The Essential Woman

stonewarecrock
First, there was the need for our pioneer ancestors to find food but, once having found it, they needed to preserve it. My great grandfather, after he moved to Gimli, once went hunting in the dead of winter, deep snow, bitter cold, and came back with nothing. When he did bring game back, his wife needed to know what to do with it.

It’s no good having managed to hunt or grow or harvest wild food and not be able to store it in a fashion that means it is available for the coming days, weeks, months. This was particularly critical during times that were out of season. We have become so used to grocery stores, just imagine that, grocery stores where you can buy groceries of all kinds, many from distant places, fresh peas in the pod from China, mangos from California, rice from Thailand.

We have, I’ve noticed a wide variety of eggs to choose from. There are those everyday eggs, the ones produced in huge chicken factories. However, we also have eggs from chickens fed only on a vegetarian diet. We have eggs with Omega 3. We have free run eggs. The eggs aren’t actually free run. It is the chickens that get to run about instead of being confined in cages so tiny that their legs rot off. There is a difference between free run eggs and free range eggs.

When I was a child, there was only one kind of chicken egg. I say chicken egg because you could also, for a short time each year, buy duck eggs. If you were at an isolated fish camp in the spring, you could collect seagull’s eggs. It probably was illegal but when my mother wanted to bake a cake and there were no fresh eggs available, that’s what being isolated meant, most things were not available, she would hike herself down to the shore and plunder a nest.

However, those farm eggs, I don’t know why they were called farm eggs, maybe because they were bought locally from the small mixed farms in the area or from farmer’s wives who went door to door selling eggs. Fresh from the farm, no intermediaries. A woman in a babushka who said something like, “You wanna buy eggs, missus?”
My grandparents lived in Winnipeg, had just managed to survive the Great Depression, and my grandmother put three meals a day on the kitchen table because she’d learned how to not waste anything, including eggs. There was no such thing as a freezer. They had an ice box. That was a fridge with a compartment at the top where you could put a block of ice that you bought from the ice man who came once a day with horses and a wagon. It helped keep milk and cream from curdling and it did keep milk and fish cool but it didn’t preserve anything. The freezer was the closed in front porch. Once the temperature reliably stayed below zero anything that needed to be preserved by freezing could be put in boxes on the porch.

Eggs were a problem. You didn’t want to freeze eggs. Also, in those days, there were times when the chickens quit laying. Eggs were in short supply. They also became expensive. You wanted to buy them when they were cheap. When those ladies in babushkas came to my grandmother’s back door, my grandmother said, “I’ll take twelve dozen.”

Then she sterilized a couple of stoneware crocks. She put a pint of water glass into nine pints of water. She packed the eggs into the crock, filled it with the water glass and put a fitted wooden lid onto it so the waterglass wouldn’t evaporate. She stored it in a corner of the house but where it wouldn’t freeze.

I remember being sent to get eggs out of the waterglass. I think I usually said “Yuck, agghh, oohhhh,” because of the feel of the waterglass. The eggs lasted a long time but by the time the last ones were being used up the shells were rubbery. However, I don’t remember the taste being affected. If my memory serves me correctly, the white of the eggs were “loose”. I think that is how my grandmother described them. Scrambled, it made no difference. The taste of the fresh eggs when they were available, when the price dropped, was better, no doubt about it. Still, if the choice is waterglass preserved eggs or no eggs, we chose waterglass eggs.

Women, during my grandmother’s time, even during my mother’s time of raising a family, were encyclopaedias of food producing, collecting, preserving. Their knowledge was critical to their family’s survival. My grandmother wasn’t a pioneer woman. She left a prosperous family in Ireland to move to Winnipeg, Manitoba, a bustling city that was called the Chicago of the North.

The vast transportation network, financial network, agricultural network that brings us pineapples in January, vast amounts of frozen fruit from Europe, taro root from wherever taro root grows, didn’t exist. Those fresh Chinese sugar peas at fifty cents a package were flown here in a commercial jet. In the 1930s and 1940s there were no commercial jets, no jets, airplanes were small, the distances they could fly, short.
Women and women’s knowledge made survival possible.

Men married women off immigrant boats, women they’d never seen before, because they knew that on their own, they could not survive. History is replete with pictures of cowboys astride horses herding those little dogies but it was their wives who knew how to cut them up, preserve them and put food on the table while the temperatures were forty below, the wind whistled and snow piled up to the eaves.

A Vínarterta Icelander No More

vinarterta2
I hate to admit it but I’m no longer a vínarterta Icelander.

You know the kind. I love going to Íslendingadagurinn, the celebration of our Icelandic heritage, that takes place in Gimli every summer. I do the rounds. The Viking village on Bill’s Hill. The Viking demonstrations of fighting with swords and spears.

At the harbour, I visit the tents with one million earrings made by hand somewhere east of Dauphin or imported from India. There is an entire village of tents filled with wooden toys, pottery gnomes, scarves from the Far East, fake shrunken heads, sweaters from Korea.

I never miss the sand sculptures. Or the bathing beauties playing volleyball. At the dock there’s the Something-Dunk where people sit on a slippery pole out over the harbour water and flail at each other with pillows until someone falls off.

The big event of the weekend is the parade. One thousand and sixty-seven Shriners, some Knights of Columbus, people dressed up like Vikings, the local potentates riding in convertibles, some Scots bagpipers (I think they are Shriners, too), a large farm wagon loaded with real Icelanders who often are members of a visiting choir and who regale us with songs, the words of which no one understands.

The parade is so popular that people start setting up chairs along the parade route two hours before the parade. By the time the parade starts, the crowd is three deep on the sidewalks.

There’s the Gimli park. This is the centre of the universe. It’s a block square, has a large heritage hall, a stage with backdrops painted with scenes from Iceland, plus the pioneer cairn that was moved from third avenue. The parade starts outside of town because all the floats need a large space to assemble. There are a lot of floats.

Often families are having reunions and when they do, they make up a float and march in the parade to let everyone know they are having a reunion. Just to be sure everyone understands why they are in the parade, they carry a sign made from a bed sheet that says something like VALGARDSON REUNION. They often come after a group of clowns on miniscule tricycles and in front of Shriners in glossy costumes with yellow shoes that turn up at the toes.

Interspersed are local politicians reminding the local voters who to vote for in the coming election.

Clowns used to throw away three and a half tons of candy but at the last parade I attended, I didn’t get to collect any candy. Some kid in New York dashed out for free candy at one of their parades and got run over by motor cycle cop and since that happened, no free candy for anyone. I didn’t think it was a real problem. When the candy wasn’t thrown far enough and landed on the road, I always just pushed the kids out of the way and said, “That’s dangerous. Stay where you are, I’ll get it.” I used to collect all the candy I needed to give out at Halloween.

At the Gimli park, at the head of the parade, the Mounties whose faces have turned redder than their uniforms from marching in the heat stop and stand in a respectful manner while sweat spills over the tops of their boots. The Fjallkona, that is, the Maid of the Mountains, the woman chosen in an enclave more secret than that which selects popes, descends regally from the car with her two princesses to place a wreath at the pioneer cairn. The Fjallkona is our queen for the year and wears a royal outfit, a headdress, a green robe with ermine trim and, of course, other things. For whatever reason, an older woman is always chosen. Someone said that she is supposed to represent dignity and wisdom. I’ve always thought the Fjallkona should be the current Miss Iceland. It would improve the male attendance at the ceremonies.

The dance hall is converted to a cultural centre for the weekend. Tables are set up to display those things that are culturally connected to the Icelandic community. Bags of Icelandic coffee (kaffi) are for sale. Historic pictures are for sale. Books–antique ones are sold by Jim Anderson, modern ones by Lorna Tergesen of Tergesen’s bookstore. Not just any books. Books by Icelandic and Icelandic Canadian authors like me.

Logberg-Heimskringla, the oldest ethnic newspaper in Canada, has a table where members of the board and volunteers encourage the circulating crowd to subscribe. It’s a hard sell. I may be biased because I was editor of LH for a short time when it was desperate for someone to check spelling, punctuation and grammar but in spite of my having been editor, I tell people it is worth purchasing a subscription.

There’s a kitchen that has Icelandic food and coffee (kaffi). I don’t go there anymore since I’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease. It’s too painful not to be able to eat vínarterta ( a six layer prune tort with cookie layers between the mashed prunes), kleinur (Icelandic donuts), pönnukökur (crepes spread with brown sugar and rolled), brúnt brauð og rúllupylsa (pickled lamb flank on brown bread), rosettes (originally Swedish, they are thin, crisp shells often served with a dab of whipped cream and strawberry jam). I can eat skyr (Icelandic yogurt) but a dish of skyr, as good as it is with local strawberries, doesn’t assuage my grief.

When it isn’t Íslendingadagurinn, I go to the Reykjavik bakery for coffee. The baker, Birgir, is from Iceland. I ignore the displays of Icelandic pastries. I particularly resent not being able to eat the cookies shaped like Viking helmets with horns. Which brings us to the subject of Viking helmets. Historically accurate Viking helmets are not adorned with cow’s horns. It’s too bad because the truth is authentic Viking helmets are boring. I’d never choose one over a helmet with horns. A helmet with horns is much more useful. In a pinch it can be wielded as a weapon or used to roast two wieners at once over an open fire.

Next to the Betel nursing home there is a large statue of a Viking with horns. I take a picture of it every summer. I’m not sure why. It looks the same every year. Thousands of people take their picture with it. They stand in front of it, sit on it, climb on it. Bus loads of people descend to have their picture taken in front of it. I don’t just take its picture. I also rub its knee for good luck.

A lot of the fun of being an Icelandic Canadian (American) is food. You get to try svið (cooked sheep’s heads), hakarl (deep sea shark that is rotted), mutton soup, dried cod with butter, seaweed and horsemeat. I can eat all of those. No gluten in any of them. But what is the point of cleaning your plate if there is no dessert as a reward? If you’re brave enough to eat deep sea shark that has been buried in the sand for six months, then dug up for your pleasure, you should be rewarded with all the vínarterta (iced) you can eat.

You can now get Icelandic beer in Gimli but I can’t drink that either (gluten).

It’s enough to make me embrace the Irish side of my family. I can eat all the potatoes I want. No gluten. And Irish stew. And tea. Maybe I’ll become a potato Irishman and go to celebrations of the spud and dance to the penny whistle. My father used to put a thick coat of clay on potatoes and pop them into a bed of coals in our back yard. They were delicious. Although he was Icelandic, I thought he baked potatoes this way because my mother was Irish and he was acknowledging her ethnicity.

Maybe I’ll go half-way and eat Icelandic mutton soup with baked potatoes. It won’t be the same, though. Nothing beats a plate of pönnukökur, vínarterta, kleinar, and rúllupylsa on brown bread with a pot of Icelandic coffee made in a poki (an old sock).

I’ll do my best. I’ll hang onto the sagas, onto Havamal, onto LH, onto an Icelandic helmet with horns. It won’t be the same, though. Someone who can’t eat vínarterta will have a hard time convincing anyone he has Icelandic genes.

Making Hay, 1862

making hay

The first time I went to Iceland, Finboggi Gudmundsson took me to the farm where my great great grandfather and my great grandfather lived and worked before they left for Amerika.

It was one of those fine Icelandic days with no wind off the North Sea, the sky was cloudless, the sun warm. It was the perfect day for making hay and, when we reached the farm, the farmer and his wife were in the hay field.

It was the greatest compliment they could give that they stopped haymaking long enough to serve us coffee and cake and have a brief conversation. I walked the beach were my great grandfather Ketill walked, sat on the stone wall where he used to sit. Then we were away and the farmer and his wife were back to the field making the precious hay for their sheep and cows.

In 1862 when A. J. Symington goes to Iceland, he stops at Thingvalla. They are treated well by the priest, Mr. S. D. Beck (are any of you descendants of his?).

“He is a pastor literally and metaphorically, farming and fishing as well as preaching. Hay, however, is the only crop which is raised here; and the Icelanders are consequently very dependent upon the h ay-harvest. With their short summer they might not inappropriately quote Shakspeare’s lines,

“The sun shines hot; and if we use delay
Cold biting winter marks our hoped for hay.”

Symington gives us one of the clearest pictures of haying that I have found. He says, “The scythe used by the Icelanders is quite straight and not half the length of ours. The numerous little hummocks, with which pasture land is covered, necessitate the use of a short implement, so that it may mow between and around them; the hillocks are form one to two feet high, and from one to four feet across. In some places the ground presents quite the appearance of a churchyard or an old battle-field. These elevations are occasioned by the winter’s frost acting on the wet subsoil. If levelled they would rise again to the same height in about 7 or 8 years; but the farmers let them alone, because they fancy they get a larger crop from the greater superficial area of the field, and this old let-alone custom certainly saves them much labour. The primitive state of their agriculture, as well as the peculiar nature of the Icelandic soil, may be inferred from the fact, that there are only two plows in the whole island and no carts. A spade, a scythe two feet long, a small rake with teeth about an inch and a half deep, and ropes made of grass or hair to bind the hay, which is carried on men’s backs or conveyed by horses to be stacked, are all that the farmer requires for his simple operations. The hay, especially that which grown in the tuns, is of fine quality, tender and nutritive; and, with even any ordinary attention to drainage, many a fertile vale cold be made to yield much more than is now obtained from it.”

One crop. Upon it life depended. Everyone turned to making hay for this was not a grain economy. The Icelandic population lived on hay for hay fed their sheep and cows and those two beasts provided milk, meat and wool.

The rule was simple. Harvest enough hay to keep your animals through the winter or you will die of hunger. Those who lived close to the ocean might supplement the hay with seaweed but it was a supplement, not a staple.

With every stroke of the short scythe, with every pull of the rake, the haymakers could think that will be another mouthful of skyr, a drink of whey, a piece of smoked meat this winter. It was a direct equation your ancestors all understood.

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.