Generally, there is a vague sense that Thorri was some kind of personification of winter, married to a womanly Wight named Goa (the first two months in the Icelandic calendar are supposed to be called after them). According to some Icelandic traditions, the wife went out to greet Thorri and the man went out to greet Goa, who was addressed as being milder than her rough husband. According to others, the man of the farm was supposed to go out half-dressed and walk around the house at the feast of Thorri.
The origin of the name Thorri is unknown, although, Icelanders have known the name itself since the 11th century. Likely speculation is that Thorri is one of many nicknames for the god Thor. Soon, however, Thorri became the metaphor and personator for the harsh Icelandic winters, and is today commonly used as such.
A celebration breaking the back of winter seemed like a pretty good idea Saturday with the first bits of warm, sunny days peaking through the veil of winter. Of course, a month ago when M'Th'Su posted the event information on the listserv, because announcements are nipped off on CH, I printed a copy out for my Mothers amusement. After that, I was getting a daily inquiry of whether or not I wanted to go. I weakened and gave in just to stop the conversation, however I am glad she kept after me because it was one terrific evening. Yeah, yeah, yeah sometimes Mother knows best and you wonder how I came to be where I am today the fruit doesnt fall far from the tree.
The announcement advised a 6:30 sharp commencement of events. I was sweating bullets all the good stuff, like the pickled testicles, would be gone when we pulled up at 6:45 PM at The Swedish Museum. Often such interesting niblets are present in token quantities and I didnt want to miss what little may be available. I quickly learned, I really had nothing to worry about.
Once we checked in, I moved over to the cocktail section. They were serving an innocent looking red punch and shots of Black Death (Islensku Brennivini) along with Gravlax with Mustard Sauce and something which looked cheese cubes. These were no cheese cubes instead they were the Rotten Shark (Hakarl). The first time, I tried Rotten Shark as-is: you had to ignore the ammonia odor and concentrate on the taste. I then tried it again with the "hardly innocent" punch, which was Hawaiian punch, Sprite, Peach Schnapps and Svedka Vodka more alcohol in a fruit punch than I ever encountered before in my life. Still the ammonia odor lingered. I then had it the classic Icelandic style: Rotten Shark with a Black Death chaser and there was absolutely no ammonia odor present, an interesting phenomena and quite good. AS I was the designated driver, I could not allow myself to get too loopy. So I just had to put up with the ammonia odor for the remaining bits of rotted shark I choose to eat. Later, there was a 3-year-old girl at my table who ate maybe two dozen pieces as-is!
Of course, I had to know how Rotten Shark is prepared. I was advised the Shark is caught, then buried in the sand for at least 3 months. If they are blessed with the correct weather, the shark is dug up and (because it is rather oozy) left to dry for several months. The shark is then sliced up and eaten. If the weather was too rainy and certain temperatures levels are not maintained, when they dig up the shark 3 months later it is considered too rotten to pursue.
I was waiting in line with an elegantly dressed woman and her equally sophisticated looking husband, later I learned he was the Ambassador for Iceland. They were discussing how favorite Icelandic foods are just socially unacceptable in the United States. Quick to reassure them, I advised I had just eaten Ant Eggs earlier in the week. Having peaked their interest, they inquired if the Ant Eggs tasted like caviar. I offered they were rather neutral tasting, were a bit chewy and about the size of the puff at the end of a Q-tip. Sometimes I find with my encounters with people, I provide more information than they really wanted and they are just left speechless. However, these people were pleasantly unflappable.
Toward the end of the cocktail party, I committed a faux pas, which had the potential of just ruining the evening. I accidentally spilled my freshly poured hardly innocent red punch into the Gravlax platter. Nobody said a word. Nobody batted an eye as I tried to rescue the situation by grabbing all the cocktail napkins and blotting the Gravlax dry. A very nice gentleman wordlessly tilted the platter so I could recover more punch from the Gravlax. Nobody did anything to highlight my awkward situation, which I am especially grateful. Is it an Icelandic cultural trait or simply a group of very nice people, maybe both?
We then congregated to the dining area where an American married to an Icelander performed master of ceremony duties. He introduced the President of the Icelandic Association who spoke alternately in English as well as Icelandic, a language which reminds me of Dutch, who then introduced the Ambassador. The Ambassador made the usual pleasant remarks, then called up his wife. He referred to a traditional Icelandic song originating in 1858, which he and the wife proceeded to sing. Around the room, other voices joined in though it was the minority of those present.
Dinner was served buffet style with a menu including imported Icelandic specialties as well as food to appease an American audience:
Pickled Whale (Sur Hvalrengi) [Sadly, not present with apologies]
Smoked Lamb Briskets (Magáll)
Sheep heads (Svidakjammer)
Bechemale sauce Sweet Peas Red Cabbage (Uppstuf Graenar Baunir Raudkal)
Mashed Rutabagas and Boiled Potatoes (Rofustappa og Sodnar Kartõflur)
Rotten Shark and Schapps (Hakarl med Islensku Brennivini)
Dried Haddock with butter (Hardfiskur med Smjori)
Flatbread Lamb Pate and Lamb Sausage (Flatkokur med kaefu og Rullupylsu)
Home made Rye Bread (Heimabakad Rugbrauo)
Sheep Head Pate (Svidasulta) [head cheese]
Smoked Lamb (Hangikjot)
Pickled Testicles (Hrutspungar)
Sour cream, pickled and Mustard Herring (Blonduo Sild)
Spiral Slides Honey Ham (Hunangsgljao Skinka)
Roast Beef (Nidursneiddur Nautavodvi)
Potatoes with Parsley (Kartofluor med Steinslejusmjori)
Fresh Garden Salad with Vinagrette (Fersku Salat med Saltsosu)
Dinner Rolls (Braudbollur med Smjori)
Icelandic Pancakes with butter and sugar or whipping cream with lingonberries (Skyr, Sykur og Rjoma Ponnsur)
Freshly Brewed Coffee (Nylagad kaffi)
The Icelandic food came from Bautinn Restaurant, Akyreyri (462-1818, www.bautinn.is). Other catering came from Wickstroms Restaurant.
Mother and I were very fortunate to sit with an Icelandic native named Matta, her daughter and 3-year-old granddaughter. They were quite pleased to act as our culinary and cultural tour guides as we worked our way through the dinner:
- Just reeling with disappointment there was no pickled whale.
- Dried, flattened haddock sections were mounded on a platter. They are eaten on buttered flat bread.
- Sheeps head are prepared by scorching the hair off by fire, scrubbed very well to removed any charred bits, then boiled. The presentation at the buffet was half heads, with the brains removed, and the jaws disconnected. So you could take a little bit, the jaw, or a lot, the upper quarter.
- Icelandic Pancakes are 8 inch diameter dessert crepes. If served with sugar, then it is sprinkled and rolled. If whipping cream is your preference, then the lightly whipped, lightly sweetened whipped cream is spread on the crepe then folded in half. The lingonberries are spread on the half folded crepe, then folded again into a quarter. [In my efforts not to be a glutton, I made myself appreciate the concept and the taste of one serving. Self control won over my real desire to get many more.]
- Nobody drives to parties. It is expected there will be sufficient levels of drinking that everyone sleeps over at the partys location. Even if the party begins in a restaurant, once it closes they drift over to someones home to continue. It is also not unusual as the evening progresses to find the women dancing in their bras.
- Icelandic Hot Dogs are made of lamb, are skinny and longer than the bun served with strong Icelandic mustard and dried onions.
- Everyone in Iceland sits down to dinner at 6 PM.
At the close of dinner, Einar Steinsson, President of the Icelandic Association of Chicago, reluctantly demonstrated how to eat a sheeps head. He began by reminiscing about herding sheep for his father, where his lunchbox was a cooked sheep head. He started with the lower jaw indicating it was the childrens favorite because they love the tongue. He then proceeded to the upper head, where he took a knife to strip thin slices of meat off the cheeks. Last but not least, he dug into the eye sockets and dropped the contents into his mouth.
After dinner, all those who spoke Icelandic got up to sing songs. One tune I recognized as an Irish folk tune, with all the lyrics in Icelandic. Another American married to an Icelander sang, Fly Me to the Moon. For this occasion, they even imported the band from Iceland. They were called "The Haggish" with band members Júlíus Ólafsson who plays the guitar and sings; and Lárus Grímsson who plays the keyboard and sings. Júlíus and Lárus live in Reykjavík.
During a break, they had an open mike for anyone who wanted to provide an anecdote or sing. The first person to break the ice surprisingly was not an Icelander, but an American writer. By appearance, this woman reminded me of a young Shelley Long. She thanked everyone for the lovely and congenial evening, then proceed to explain she was 100% Irish which meant she was part Viking given the frequency Vikings vacationed in Ireland. What a hoot! She is in the process of writing a book featuring people of Iceland and hopes someday we can read her book. Interestingly, this was a second time that evening someone had told me to read her story. Our very congenial Matta was the first to advise I should read her story. She was recently featured in a chapter of Studs Terkels latest book on or about page 355, which was: Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times.
Dancing continued on with music with Icelandic lyrics with an occasional one sung in English for variety. The party was still in its infancy when someone suggested there be a line dance, Everyone get up! Mom and I headed for the exit.
The $55 head tax for this peek at Icelandic society, culture and food was worth every penny. I really cannot wait until next year!
Thanks again, M'Th'Su for the heads up!