Left: from top to bottom, left to right): Hangikjöt, Hrútspungar, Lifrarpylsa, Blóðmör, Hákarl, Svið. Right: Rúgbrauð, Flatbrauð (courtesy Wickipedia)
Ethnic food. What is it really? Nostalgia for the past? For a past that never really existed? A romantic view that is comforting? A romantic view that leaves out the hunger, the poverty, the oppression, the drudgery, the lack of opportunity, the daily brutality of trying to get enough food on which to survive?
How desperately hungry must people have been to have eaten a shark that had washed up on the beach and was rotten? Just think of how it must have worked. A shark washed up on the beach. People were starving. The shark is fresh. They eat the flesh. They bleed to death internally. Someone finds a rotted shark and eats it and they don’t die. And, although the flesh stinks, it is something that can be eaten.
How desperately hungry were people at times? They were so hungry that they boiled and ate their sheep skin shoes. They put bones in whey to soften them enough that they could be eaten. That’s how hungry. How romantic is that?
A friend of mine showed me some photographs of waterfalls and mountains and said, “That’s the country our people left.” No. That’s the landscape our people left. You can’t eat waterfalls or mountains. You can’t eat beauty. Our ancestors left a country with one crop: hay. At a time when the short growing season was often so cold that the ground didn’t thaw, even grass didn’t grow and sheep and cattle had to be slaughtered because there was no fodder. Even collecting seaweed didn’t provide enough feed to keep animals alive through the winter. They left a country where the sheep were afflicted with scabies and lungworm. When Bjartur of Summerhouses has to kill his sheep because lungworm were hanging out their nostrils, he wasn’t the only one. When people waded into the swamps to cut a handful of grass, it was because grass was so precious that even a handful was worth wading in ice cold water.
There was no Safeway, no 7-11, no Loblaws. There were some Danish trading stores and if you had enough wool or a few fish, you could trade them for some rye flour or biscuits, some coffee, maybe some sugar. But the Danes weren’t giving anything away. There wasn’t another store down the block. You paid their price or you got nothing. You were less a customer than a beggar, hoping they’d take what you had to offer and giving you something in return.
The entire year was spent just getting enough food stored to last until the next spring.
Maybe, though, when we say we’re proud of our Icelandic heritage and eat Þorramatur, it’s a way of paying our respects to the past, to the people who ate rotted shark and softened bones, who ate seaweed, who ate boiled sheepskin. Because they did, they lived and we’re here. Dead people don’t have kids. Our ancestors managed to stay alive.
Recipes cost nothing to transport. Recipes were in the heads of the wives and mothers and grandmothers. In North America, after the initial period, the ingredients could not only be found but found in an abundance unknown in Iceland. Grain. Lots of grain. Not just for the bishop or Danish merchants in Reykjavik but ordinary farmers ordinary working people. Rye, flax, oats, wheat. The Icelanders who went to work on the farms in Canada during haying season said the work was brutally hard but the food was good and you could eat all you wanted. That was a miracle. To be able to eat all you want.
The first winters after the Icelanders came to New Iceland, they went hungry. When they caught enough fish that they could eat fish twice a day, they felt fortunate. There were no hams and roasts. No banquet tables. No Thorrablot tables laden with more food than anyone could eat.
Today, at Thorrablot, when we eat rúbrauð, that dense, dark rye bread, we choose to eat it. We eat it in memory of the past when bread was a luxury, when it was cooked in the hot ground. No one today has to eat putrefied shark or súrsaðir hrúspungar, the pickled testicles of lambs. The lifrarpylsa, liver sausage, and the bloómöör or slátur, a blood pudding made from lamb´s blood, suet, rye flour and oats, common during my childhood, have disappeared. We´re no longer an agricultural, rural society doing our own slaughtering, wasting nothing, not even testicles and blood.
So maybe, when we say we’re proud of our heritage and we demonstrate it by attending a Thorrablot, it is not that we are honouring the god, Thor, or even celebrating the approach of spring, but we are acknowledging the hunger of our ancestors, their brave and desperate trip to North America, their struggle to feed their families. Maybe, as we fill our plates with rúllupylsa, hangikjöt, beef, potatoes, salads, bread, carrots, peas, white sauce, when we go back for desserts, for skyr, pönnokökur, kleiner, vinarterta, when we fill our cup with coffee, we’re saying to those ghostly figures from our past, see, all that suffering was worth it, you came to give your children and grandchildren and great grandchildren food and opportunity and here, as we raise our fork, it’s in tribute to you, it’s proof that it was all worthwhile, the leaving Iceland, the ocean voyages, the deaths, the travel across half a continent, the scurvy, the smallpox, the grubbing out farms with a mattock, it was all worth it and the proof is on our plates and in our stomachs. Maybe that’s why we can be proud of our food because it is both a memory of the past and a confirmation that all the sacrifices were worthwhile.