From Iceland — Old Food in New Context

Old Food in New Context

Published September 26, 2008

Old Food in New Context

The buffet of the century: a history of Icelandic food culture is the first exhibit of its kind, focused on Icelandic food culture in the 20th century. Organiser Sólveig Ólafsdóttir sheds some light on the project.

So, can you tell us a little bit about the upcoming exhibition?
The exhibition is about food in Reykjavik in the 20th century. It is a timeline showing the food culture change in Reykjavik. On the opening weekend we’re offering a five course menu on the Saturday, including rye bread with whipped cream. This an Icelandic version of a Danish dish that normally includes apples.

Apples were hard to get hold of earlier this century weren’t they?
The myth that Icelanders ate their first apples around 1950 is simply not true. For the first 30 years of this century, if you had money you could buy apples and grapes in Reykjavik. It was very special. Most of the ships came from England or Denmark. You could call them “colonial grapes.” The government banned imports on fruit and vegetables shortly after the Second World War. Sometime around 1955, we began to import fruit again, but only at Christmas time. Especially apples. The smell of the apples are deeply connected with Christmas still today.

So was it just apples available?
The only fruit that were available were for those who needed prescriptions. The doctors prescribed oranges and such for colds. The government ran this for around 25 years.

Are there any other myths that need dispelling?
From the beginning of the 20th century, until 1930, there was free import for everything into Iceland, unlike in the latter part of the 20th century. We need to dispel a few myths. We say to foreigners try the shark, try the black death, try the sea pests, but we don’t like them either. There is nothing we can term typically Icelandic. There is nothing unique about this. You shouldn’t like something just because it is “Icelandic”. The only thing that is ‘unique’ is that only an Icelander would typically eat dried fish and butter.

What was Reykjavik like for foreign troops stationed here?
During the Second World War, 20,000 British soldiers got bored of the canned meat they brought. Reykjavik housewives tried to make fish and chips. There was no history of deep fried culture here though. It was just bad potatoes.

Where would this kind of event take place?
Hotel Borg was one of the locations. The cooks and the managers of the hotel tried to make the menu like continental style for the officers. The officers did not like this food. It sounds hilarious.
Did the Reykjavikians get anything back in return for their “efforts”?
In return, the canned meat that the troops brought was the hottest thing on the black market. The military brought many other things off the boat and the freezer was the best hiding place for this.

Where do you find such interesting stories?
Before this exhibit there were no good books about Icelandic food culture. We had to do this ourselves. We gathered together old recipes and interviews. There are only primary sources for available for research purposes. A lot of untold stories. The whole thing lacks a lot of overview. We go forward and try to fill out the full picture of Icelandic food culture.

How do you recreate such history and prevent an exhibition being ‘dry’?
It’s difficult to put food in an exhibition and so an atmosphere will be on display in a very orderly old kitchen exhibit. Posters of old brands from Iceland will be on the walls, including one of a canned meat called ‘Geysir’. Brands that have been around for many decades, having connections to every household.

Did any foods get ‘lost in translation’ along the way?
We are actually going to offer mistaken recipes because of the errors in translation. In one recipe from Norway in baking cookies, you should use blackcurrant, but in translation they came out as coriander cookies, so I am going to bake some of those!

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