On Writing The Culinary Saga by Kristin Olafson-Jenkyns

The roots of The Culinary Saga of New Iceland: Recipes from the Shores of Lake Winnipeg can be traced back to my initial desire to compile a small collection of favourite traditional recipes for my children and nieces. The collection grew incrementally over a number of years as other Icelandic descendants offered recipes and encouragement. As my folders outgrew my filing cabinet, I began to realize that I was not compiling a few recipes-I was creating a book.

And so now the pressure was on. In order to properly document New Icelandic culinary traditions, I had to address a variety of questions: How did these recipes evolve and why in this particular way? What was the style of cooking like in Iceland pre-immigration? How did local factors influence change and development or not?

Author Kristin Olafson-Jenkyns

When 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 subtle variations.

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 on recipes.

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.

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