Many people reading this blog site will have been to Iceland and while there have been offered hákarl (rotted shark) and brennivin. Brennivin is a kind of schnaps with the nickname Black Death. When you eat rotted deep sea shark, you usually wash it down with Black Death. The brennvin, I’ve found makes my mouth so numb that I can’t taste the putrid shark.
When you travel and spend time with the local people where you visit, you’ll always be subjected to various tests. A lot of the time the tests have to do with food.
One time when I was in Iceland, I was taken to a restaurant and when my host asked what I would like, shocked by the cost and unable to read an Icelandic menu, I told him to order. He ordered raw whale meat and raw prawns. The whale meat was delicious and the prawns quite tasty.
Because both the whale and the prawns were caught off the coast of Iceland, I had no fear of being poisoned by pollution. The seafood comes from the cleanest fishing grounds in the world.
Some people claim to enjoy hákarl. I find the claim far-fetched but then some people enjoy being masochists. On the prairies, it would be similar to claiming that you enjoy being sprayed by a skunk.
However, the ritual offering of rotted shark and the sharing of it is valuable because it is a reminder of the poverty that held Iceland in its iron grip for centuries. Protein was in short supply. So was fat. So was grain. Deprived of grain crops by the drop in world temperatures, Icelanders were left with only one crop, grass. On that grass, cattle, sheep and horses had to feed. Deprived of a fair price for their meager trade goods by the Danish trade monopoly, Icelanders could not add to their food supply. With their precious arable land destroyed in places by volcanic eruption, they were pushed to the very edge of survival.
Food was so scarce and so precious that the worst crime that could be committed was to steal food.
Deep sea shark eaten fresh will kill you. The sharks, because of the depth at which they live, excrete their urine through their flesh. When the shark has been buried in the cold sand of a beach for six months, enough of the urine has dissipated that the flesh is edible. However, the urine has not all gone and the taste is challenging. Everyone who braves eating rotted shark should have a t-shirt that says, “I ate hákarl and survived.” Only starving people would have first eaten shark that had washed ashore and lay there long enough to be safe to eat. That’s like eating road kill.
Not only was protein in short supply in Iceland but there was so little fat available that the longing for fat has become part of Icelandic folk lore. In one story, a man sits nearly all night on a crossroad, refusing to be tempted by anything so that when dawn breaks, he will receive a large reward. He breaks his fast because he is offered fat and he says, “I couldn’t refuse the fat.”
The weather was too cold for grain to ripen. In its place there was a small amount of expensive imported barley or rye available for those who could afford it and, in some places in years when the weather was mild, the seeds of lime grass. Icelandic moss (actually a lichen) replaced grain and was used with other ingredients to make a kind of flat bread. In place of bread, dried cod was eaten with butter. The poor ate cod’s heads.
One time, when I was in Iceland, I saw an advertisement for a traditional Icelandic supper. I went and tried everything, including the ram’s testicles. They were a bit chewy and pretty well tasteless. The mutton soup was excellent. The rest of the meal must have been made up of foods I was used to eating: skyr, pancakes, rullupylsa, because I have no memory of them. There were cubes of rotted shark and an ounce of Black Death. There was no svið (a split and roasted sheep’s head). I’m sure that if there had been I’d have remembered an eye staring at me.
The traditional foods of immigrants are usually the foods of poverty because most of those who emigrated were the poor. The wealthy land owners and the nobility weren’t inclined to leave their home country. Why would they? Their political and social systems gave them everything the needed or wanted. Those people only moved when there was a political revolution and moving saved them from the firing squad or the chopping block.
One time when I was talking to a Ukrainian Canadian about emigration, he said, “We came to eat.”
Icelanders also came to eat. So did Norwegians and Danes and Swedes. There are documents from Scandinavia about people in times of starvation joining hands and jumping off cliffs. In times of starvation. Not because they missed one meal. Because they were dying of hunger and there was no food. None.
Today, there is still starvation but it is in countries like Somalia or North Korea where politics and warfare destroy the ability of people to create their own food.
In North America, we don’t have starvation but we do have hunger. That is in spite of the fact that in North America we have so much food that grocery stores have aisles devoted to nothing but dog and cat food.
We still live in a time of abundance. Our ability to grow food is such that we export it to other countries at so low a cost that we make it impossible for their farmers to earn a living.
Every week, stores throw out hundreds of thousands of pounds of food. Meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, bread. Into the dumpster. Sugar peas flown all the way from China. Into the dumpster. Meat shipped all the way from Australia. Into the dumpster. Manitoba pork. Into the dumpster.
No need to eat rotted shark. No demand for ram’s testicles. When we eat these, we are eating the memory of the times of starvation, when being fat was a sign of health and wealth, when being poor meant being emaciated and hungry all the time.
However, times are changing once again. In Vancouver, there are long lineups at the food kitchens. In Victoria, the Mustard Seed, a church that feeds poor people needs money so desperately to buy groceries that it has taken out of mortgage on its property. We have defeated diseases like polio, have driven back the scourge of tuberculosis. But we have not found a way to feed the hungry even though we waste vast quantities of food. We subsidize the use of corn for fuel so that corn for food is taken away from the food supply. That drives the price of food up, putting many food products out of the reach of the ill, the old, the unemployed, the working poor.
When you are in Iceland, eat rotted shark, chew on ram’s testicles but, as you eat them, remember why they are part of our history, remember the times of starvation and why our people migrated to Canada. We came to eat.When the immigrants first came to Canada, they faced hard times. Diaries and letters are filled with references to the struggle to provide food for their families. They’re also filled with references to the generosity of neighbors sharing what they had and of Icelandic community groups holding fund raising events to pay for groceries to help feed those less fortunate. It’s a good tradition, a tradition of which we can be proud. When we say “I’m proud to be of Icelandic origin.”, let this be one of the things of which we are proud.