty exo-skeletons.

I denied there was a problem. My parents didn’t have heart disease. My friend Dennis Stefansson died of heart disease a while ago but his family is known for having heart disease. I took the stress tests as a bit of a joke except that I discovered to my dismay that I couldn’t finish them. I just need more exercise, I said to the cardiologist. He wasn’t impressed. An angiogram sorted that out. Ninety percent blockage in the artery called the widow maker. Blockages in other arteries. I protested. This is crazy. I’ve been a folk dancer, hiker, rock climber, wood cutter. My diet, while not perfect, is good. I seldom eat packaged food. I cook from scratch most of the time. I eat a gluten free diet. I was only five pounds overweight. I was often walking two miles a day.

Protesting did no good. JO came from Salt Spring Island to see the surgeon with me. She was still hoping that diet changes, supplements, stents would do the trick. The surgeon said, “Too late.”

Bad DNA was the most likely culprit. But from where? Mortality forces one to confront various truths. My mother’s parents were from Ireland. The internet reveals all secrets. Mortality from heart disease is high in Ireland compared to other countries. Ireland has the highest rate in men and is third highest in women.

Iceland, all that fish, I guess, is #158 in the world for heart disease. That’s in spite of butter, skyr and whipped cream. Icelanders love desserts. There was always such a shortage of fat in Iceland that there are folk tales about trying to obtain it. Maybe a shortage of fat isn’t a bad thing.

My Irish grandmother’s favorite saying was, “Butter betters everything.” Except your heart, of course. Slather your heart in butter and it’s going to plug up.

I’ve been checking my family’s health history. On the Icelandic side, my father’s eldest brother did die of a heart attack. My father died of pneumonia. His younger brother died of cancer. His youngest sister died of a stroke. When my grandfather’s wife died from the effects of diphtheria, he married again and had four more children. The eldest has had a quadruple bypass, his younger brother has a couple of stents, the third brother, and the youngest sibling, a sister, have no problems that I know of. So, from where came the heart disease in the eldest and next eldest? Their father was Icelandic. Their mother Polish-German.

It is hard to pinpoint a villain in this. I suspect the Irish side of the family for the dangerous DNA. However, would it have mattered if I had not believed that I was immortal, immune to vast numbers of perogis, vinarterta, rich gravy, lots of meat, pie, butter tarts, cookies, French fries, as I grew up. My mother was an exceptional cook and food was an expression of love. When my father got married, he said, “I’m going to have lemon pie every day.”

Our families had come from hard times. To be thin was the mark of poverty. To be chubby, if not fat, was a sign of prosperity. One mother, after her son had died of a heart attack in his forties said, “I thought his being fat meant he was healthy.”

If I had known, when I was young, what I know now, I would have gone Icelandic. I’d have eaten dried cod, baked cod, cod heads, rotten shark, lamb, skyr, potatoes, some occasional desserts for the calories. Would it have made a difference or are Irish hearts, slathered in butter for generations, doomed? Even when it’s only half an Irish heart.

When I am over this operation, I’ll change my diet, swallow supplements, walk every day. I’ll do my best to live until the bypasses wear out.

Time Travel: Food You’d Eat, 1772, Iceland

fishskeltonSo, there you are, a few drinks of Black Death have transported back to Iceland in 1772 and you’ve wakened hungry. What’s to eat? You start walking and what you get, if you get anything, because that will depend whether or not it is a time of plenty or a time of famine.

Surprisingly, if you do get something to eat, traditional food has changed so little since 1772, that you would recognize some of it from Thorrablots.

You’d be served milk, warm from the cow or cold, and sometimes, boiled. You might be served butter milk, straight or diluted with water.

driedcod

If you get any bread, it will probably be sour biscuit imported from Copenhagen but there isn’t much of this because it is expensive. You might get some rye bread if your host was able to get some from the trade ship because all the rye flour comes from Copenhagen. Your host’s wife will have mixed the flour with some fermented whey (syra) and kneaded it into a dough. She’ll then have made a flat cake about a foot long and three inches thick. She’ll have boiled this dough in water or whey and then dried it on a hot stone or an iron plate. If you host has an iron plate.

If you are lucky enough to be offered butter (fat of all kinds is always in short supply), you’ll get sour butter. The Icelanders seldom ate fresh or salted butter. The advantage of that it that it kept for as long as twenty years. According to von Troil, the Icelanders thought so highly of sour butter that they figured one pound of sour was worth two pounds of fresh.

You might get served mysost. Or, you might get beinga-ftriug, that is the bones and cartilages of beef and mutton, and bones of cod that have been boiled in whey until they are so soft and fermented that they can be served with milk.

If you are fortunate, you might get a piece of dried cod with a bowl of sour butter.

If you are on the coast, you’d probably get a drink of blanda, that is water mixed with one twelfth syra which is quite acidic. If it is winter time, you might get some black crow berries in your blanda. That would be good to stave of scurvy.

You might get a drink of sour milk. Our host would have paid two-fifths of a Danish rigs dollar for a cask. If you were visiting a well off farmer you might get a drink of beer imported from Copenhagen or he might have brewed some of his own. If you were lucky enough to be at one of the important farmsteads where the farmer owned a lot of land and sheep and cows, you might get coffee. If you were at an ordinary person’s house, you’d likely get a kind of tea which they’d make from the leaves of Speedwell which they could collect wild.

Iceland was no different than any other country then or now. If you were an important farmer, you could afford to eat meat, butter, shark and whale. If you were a crofter or hired help, indentured servant, you had to make do with fish, blanda, milk pottage made with rock-grass (Icelandic moss), and boiled and fermented bones.

Most of the time, the diets were very monotonous, the ingredients unvarying but adequate. However, Iceland suffered tremendous famines. Large numbers of people died of hunger. According to von Troil, these came about because the ice from Greenland came in great quantities into the harbours and prevented the grass from growing and kept people from fishing.

What he thinks of the Icelandic diet, remember this is a person from the upper class on an expedition financed by a wealthy nobleman, can be seen in that they drank “port, and several other sorts of good wine, and a French cook prepared for us some savoury dishes, and excellent puddings.”

They did ask a wealthy Icelander to provide them with a supper made from Icelandic ingredients. The fish and lamb were wonderful. The dried fish and sour butter were only tasted but the rotted shark drove them from the table.

So, there you have it, what you’ll get to eat if you try time travel, Icelandic style.

One thing is for certain, unless it was a time of famine, although food was often short, even the poorest people would give you something to eat. When people entered a home, they invoked god, and although we may have fallen away from the church, they took their religious lessons seriously and did as the Good Samaritan for the stranger even though he was of a different faith.