icelanders of victoria

Emily Campbell, Carol Johannson, Ruth Olafson
It was a great evening. Tom and Beverly and the volunteers did a great job of the food. Jodi, as usual, decorated the hall beautifully. We had prizes and two of them were vinarterta. Can’t get better than that. Especially when made by Margo and Vorna. The cookie layers just right, not too thin and not too thick. The prune filling of this prune torte cooked to a consistency that lets the the seven layers melt in your mouth.
We know that the annual Thorrablot is all about food. Feasting in the name of Thor. It raises images of Vikings on a rampage, Vikings at a long table swilling back ale and ripping meat off the bone with their teeth, bellowing and challenging and yelling for wenches and blood.
Sorry if anyone is disappointed. We’re much more sedate. We’re the sheep farming kind of Thorrabloters. The kind who get dressed up and arrive on time. The kind who shake hands and hug and talk quietly in small groups as we catch up on news. We’re Christianized, urbanized, civilized Vikings.
The kind of Vikings who bring wives and children and grandchildren with them. Besides, most of us are at an age where our wenching days are done. Morning after hangovers are a thing of the past. Given the liquor laws in BC, a half dozen beers has given away to sipping on a glass of wine. Imagine what Viking times would have been like if they could have been fined for drunken longboating or horse riding. It would have put a damper on things.
Wayne Erickson, Lorie Olson
That’s okay. The rúllupylsa on brown bread is great. The hangikjöt, cold or hot, is delicious. The lox and the pickled herring melt in your mouth. I’m not sure what the Vikings would have thought of salad. They’d probably have fed it to their horses. I mean, what is the difference between lettuce and grass? But then, I doubt if anyone of them were on a diet. If they had high blood pressure, they didn’t know it. I suspect that with their diet of fish, meat and milk products diabetes wasn’t a problem. I like salad and the salads were really good but then I’m half Irish.
Personally, I like my parties quiet. It’s probably my age. Although, if a party is noisy, I just take out my hearing aid. The disc jockey did a great job. He’s a nice guy and he knows how to tailor his music to the crowd. It’s in the background, not competing with everyone who is trying to communicate.
We probably should get up and rock around the clock but my arthritis bothers me when I start whooping it up. A waltz or two usually is fine.
There was no hakarl this year. I didn’t miss it. I remember what Manitoba backhouses smelled like on a hot summer’s day. I don’t need to be reminded.  I’ve not been tempted to kill a shark and bury it in the sand up at Tofino for six months and then dig it up and slurp it down.
The dried cod was good. I like dried cod. My guests thought it had the texture of cardboard (must be memories from their childhood, I can’t see them chewing on cardboard now). I ate their share. I skipped the butter. My doctor says I’ve got to take off ten pounds.
The crowd at Norway House for Thorrablot
The best part of the evening was the company. It always is. A lot of people only turn up for Thorrablot. You get to shake their hand once a year and catch up on their life. It’s nice to see that we’re still with us. We’re not as us as we used to be, of course. Some people from that first meeting for the establishment of the Icelanders of Victoria Club that was arranged by Alphonse have died. Mattie Clegg (Gislason) is gone.Mattie was a dynamo. Great musician and our first Fjalkona. Amma Runa is gone. Runa was always at every event in her Icelandic dress serving coffee. Eric Clemens, our joyous Christmas elf, slipped away and even our friendship could not hold him here. I hope they have Christmas parties in heaven. Norm Jonasson departed unexpectedly, shockingly. He used to organize the cooking for the Thorrablot, worked all day in the kitchen with his family. There are other members who have left forever. 
Then there are other people who have disappeared because they have moved. Lois, I heard, will be moving to Vancouver. We’ll miss her.
That’s okay. These things happen. You get to be a certain age and you aren’t shocked anymore by losses. 
However, you are comforted by fellowship, community and ritual. We can all afford to buy our own rúllupylsa or skyr, make our own pönukökur or vinarterta but eating it by ourselves isn’t the same as sharing a meal.
Coming together, whether in church, or at sports events, for parades, picnics, celebrations, are one of the ways we define ourselves, let ourselves and others know who we are. Even if we are gradually shifting our identity from Icelandic to Icelandic-Canadian to Canadian, our Thorrablots and other events, help us to make the change over time, mixing together the old and the new. That’s why we can have smoked mutton and roast beef, rúllupylsa and potato salad, old memories and new hopes.

Why Thorrablot matters

This year’s Thorrablot has come and gone. It was a great success. Thorrablots are all about food. They are midwinter feasts, originally, to celebrate the pagan god, Thor, and to  herald the turning of the year toward spring. Today, in North America, Thorrablots are an opportunity for members of the Icelandic North American community to get together to visit, to eat, and honour our ancestors who came to North America during the great emigration that started around 1873.
Food. Food. Food. Not something most of us think too much about except to complain about the rising prices. Even at the time of emigration, when other countries had industrialized, Iceland was a rural nation. Not rural in the sense of small villages and towns but, rural, in the sense of isolated, individual farms.
The only crop was hay but it was essential to survival. The hay fed sheep and dairy cows. They provided milk products and meat. No grains would ripen so no fields were ploughed or seeded. The only agricultural activity was the spreading of sheep manure on the precious home field where the best grass was grown. So few vegetables were grown that when foreign visitors saw turnips or cabbages, hardy vegetables that could withstand both the cold summer temperatures, the rain and the wind, they commented on it. They also commented on how small the vegetables were.
The standard meal was dark rye bread, the rye flour being made from rye grain imported by the Danish trading merchants. Grain was expensive and only those whose farms were prosperous could afford it. Many Icelanders didn’t taste bread from one year to the next. The rye bread was eaten with skyr and dried cod with butter. If there was no rye flour, then the meal would be skyr, dried cod, butter and,  hopefully, coffee.
The Icelandic farmers, every year, faced an incredible challenge. In the three months of summer, they had to produce and store enough food to last through the next nine months. If they didn’t, they starved, often they starved to death.  There were no grocery stores, no credit cards, no food banks.
That is why every part of an animal was used. That’s why people ate svið, singed and boiled sheep heads. That´s why they made sviðpasulta,  head cheese, lifrarpylsa, liver sausage, bloðmör, or slátur, blood sausage. Nothing was wasted.
When working men and even the owners of small farms were not cutting hay and storing it, they went fishing in open boats. Dangerous, cold work, fishing with a hook and line, they lived in stone huts on the wind and rain swept shore. The fish and the fish heads were dried. Again, nothing edible was wasted.
Contrary to popular belief, Iceland is not cold like  the prairies of Canada, nor is it cold like the Arctic. The temperatures are moderate with few really cold days and few really hot days.  However, there is a lot of wet, windy weather. This posed a major problem for a people who needed to store food for nine months of the year. Their solution was brilliant. They produced a lot of skyr (it is like a firm yogurt). That produced a lot of whey. Whey is acidic and can be used to preserve food.
That’s why hrútspungar, pressed sheep´s testicles  (I told you nothing was wasted) are served. The are pickled in whey. It’s not available in North America but if it were, hvalspik, or pickled whale blubber, would be served. Sometimes you might find lundabagger. It’s made from all the animal’s leftovers that are rolled together and boiled, pickled and spiced.
The closest dish to our normal North American diet is hangikjöt. It is smoked lamb or mutton.
There´s also rullupylsa, rolled, pickled and boiled sheep´s flank. It is served on brown bread and is a great favorite.
But the favorites are always the Icelandic sweets. There´s the ponnokokur (thin pancakes spread with brown sugar and rolled), vinarterta (a prune torte, usually seven layers), skyr (nowadays served with strawberries). If you are lucky, there’ll be rosettes, crisp, deep fried cookies with a dollop of whipped cream and a dab of strawberry jam. The rosettes were originally Swedish but, no mind, vinertarta, the most beloved of all Icelandic food, was originally a Viennese torte.
This celebration is important to the Icelandic North American Icelandic community because it does a number of things. The feast itself is a symbol of our identity. It perpetuates our myths of Iceland, of the emigration, of the resulting struggle to survive and prosper in a foreign land and make it ours. It helps to transfer our values and traditions to a younger generation. It helps us to maintain a cultural identity.
It is these functions that must be preserved. If they are not, if we do not understand what it is that we eat and why, if we do not use these occasions to perpetuate our myths of Iceland and the emigration, if we do not use these occasions to pass on our values and traditions, then we will, as a community, dissipate, and lose our identity.
Thorrablots are enjoyable but if all they become is an evening on which to dine and dance, they will  have no call upon the members of our community to make them a priority and they will, and we will, succumb to competing desires and demands.

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.

Thanksgiving blessings

No destination is as important to North Americans of Icelandic descent as that of the farm on which their ancestors lived. In article after article, people write about the rush of emotion that occurred when they stood on that hallowed ground. They can, with no difficulty, see their grandparents or great-grandparents making hay, bringing in the sheep or cows. The sound of the waves on the shore is the same sound their ancestors heard. Many people refer to this land as “My grandparents’ farm.” But in fact the people who left for North America seldom owned land.

All Icelanders were not equal – socially or politically or financially. Nearly everyone had to be attached to a farm, and workers were allowed only one time during the year when they could move to another farm. There were six classes of people on these farms.

1. There were the Bændr, the land owners, at the top of the heap. The big shots. They were the farmers for whom everyone else worked. They had political muscle, and fought hard against the emigration of their workers who were providing cheap labour. Newspapers were filled with stories about the disputes between those who would emigrate and those who saw their power eroded.

2. There were the Húsmenn. These were people who had property on the Bændr ´s land but were not allowed to make hay or to use the pastures.

3. The Kaupamenn were labourers who were hired to work for the farmer.

4. There were Hjáleigumenn – the equivalent of crofters renting a small farm (hjáleiga) from the Bændr.

5. Then there were the Vinnumenn, the servants.

6. And, finally, there were the paupers. There were many paupers. The heaviest tax on the Bænder was the tax (fátækra útsvar) to support the paupers .

If your ancestors were not No. 1, and didn´t actually own a farm, they had good reason to leave Iceland. If they did own a farm and emigrated, there must be a story there? They had a legal and political system that made everything in their favour.

There was little actual cash. The peasants – yes, they were peasants – paid their rent and the money they owed in June and July with wool. In September and October, they paid with smoked and cured mutton, grease and tallow, and sheep skins and lamb skins with the wool still attached. Fat of any kind was always in short supply, and butter and cheese were usually kept for personal use or for bartering. Sometimes butter was used to pay taxes.

If your people worked on a farm, they were, essentially, indentured servants. Some farmers treated their people well. Others treated them badly. The landscape was beautiful, but nothing is beautiful when you are hungry. Emigration did not happen easily. People were driven to leave Iceland out of desperation. The trip was long. The way was hard. Many died.

But, in spite of all this, the beauty of Iceland stayed with many of the emigrants. You can read it in their poems, in their prose. You see it at Icelandic Celebration and August the Deuce, at Thorrablot and in the Icelandic clubs, in the Snorri program, and at the Icelandic summer camp. You see it in the frequent visits of Icelandic North Americans to Iceland.

You see it in those emotional visits to the places our ancestors left. The descendants of paupers, servants, crofters, labourers, tenants, still hold a place in their hearts for Iceland. When you visit this special destination, the farm of your great-grandmother or great-grandfather, or great-great-grandparent, take the time to reflect on what their life was like in the 1870s, and how desperate and brave they must have been when they walked away from both house and homefield for the last time to create a new life for children not yet born.

When you are setting the table for Thanksgiving dinner take out pictures of your ancestors who left Iceland for Canada, set them on the buffet or even on the dining table. Before you begin to eat, tell your family and guests something about them and, when you say grace, include these people from your past in your thanks. It is because of them that you sit down to a feast today. After the meal, when you’ve eaten your turkey, potatoes, gravy, your pumpkin pie, and are enjoying your coffee reflect upon the empty dishes, your full stomach, the photos and silently give thanks to Jon and Jonina, Gunnur and Gusta, or whatever their names were. Bless, bless.

(This article appeared in a slightly different form in Logberg-Heimskringla. This year is LH’s 125th birthday. Consider giving someone a gift of a subscription to celebrate.)