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Give the Gift of Life
UPDATED: Wed May 29, 2002 01:04 AM

Warm food from a cold land

Lesley Simpson
The Hamilton Spectator

Kristin Olafson-Jenkyns with her Icelandic Pickerel Chowder. Her cookbook is an eclectic tapestry of Manitoba's New Iceland community.

A platter of Icelandic sweets, clockwise from top left: two versions of pönnukökur (a rolled up crepe); vínaterta (a Vienna torte layered with prune filling); and calla lilies (a sponge cake-like pastry flower filled with whipped cream and topped with mandarin oranges).
Photos by Cathie Coward, the Hamilton Spectator

Icelandic Pickerel Chowder and brown bread.

Kristin Olafson-Jenkyns stirs and sniffs the steaming pickerel chowder on the stove. Then she creates an architectural ode to dessert: a striped black and white cake called vínaterta; a sponge cake-like pastry flower filled with whipped cream and topped with mandarin oranges called calla lilies; and pönnukökur, rolled-up crepes that look like cigars. The morsels are arranged like edible LEGO on the plate. These are foods that have travelled through time and space, from Iceland to Manitoba's New Iceland, from mother to daughter to granddaughter. It was Olafson-Jenkyns, though, who took it upon herself to translate these treasures -- the scoops, handfuls and pinches of this and that -- into the official record of exactitude.

And that is how it came to be that these morsels have emerged in her Dundas kitchen, below the framed drawings she has made of the same desserts.

Her new cookbook -- The Culinary Saga Of New Iceland, Recipes From The Shores Of Lake Winnipeg -- began as a project to record recipes from family members, culinary concoctions she feared would be lost because nobody was writing them down. But the project grew into a research campaign to unearth the untold stories of the community.

The book was a way of recording social history, the history of the women immigrants who would have otherwise remained invisible. Even newspapers of early settlers make little mention of the contributions of women, said Olafson-Jenkyns, 49, who was born in Gimli, Manitoba.

"Icelanders are interested in genealogy. The book is the saga of the people from the every day life on the early settlement to contemporary tradition, from the formal history of the founding of the community, to the boats and the fishery. ... Women are often overlooked and I felt I wanted to honour these pioneers. I felt responsible to this community."

"I had had the benefit of great aunts, grandmothers and family members teaching me. I learned a lot of this at an early age, and it became an obsession. The more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn.''

Olafson-Jenkyns was lured into the kitchen when, working on the Black Hawk, her family's charter cruise boat in Manitoba, she was part of the team preparing fried fish dinners for 50 in the ship's galley in the 1970s.

Was she professionally trained?

She starts laughing.

"Our family doesn't believe in professional training,'' jokes her son Mackenzie Kristjón, 25, who decided with characteristic can-do-Icelandic- attitude to create a publishing company when he became the project manager for the book. Thus was born www.coastline-publishing.com where the book can be purchased online for $32.95. It is also available at Chapters in Ancaster. Olafson-Jenkyns has also worked as a caterer and interior designer. The Culinary Saga Of New Iceland is her first cookbook.

It is an eclectic, idiosyncratic tapestry of the community that left Iceland and settled in New Iceland, in Manitoba's Interlake region in 1875. Demographers estimate that almost one quarter of the Icelandic population joined the exodus in the last quarter of the 19th century, escaping harsh weather, volcanoes and political conflict with the Danish government.

In A Few Hints To Icelandic Emigrants in January 1878, Jóhann Briem wrote: "I would also advise emigrants to take with them sufficient Icelandic food for experience has shown the food people eat along the way to disagree with them, to say nothing of other changes which are inescapable. This food ought to consist especially of hardfish, butter or good mutton, tallow kaefa (a kind of seasoned meat pâté), smoked lamb and biscuits; in addition pure and good sour whey, rock candy, and a little good akvavit (a type of liquor) made from grain.''

What makes Olafson-Jenkyns' book unusual is its scope and structure. The subject matter is esoteric, appealing most to those of Icelandic descent who may find themselves longing for an Icelandic staple such as skyr, a cheese that is often served with cream and a little sugar or fresh fruit that traces its lineage back to the Vikings.

The book is a mix of homey (with family photographs and people's names attached to recipes), academic (the appendix includes 19th-century essays about storing ice and making butter) and comprehensive in matters culinary (many recipes include information about the origin of the food, and the author often includes two versions of the same dish with explanatory notes). One omission: There is no alphabetical index, which makes it frustrating to locate recipes.

Leafing through the pages feels like walking through a house where you are not sure what will be in the next room.

The reader moves from historical archives into surprises of Canadian geography (one doesn't usually associate the prairies with the 12th-largest lake in the world, the treacherous Lake Winnipeg and its commercial fishery), wandering into a biology lesson (species of fish complete with illustration and description), stumbling into foreign language class (the back of the book includes a phonetics guide as well as the Icelandic alphabet) and then spending time in graduate school (an extensive bibliography and endnotes at the back for the insatiable Curious Georges).

You could be reading the 1877 pep talk from Lord Dufferin to the new immigrants who had endured a winter of cold and snow, a small pox epidemic, rain that spoiled crops, and, in the words of one of the new arrivals, "hard work which produced no results."

"The annals of your country are bright with the record of your forefathers' noble endurance,'' Dufferin said.

Added Dufferin: "The sons and daughters of the men and women who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in open boats, and preferred to make their homes amid the snows and cinders of a volcano rather than enjoy peace and plenty under the iron sway of a despot may afford to smile at anyone who talks to them of hardship or rough living beneath the pleasant shade of these murmuring branches and beside the laughing ripples of yonder shining lake ...''

What is unusual about the recipes is the story of how they evolved. The author wrote letters to 100 friends, family members and friends of friends, addressed to "Dear fellow Icelandic descendant." She assigned them a recipe. And they were asked to write back with comments. The author has included these comments in the recipes. It is a sign of confidence in a text when it includes criticism, and I think this feature adds to its credibility and creates some casualness in what is otherwise sometimes a dry and almost academic study of migration, history, geography and food.

So this is the part of the book that is more conversational, like hearing neighbours talking over a fence. Grace Malm, from Maple Ridge, B.C., recommends adding nutmeg to the apple and rhubarb crisp, adding more apples and adjusting the temperature; and Judith Lehn from Winnipeg reports that the lifrarpylsa (liver sausage) delighted her guests but she would add more salt, double the pepper and add some seasonings because the spices were "boiled out" during the cooking.

It is the kind of conversational information friends share, and the kind of personal marginalia one might write in a cookbook and a nice surprise to find tucked between the covers.

Lesley Simpson can be reached at lsimpson@hamiltonspectator.com or at 905-526-3207.

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