A look beyond Þorrablót's questionable dining practices
It’s Þorrablót time in Iceland. You could have one too. Let me save you some trouble: the Þorramatur menu isn’t terrible. It’s not an accomplishment to ingest. It really isn’t much, at all. Curing the meat–be that sheep entrails or head, or rams’ testicles–with lactic acid (the byproduct of skyr-making) doesn’t leave much flavour left. It all tastes sour. Sheep heads are delicious on their own. Blóðmör is good with strong cheese. I like hákarl–its ammonia taste starts to feel good as you eat more. Some palettes will find these dishes more edible than others (anything, even putrified shark, is better than my mother’s cooking). This won’t change one fact, though: if you travel to Iceland, you will be asked if you tried the “crazy food”.
The Þorrablót festival was created in the mid-19th century by Icelandic nationalists. The story is very similar to the Scottish adoption of the kilt. Both were done to create a sense of pride and national identity, but essentially fabricated from legend. Now people celebrate Scotland with androgynous eveningwear, and people find it hard to talk about Iceland without mentioning questionable dining practices. The Þorrablót festival didn’t gain widespread popularity until the 1950s and 60s, with the large migration of country folk to the big city of Reykjavík. This migration created an urgency for tradition, a need to keep hold of folk roots and to not have the old ways lost in the mean streets of the Icelandic urban jungle.
Interestingly, since the creation of this tradition, Iceland has continued to get more and more tourists. People unload out of planes in full hiking regalia, grab a bottle of Brennivín at the duty free, and venture out into the land of elves to see fair-haired humans eat pickled meat. The attempt to sustain roots only led to more cultural invasion. For every Jón and Þórunn, there’s a Bob and Nancy ready to tell you all about Iceland’s history and traditions. The legends are so popular worldwide that Iceland is the only country where tourists come to tell locals about their own country, a literal example of the difference between myth and reality and an irony missed by every drunk American arguing in the taxi line.
You’re welcome, Kiribati
Over a million people visited Iceland in 2014. The nation tripled its population. This gives a nice model for bringing tourists to other smaller nations around the world. Here is an easy guide and an example of how to make a Þorrablót for your nation:
- Make up a tradition.
The stranger the better, with an emphasis on past glory or struggle.
- Focus on nature.
You’re too small to attract the big city tourists. Sell remoteness and connection to the landscape–everything looks pretty with an Instagram filter.
- Have a signature drink.
There has to be something to brag about. For some reason, the more acceptable getting drunk is in your country, the more people will want to go there.
Any of the above can be combined with a unique stand against global consensus, i.e. whaling.
Kiribati, or The Independent and Sovereign Republic of Kiribati, is the perfect country to give this model a try. It’s a small country, with just over 100,000 inhabitants, over half of which live in one area, Tarawa Atoll. Kiribati gained independence in the 20th Century from a colonial power, the United Kingdom, and citizens learn English in school but speak Gilbertese, which is only spoken by the people of Kiribati.
All of that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? If they wanted to increase tourism, they could serve sour coconut milk-cured flying fish eggs and claim it was used when supply lines were cut off due to the Japanese occupation. They can borrow the hulu dresses from Hawaii, just like Icelanders borrowed the patterns for their lopi sweaters from Greenland. They can suggest travelling onto the less populated islands and areas, but not bother to build any roads, thereby creating a lucrative off-road rental industry. Finally, they can make a taro root vodka flavoured, scandalously, with coral reef, and sit back and watch all the tourists, blog posts and tweets multiply.
It could work. Maybe. Or, maybe, Iceland is special. Maybe, beneath the fabrications and conservatism, is a real, honest, love of home.
Maybe that’s what really attracts people here.
And that, if anything, is worth celebrating.
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Icelanders will consume an estimated 200 tons of þorramatur this year including new dish, pickled ram’s penis…
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