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.  


Saving Our Heritage: Food

Food, more than any other element of ethnicity, helps define an ethnic group. It helps create and maintain identity.  When we want to celebrate, the first question we ask is what shall we eat? When we want to praise our Icelandic heritage, we most often praise our distinctive, celebratory foods.
When we have a celebration such as a Thorrablot, we often take people of non-Icelandic background with us as guests and say things like, wait until you taste this, try this. We revel in the unique taste of a vinarterta but also in the grossness of hakarl and revel in the telling of how it is made.
Food matters. It matters because the ingredients, the taste, the smell, the feel, all contain memories of the food’s origin.
When we eat dried cod with butter, although we now eat it as an appetizer, not as a staple in our diet, or even as a main course in our celebrations, we are recognizing and appreciating how central it was to our ancestors.
At one time it was possible to grow barley in Iceland but with the beginning of The Little Ice Age, grain would no longer ripen. All grain had to be imported and, with the cost of transportation plus the Danish trade monopoly, grain was expensive. Dried cod took its place. Because there was no fat in the dried fish, it was served with sour butter.
Shepherd, visiting Iceland in 1862, says, “”ling and cod are the most desired sorts (of fish). When caught, they are split open and hung upon lines, or exposed on the shore to the cold winds and the hot sun; this renders t hem perfectly hard, and they keep good for years. In this dried state it is called stock-fish. It is impossible to eat it until it has been well pummeled on a stone anvil, with a sort of sledge-hammer, formed by a round stone with a hole drilled through it for the handle to pass through….Butter and stock-fish form the ordinary Icelandic dinner.”
The hay growing season, and hay was the only crop, was three months long. During that three months, enough food had to be prepared and stored for the nine coming months. Iceland doesn’t get cold enough for freezing to be used to keep meat. Salt was too expensive to use for most things. Ingeniously, our ancestors figured out that climate that never got very hot and seldom very cold for any length of time that they could preserve meat in whey. They had lots of whey because they made a lot of skyr.
Nothing was wasted. Hunger always stalked the land. That meant that every part of an animal was used. We recognize that when we eat rúllupylsa, rolled and spiced sheep flank. We recognize it when we eat hrútspungar, ram´s testicles pickled in whey or when we eat lifrapylsa or slátur.
There is no food in travelers tales of Iceland that is praised more than skyr. Today, we make it from cow´s milk but, in Iceland, it was made from both cow´s and sheep´s milk. Sheep were less expensive to keep, could survive on poorer ground, and provided the bulk of the milk that was used.
In 1882, Coles says at “the farm of Mjófidalr…they set before us some capital skyr, black bread, and coffee.“
Icelandic moss was a major part of the people‘s diets. It was  nutritious and could be used in many different ways, in porridges, puddings, bread or soup. C. W. Sheperd says in his book, The North-West Peninsula of Iceland, 1862, says Part of our supper consisted of Icelandic moss soup. In those parts of the island where this moss is to be found, it is collected and dried. It grows on the low moorlands, and is to be found in great abundance about Ljósaövatn in the north-eastern part of the island. When used as food, it is boiled in milk and served up like soup. It is not unpleasant, being a soft, glutinous substance but its flavour is rather sickly.“
We don‘t see Icelandic moss soup at our Thorrablots or at our dinner tables anymore, nor do we make meals of dried Icelandic seaweed but we do eat rice pudding. Rice was inexpensive and was heavily imported to Iceland.
So, when we eat brunt brauð og rúllupylsa, have kaffe with pönnukökur and kleinur, help ourselves to vinarterta or have a slice or two of hangikjöt, we aren´t just eating, we´re sharing the past.
The immigrants went through a very rapid change in their diets. Women were the keepers of the Icelandic food tradition and they had two important tasks.  One, to keep the memory of the tradition left behind and reinstate it in their new community. Two, to adapt, as quickly as possible to new ingredients and new methods of preparation and preservation.
By creating a colony called New Iceland, that is a new Iceland, just like the old Iceland, but in a different location, the Icelandic immigrant identified themselves as cultural conservatives. The role of women in recreating an Icelandic diet in a new location or at least approximating it, provided some familiarity in an otherwise totally foreign environment.
Those early immigrations of 1874 and 1875 began a process that resulted in both tragedy and triumph. Lives were enveloped in change. The one controllable factor was the ability of the women in the community to provide familiar food or its approximate. That food provided security and comfort but it also contained and exuded memory.
By learning to make and eat many of these traditional Icelandic foods, by sharing them, by passing  them down to our children and our grand children, by explaining what they are and why we make and eat them, we can do a great deal to preserve our heritage.

On Being Canadian

Canada is an immigrant country. Our immigrations have happened at different times in Canada’s history. The flood of refugees from Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, happened around the same time. However, when those surges ended because of population pressure easing, because of economic conditions improving, refugees started to come from other countries.
We all like to think that our group’s immigrant experience was unique. However, the challenges faced by having to adapt to Canada have proven to be much the same. The need to learn English or French. The need to adapt to Canadian law. The need to learn to work in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious community. The need to adapt to new ways of working, of learning new skills. The need to accept change of their most dearly held beliefs.  The need to accept intermarriage. The need to be tolerant of people who look, think, and believe differently. The need to change one’s identity from I’m Icelandic, Ukrainian, German, Polish, English, or X, to I’m Canadian.
We all want to hang onto some aspects of our community’s pre-immigration life.
Religion, for example. It has a structure that helps bind the community. It often provides organized support. The religious leaders, whatever they are called, are usually the best educated. Religious leaders can provide guidance, provide help with documents, make their believers feel less isolated. However, both the Roman Catholic priests and the Lutheran ministers, of my childhood, once powerful decision makers,  have faded away, become mostly irrelevant in a growing secular society. We no longer hold church services in Icelandic. Pews in every church are empty.
Clothes. At first, we hang onto them because that’s what we’ve got to wear. But living conditions are different and soon they are replaced and become something to wear on special holidays. Some end up in museums.When that happens, they have become the past.
Food. Food is the easiest to hold onto. Recipes come in heads of wives and mothers and grandmothers and are shared in a tight knit community. Early cook books testify to this with every recipe having a name attached to it. Runa´s peanut butter cookies. After a time, they are codified in recipe books, made available for those leaving the community and for those outside the community. Food is often part of ritual and even when it is something not eaten regularly, it appears at certain holidays. Hakarl, rotted shark, is one of those. However, some foods adapt well, are easily copied, commercialized. The perogi is probably the best Canadian example. It appears at buffets from Victoria to Newfoundland. What buffet in Gimli, the heart of New Iceland, would be complete without perogis?
Holidays. Immigrant groups keep some of these but often they fade away because the larger society has its own holidays and the larger society accommodates variety by making these holidays secular. Christmas has traded Christ for consumerism. Gifts to the Christ child have become midnight madness at Walmart. The death and resurrection of Christ have become a rabbit hopping about giving away chocolates. In an attempt to regain some sense of ethnicity, older immigrant cultures such as ours, create events around holidays that have been long forgotten, and these are fun,  but they are history lessons.
Publications. We created publications for our people out of necessity. It was the best way to provide new immigrants with information on everything from Canadian law to how to grow and store potatoes. Advice was desperately needed. Information about where and how to get work. Help with learning English. Newspapers like Lögberg and Heimskringla were essential. Now, over a hundred years later, those essential tasks no longer need to be done. We are so integrated, we no longer have immigrant needs.The paper´s current role is to provide connectivity to a widespread population of people whose relationship to their heritage is often tenuous. Intermarriage, the loss of Icelandic as a daily language, migration within and away from Canada, all are forces of ethnic community dispersal and integration into the larger society.LH can provide context, history, connection, a relationship with Iceland.
Language. At first there is no need to try to preserve language. It is the language of the immigrant community. But the demands of survival are that at a minimum, English be learned. If other ethnic groups live in the area, then there is often the need to learn those languages. My grandfather’s solution was to stop the babel of Icelandic, German, Polish, Ukrainian by declaring that English be spoken in his house. There were many like him. Many parents didn’t want their children to learn the original language so as to avoid discrimination because of having an accent. Later, when people were more established, there were classes set up but with the classes there was the acknowledgement that the immigrant language was no longer the working language of the community. For us, at the beginning, church services were in Icelandic. Newspapers were in Icelandic. But, gradually, that had to change as the language was lost. It became irrelevant to daily life and particularly irrelevant to members of the community who migrated to other areas.
What makes me think of these things is that on the weekend, I went to the funeral of a friend. She was Jamaican. The gathering of mourners was the largest I´ve ever seen. Sarah was beloved in the Jamaican community. At the service, a number of the people who spoke said how much they loved Jamaica. They reminisced about going back to Jamaica for holidays. They spoke much like some people in the Icelandic Canadian community speak about Iceland. After the service, we gathered for the reception and shared a meal of curried goat, red beans and rice, spiced chicken, salad. It was a fine reception.
Some of my people came from Iceland in 1875, others in the 1880s. We´ve been here a long time. Our connection with Iceland is not so passionate, so filled with recent loss, so closely attached as the Jamaican mourners. The large majority of the people at the funeral and reception were Jamaican but, already, there were us others, these descendents of Icelanders, sharing  friendship, grief and a meal.
Afterwards, on the trip home, I thought about me and my generation, about how my Irish half has faded, simply become Canadian, how my Icelandic half has retained something of an ethnic identity because of living in an Icelandic Canadian community when I was a child, becoming and staying involved with other Icelandic Canadian communities, and I wouldn´t want to give that up, but as I sat at Swartz Bay, waiting to drive off the ferry onto Vancouver Island, I thought about the funeral, the reception, my friends, that I would not want to give up any of this, and said to myself, this is what it means to be Canadian.

I’m Proud but proud of what?

The most significant event during my tenure as editor of Logberg-Heimskringla was a letter to the editor castigating me for my bias and narrow-mindedness, surely a fault we all share, along with the statement, “I’m a proud Icelander.”

Being Lutheran, I didn’t mind a touch of the whip. It gets one’s attention. In any case, it’s part of the job of editors to receive letters from all and sundry, letters usually written in upset, anger and even fury. The world is an infuriating place. Injustice abounds. I completely agreed with the letter writer that a worthy history had been neglected, not just by me but the entire community. My only solace was that I had already begun to plan a series that would cover the neglected history. I haven’t forgotten. That will come as I have time to do the necessary research, take the photographs and write the articles.

However, what has stuck with me even more is a simple, heartfelt statement that also was in the email. It said, “I’m a proud Icelander.”

Since the writer is a fourth generation Canadian, I was flummoxed. I didn’t know how to reply. I’m a fourth generation Canadian from one Icelandic ancestor and a fifth generation from another. I cannot claim to be Icelandic by birth or citizenship.

What then could the statement mean?

It could mean, “I’m proud of my Icelandic heritage.” That made sense. Of course, “I’m a proud Icelander.” is shorthand for pride in one’s heritage.

And what a heritage it is. It’s got more drama, tragedy, triumph, melodrama, narrative, culture, history, than you can shake a stick at. But once I had sorted this out, I was left with this voice in my head asking questions, demanding answers. The biggest of all was, “Okay, you’re proud of your Icelandic heritage. What are you proud about?”

The answers were fragmented. Bits of this and pieces of that.  I’m proud of vinartera. Can you be proud of vinarterta? To make that even more difficult, vinarterta has largely disappeared from Icelandic cooking because Icelandic cooking today is very European. I definitely like vinarterta. I’ve eaten vast numbers of vinarterta slices in my lifetime. Would one say, “I’m proud of rabbit stew.”? I like rabbit stew. But am I proud of it? And rullapylsa and ponnokokur and rosettes (woops, rosettes are Swedish). Okay, okay. But I am proud of Icelandic desserts in that I enjoy sharing them with friends. I like saying, “Try this prune torte.”

I like taking non-Icelanders (see, there it is again, saying people of non-Icelandic descent is such a mouthful) to Thorrablot. I like seeing them try the Icelandic dishes. I take a certain pride in explaining what they are and a bit of the history behind them. I like watching their eyes get big when I explain about rotted shark. There’s a certain perverted satisfaction in scoffing up a plate of dried cod with butter. Mmmm mmmm! Worn asphalt shingle with motor oil. I don’t care. I enjoy it and if it wasn’t there, I’d miss it.

But is that an Icelandic heritage? I also like peroghis, hollopchi, Won Ton soup, apple pie, curries of all kind and like bragging a bit about how liking all those things is about being Canadian. I also like maple syrup, tortiere, BBQ ribs, blackberry pudding. In a bow to the little bit of English in my genetic code, I also like the occasional kipper for breakfast but no kipper ever smoked has come close to being as good as a Lake Winnipeg Goldeye but that’s not Icelandic, it’s Gimli. It’s part of my Icelandic Canadian heritage and I’m proud of the fact that it is served at events like embassy suppers. Some of us have heritages that let them say, “I’m proud of the fact that we conquered most of the known world.” Or “We defeated the Spanish Armada.”  With me, it’s “Smoked fish.”

So, what then is it that we’re proud of in our Icelandic heritage? I’m going to write some articles about things in my Icelandic heritage that I’m proud of. See if you agree. If you don’t, say so. Tell me what it is you are proud of.

This isn’t just an Icelandic NA community question. In the USA and Canada, we have immigrant cultures. Every immigrant group, in spite of their unique qualities, all go through the same process. They face the same questions. How German is German after four generations? What can they be proud of in their history. Or Italian. Or East Indian. Or Phillipino. What is worth preserving? What needs to be shed?

When someone chooses to leave home,  move to the USA or Canada, they begin a process that they cannot escape.

Something we should always remember. We can be proud not just of what our culture has done but also, maybe even more so, of what it has not done and does not do. Recently, four women were drowned to satisfy the honour of a man who was the father to three of them and the husband to one. We’re not perfect as a culture, we’ve made mistakes in the past and present. We’ll make mistakes in the future. But killing your daughters because you think your honour is lessened by their wanting to dress like other kids their age, wanting to have a boyfriend, wanting to be young, has never been part of our “tribal” culture. I’m proud of that.

A Tablespoon of Love

I love cooking.
I’m not talking about having one speciality such as barbecued steak that can be whipped up once a summer.

I’m talking about lamb shoulder chops, sweet potato, onions, carrots, a bit of broccoli stem, simmered together for an easy supper for visitors. My mother always said if you want the kids to hang around, feed them. It’s great advice. Noses get anchored to delicious aromas, stomachs anticipate satisfying food. 
I’m talking about the attraction of Trinidad curried chicken steeping overnight in coconut milk, soya sauce, chilli pepper, salt, then fried the next afternoon in turmeric and curry and, when the chicken is falling off the bone, setting it aside in a warm oven while cooking chunky green pepper, apple, onions, celery in the curry gravy, then putting everything together in a welter of tastes and smells. Ladled over steaming rice, served with side dishes of chopped fresh fruit, dried raisins, almonds, cashews, this is a dish that is part of family lore,  that is anticipated months in advance, that tantalizes the neighbourhood through the open windows. The windows are open, even in winter, because with a lot of people cooking, the kitchen heats up and fills with steam. This is a dish that requires a big plate with a nicely turned up edge to hold everything. What’s particularly good about it for feeding visitors is that it can be prepared the previous day. Beer, tea or yogurt drinks wash it down well.
For years I’ve made Trinidad curried chicken for Christmas Eve. Non-traditional food for the Eve and a traditional Christmas dinner at my daughter’s for the Day. My daughter and her husband are both good cooks. Their tables groans with turkey, sweet and white potatoes, gravy, vegetables of many kinds, condiments, stuffing,all followed by homemade pie, cookies, slices. However, there are empty places at the festive table now for my son in law’s parents are gone. My parents are gone. There are friends who used to join us who are no longer here. Yet, when we raise a glass or a fork, it is with happy memories from meals gone by.
We’ve all grown older. That affects both the cooking and the eating. When my daughter now says, “I’ve got three kinds of pie. What would you like?” we used to say, “Yes.” No one says “Yes” anymore to all three. There was a time when we could eat ice cream pumpkin pie, pecan pie and apple pie and never put on a pound.
My mother was a wonderful cook. My father was a good and inventive cook. When you grow up with people who love to cook, it is hard not to delight in the selecting, the preparation, the cooking, the serving of food.
My mother made lemon pie with love. When my father married her at the age of twenty, he said, “I’m going to have lemon pie every day.” He didn’t eat lemon pie every day but we ate it often, crisp, flaky crust, deep lemon, high meringue slightly toasted on top. When we were playing or working outdoors and it came close to coffee time and we could smell the lemon faintly on the air, we licked our lips in anticipation.
Love is as important to cooking as butter. You don’t find it listed in the recipe book because it is understood that good food requires love. Two tablespoons flour, one tablespoon butter, two tablespoons of love.
Love gives you a dozen raisin tarts with a crust that crumbles in your mouth. When you bite into the sweet richness what are you tasting but love?
Good family cooking ruined me, of course. I’m not just talking about my waist line. My doctor says eight pounds have to come off. It’s a struggle. However, good family cooking also ruined me for restaurants and prepared foods. I try restaurants but then sit there fiddling with a meal I wouldn’t serve or eat at home. I buy convenience food from the store freezer but seldom buy it twice. I don’t find it convenient to eat food that offers nothing but convenience.
We often talk about great meals we’ve shared. Less often, we talk about great meals we’ve prepared together. Yet, the choosing of the menu, the shopping, the preparation of the food, the cooking, done together creates a team, brings people together in a happy task, gives everyone a stake in the banquet set before usl.
Food isn’t just for eating. It is also one of the ties that bind family and friends.
During this holiday season, or any holiday season, give your children and grandchildren a gift that will serve them the rest of their lives. Get them to help in the kitchen. Give them a chance to say, “I cooked the broccoli.” Or, “I helped make the rice pudding. “ or the stuffing or salad.
Make helping in the kitchen it fun. Don’t worry about the mess.  Start kids with something simple and quick, something that they’ll want to eat. If you are making pastry, make sure you have some left over and let them roll it up with cinnamon and butter and brown sugar. Cut the roll into pieces and pop them into the oven on a cookie sheet. When the pastry is ready, share some with them with a glass of cold milk and find something to laugh about. Love and laughter go together.
Take them shopping to the grocery store, not for a humungous cart full of groceries, but for some of the amazing variety of Chinese vegetables you can find nowadays. Buy enough for a stir fry, then leave. If you don’t own a wok, go buy one. Get them to help you to discover what you should do with mo qua or daikon. Solve the mystery of bok choy. Make the mysterious familiar. Food is a mystery waiting to be revealed.
It wasn’t until I was married that I was introduced to the taste of kippers, green peppers and mangoes. I introduced my wife to pickerel cheeks with sweet and sour sauce, holopchi, skyr with strawberries.
Not all experiments work out. Keep some shepherd’s pie in the freezer. There’s nothing wrong with homemade shepherd’s pie and catsup. If nothing else, you can always whip up toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches served with fresh fruit.
This is Canada. Our neighbours and often our relatives by marriage come from the four corners of the earth. Ask them to make an ethnic dish. At one time, we had a Ukrainian neighbour. We started some festive meals with kutya (boiled wheat and honey) and ended with Icelandic vinarterta (a seven layer torte a prune filling). 

Hunger

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. 

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.

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.