Tradition in Five Layers

Food is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in a completely different culture. Kate Todd reflects on the traditional food she experienced on a trip to Iceland and compares it to the food of her family.

by Kate Todd

Tradition has a particular taste. It’s different for everyone’s palate – be it sour, sweet, sticky, or spongy – but it is universally comforting.

Taking in a country’s traditional delicacies and daily staples is at its heart a diplomatic act, trying to slip into the skin of a local by eating as they do. But travellers beware! Clever marketers learned this trick long ago, making it difficult for the inexperienced eye to distinguish the truly authentic from the tourist trap.

On a recent trip to Reykjavik for the Iceland Writer’s Retreat, I took a tour in Borgarfjörður, the Western region, where our group was treated to a truly Icelandic afternoon snack. Our guide dangled a net full of eggs in Iceland’s largest hot spring, Deildartunguhver. When the eggs were done, we huddled around a picnic table in our bright waterproofs, shrouded in mist, and ate the boiled eggs while they were still warm, sliced on top of rye bread with local smoked salmon.

Reykjavik abounded with unusual tastes. I can’t speak for the fermented shark pieces, or the rye bread ice cream (it was on the menu, I swear), but I did sample an Icelandic hot dog and we’re now stocking Skyr in our fridge. I’ll pass on the spoonful of cod liver oil in the morning though, thanks.

Photo credit: Kate Todd
Photo credit: Kate Todd

There was one taste that I didn’t find in my Icelandic travels – vinarterta, a five-layer sponge cake sandwiched between layers of glossy, gooey prune jam. Until I touched down at Keflavik International Airport and placed my feet on the volcanic rocky terrain, this cake had defined my genealogical connection to Iceland.

Historically, vinarterta was served at Icelandic weddings and other landmark celebrations. In my family, the recipe travelled from Akureyri in Northeast Iceland to the port of Quebec and from there down the long road of family memory. The last place you can expect to find it now is on the dessert table at an Icelandic wedding, and yet whenever I try to describe it, I still refer to it as an Icelandic cake. Why, when its roots have been detached from the motherland for generations?

Because for most of us, our taste buds define our traditions. Vinerterta, once the taste of joy and celebration, became the taste of a faraway home for immigrants in a new and formidable land. To make it, to eat it was to remember their roots and plant them in the next generation.

Trying a ‘traditional’ food while travelling is a different act than to eat a food that is traditional to you. The former is an act of an individual in the moment, anchoring their experience in a gustatory way. To eat a food that is traditional to you is to anchor yourself in a larger narrative.

Our other senses provide touch points to our stored memories too – the smell of the air when we step off a plane in a familiar place, an heirloom handed down, a superstition adhered to (something borrowed, something blue) – but what is stronger than the act of consuming and the visual, tactile and olfactory experiences that act entails?

Think about holiday meals. A daring cook might suggest a new recipe, but the rest of the diners will revolt and cry, ‘But no (apple crumble/apple pie/apfeltasche/sharlotka/empanadas de manzana)? It’s our favourite!’ What about that salad that your (aunty/neighbour/grandparent) always brings to the annual summer barbeque? And so begins a tradition. We remember what we ate because of the communal nature of the act.

As I stood with my tour group at Deildartunguhver, trying to stop the boiled egg from crumbling off the slab of rye bread, I knew that this picnic would be a defining and permanent memory from the trip. Eating food prepared in an ancient spring that cut through an ancient land rooted me in that moment to Iceland, while the cake that had long left its shores keeps me rooted me in a family tradition.

Recipes have the ability descend through generations, transcending physical borders as they go. There are two framed recipes hanging in my kitchen, my mother’s chilli recipe, written in her own hand, and vinarterta in my Gran’s. What is the recipe that future generations will attribute to me? What will my contribution be?

It could be perogies, dozens of them, made over the course of a whole afternoon in an assembly line. Or possibly carrot cake, a spousal favourite. Or will it be fluffy Yorkshire puddings, from the family roast dinners where we run out of actual seats and it’s everyone for themselves to find a place to eat?

Time will tell.

Kate Todd | @KTodd_Writes

By day, Kate Todd is a business analyst for an international fine art firm. In every other spare minute, she is a reader and writer. She is represented by Carly Watters of P.S. Literary. Always up for a challenge, she is currently editing her first novel and working on a new manuscript.

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