Or, Icelandic the fun way.
Icelandic language studies at the university may be characterized by a good deal of national pride in Icelanders’ great literary heritage, the nation’s veritable slew of firsts and per-capita records, it’s unique nature and uniquely bonkers weather patterns, but there is also a fair amount of irreverence mixed in, a willingness to poke fun at certain aspects of Icelandic life or the (stereotypical) Icelandic character, as well as slightly more scandalous (depending on your leanings) mix of study materials and subjects. This has been particularly, delightfully, evident to me in the last month or so.
As many of you might know, the pagan festival of Þorri begins at the end of January and lasts for a month. Þorri feasts, or Þorrablót, have been very popular in Iceland for several decades (the tradition sort of died out and then was revived by an industrious restaurant owner in the late 50s) and, due to the let’s say…exotic…nature of much of the food, have been the subject of a number of televised, gross-out food adventure programs, such as Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” (he goes to a Þorrablót during his extremely irritating Iceland episode).
Þorramatur, via Wikimedia Commons. The jellied slice with white orbs is, you guessed it, the rams testicles, and the hákarl is in the dish. The sheep’s head is called svið.
I had heard a lot about Þorrablót and þorramatur (Þorri food), but didn’t have the opportunity to go to a celebration last year. This year, however, I got to go to one held by Reykjavík’s Ásatrú association—you know, “on assignment.” A sample of the experience, from my article (full text here):
Filling my plate, I ended up with a veritable rainbow of sausages and pressed meats: pink, red, brown, grey, and a queasy marbled white. Not wanting to look greedy—and honestly, a little unsure that I would make it through the full plate—I skipped the svið the first time out. By accident, I also missed the slices of pressed ram’s testicles. (Full disclosure: I did end up trying the former—it’s…chewy—but skipped the latter. No regrets there.)
Back at the table, my dinner companion gustily carved into her sheep head and explained to me the best method of eating ear cartilage. I took her word for it and tried to show my sympathy when she discovered that her svið was, in fact, missing its most delicious eye. We swapped various unidentified meats. Feeling appropriately decadent, I made a return circuit of the buffet, filling up again on some of my familiar favourites—smoked lamb, salted lamb, and a dark red sausage of a jerky-like consistency. If the woman on my right had not caught me mid-bite and summarily informed me, while daintily cutting up her headcheese, that she did not eat horse “on principal,” I’d have never known the difference.
Well, it just so happened that as I was writing this article, we were also reading about Þorri in one of my classes (I quoted one of my class readings in the piece, actually). It’s one thing to read about þorramatur, however, and a whole ‘nother thing to eat it. So for those of us who had not yet had the opportunity to attend a Þorrablót, our teachers decided to bring the partý to us. So instead of a coffee break, we had a þorra-break, with big tupperware containers of hrútspungar (pressed rams’ testicles) and hákarl (that fermented shark that you’ve heard so much about) for us to sample (much to the dismay of our olfactorily-sensitive vegetarian). “Sure, but did you bring any brennevín?” one of my classmates laughed. “Oh yes,” said my teacher very seriously, placing a full bottle of the “black death” on a desk and asking the student sitting there to start pouring shots.
Which is certainly one way to get students to participate a little more freely. Fun discovery, though: I suddenly didn’t hate brennevín. I’ve had it before and it made me want to die, but third time ’round, standing in class, munching on rotten shark? Yeah, it was pretty good.