the Icelanders immigrated to North America in the late 1800s, they brought
a cooking style that was reflective of that particular time period, which
moreover had changed very little from the preceding centuries. The Icelandic
diet was very simple with little seasoning, a typical dinner being fish,
lamb, or mutton served with potatoes. Game birds, seals, whales, and reindeer
were also hunted.
Because Iceland has so little arable land, vegetables other than turnips
and potatoes as well as fresh fruit were scarce and had to be imported.
Rhubarb and indigenous wild berries helped to add variety to their diet.
A shortage of grain for feed meant that cows were kept mainly for dairy
products as were hens for eggs. Milk from cows and ewes was used to make
butter and skyr-a smooth curd with a creamy texture. Skyr was made from
the curd separated from the whey and was a highly important dietary staple
due to its high protein content. The whey was used to drink, boiled down
to produce mysuostur (a caramel-coloured creamy spread or 'cheese'-'ostur'
meaning cheese) and also soured or fermented for the purpose of preserving
other foods including skyr. (Both skyr and mysuostur remained staples
in New Iceland.)
Imported grains and flours were used predominantly for porridges and flatbreads,
with moss or lichen often added to augment the flour. During this time
period, flour had become more readily available and cooking stoves were
being introduced. Consequently, Danish recipes for baked cakes and cookies
were becoming increasingly popular whereas sweets or coffee-time treats
were prepared previously on a griddle or fried in fat.
Of course, it almost goes without saying that before refrigeration, foods
procured over the summer months had to be preserved to sustain them through
the winter months. Fresh meat was therefore usually eaten only at slaughtering
time in the autumn. Methods for preserving fish and meat included salting,
drying, smoking, or boiling and then pickling in barrels of fermented
whey. Interestingly, because Iceland has very little firewood, salt was
not manufactured from seawater in quantity because it simply required
too much wood.
Icelandic immigrants preserved this style of cooking and applied it to
local fish and game of the Canadian Prairies. However, due to the greater
availability of a wide variety of grains, flours, and yeast, Icelanders
found themselves baking breads which they had not in Iceland, where yeast
was not readily available. Icelandic brown bread with its rich molasses
flavour become highly identifiable with the Icelandic immigrant population.
This development was encouraged by the settlement newspaper Framfari which
offered in an article from April 12, 1878, some "pointers on this subject,
since it is well known that most of the women in New Iceland have never
had the opportunity to bake bread in the manner customary in this country."
It is clear that while there was a strong desire to maintain the spirit
of Icelandic cooking that they had grown up with, they were also eager
to take advantage of new culinary opportunities.
Of all the Icelandic foods, vínarterta has become the most emblematic
of New Icelandic culture. It consists of six to eight cookie-type layers
with prune filling spread between each and is usually coated with almond-flavoured
icing. In Iceland, rhubarb and apricots are common variants in Iceland
but are virtually unheard of in New Iceland. While it was certainly popular
in Iceland at the time of immigration, it no longer occupies the cherished
status that it has developed in New Iceland. A New Icelandic social engagement
without vinarterta is rare indeed. As such, deciding which recipe to use
in the cookbook was almost impossible because just about every woman had
a slightly different recipe, and so I included several to illustrate the
The selection process also presented issues such as whether or not to
include a recipe like Matrimonial Cake (or Date Bar). These were not recipes
that were derived from anything Icelandic. Nevertheless, if a recipe had
become extremely commonplace, a new tradition, then it needed to be included.
Also, some recipes were not previously set down in a written format and
had to be translated into exact amounts from such inexact measures as
a scoop, a handful, or a pinch. I learned to bake my Aunty Sella's brown
bread by watching her bake it; she never had need of a written recipe.
This demonstrative teaching style was the preferred manner of passing
To test and verify that these recipes were authentic, I sent out a hundred
or more recipes to Icelandic descendants across North America for testing
and received incredible feedback. Almost everyone responded with further
tips about how to prepare the dishes, provided stories of how their Ammas
used to make the dish slightly differently, and suggested other recipes
to consider. The daily mail was filled with encouraging comments-which
we included in the book. They demonstrated to me the importance of these
culinary traditions to the individuals in the community.
Of course, further opportunities presented themselves as I began this
process. Guðrún Ágústsdóttir presented the opportunity to examine her
amma's (grandmother's) Matreiðslubók (Recipe Book). This recipe journal
was handwritten circa 1915 while she attended the Women's School in Reykjavík.
Recipes in the journal range from very basic traditional ones to those
with a definite Danish or European influence and which were likely more
sophisticated than the average homemaker would have been preparing at
the time (e.g. the wreath-shaped cookie kransar). I included several of
these recipes (translated into English) with accompanying comparative
notes as they provide insights regarding cooking in Iceland not long after
the major tide of immigration to North America.
And so it was that I had compiled the recipes, written the comparative
notes, written the foreword, and reviewed the photographs and illustrations
and was waiting for the books to arrive back from the printers. It was
a glorious day when they finally arrived, just a day before the Icelandic
Festival of Manitoba last year. In truth, I had compiled all of the recipes
that my children and nieces wanted (and then some). Nonetheless, it had
always seemed like such cruel irony that although I was constantly thinking
about recipes, I never cooked less than when I was researching this book.