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.