Where some nations might have the odd Christmas office party, secret Santas, or wreaths on their computer screens, it is customary in Iceland for companies to treat their employees to a traditional jólahladbord, roughly translated: Christmas buffet. Now, I say roughly translated because the word hladbord literally means “pile-table” as in mounds of grub, as in an angry gauntlet of food, as in “CHRISTMAS BUFFET! THE DOORS ARE LOCKED FROM THE OUTSIDE!!!”.
This is a rare example of the American appetite for quantity creeping into Icelandic gastronomy. It reminds me of the time Gísli and I visited Graceland, Elvis’s home in Memphis, Tennessee, and decided to grab a bite to eat afterwards. I order sanely: a pulled-pork sandwich and a pickle spear. Gísli, the unknowing Icelander, decides to simply order something light and opted for the grilled chicken salad. Unbeknownst to him, the American conception of salad has grown into something intense and grotesque: a vehicle for cream, cheese, oil, bacon, and fried bread. To his horror, Gísli is brought a punch bowl full of lettuce topped with five chicken breasts and two bowls of ranch dressing on the side.
Gísli tells this story (and the one about our sausage-gravy fiasco at Denny’s) to wide-eyed groups of Icelanders whenever asked about his great American road trip. He might as well be Columbus telling the Spaniards about the barbaric Indians living in wigwams. It would elicit the same skeptical glances and sighs of disbelief. However, I don’t see what’s so hard to believe about it. Icelanders certainly know how to put it away when it comes to Christmas.
Back to the “buffet.” Offerings on the Icelandic Christmas “pile-table” range from the sublime to the ridiculous. The yuletide favorite is invariably hangikjöt, a smoke-cured leg of lamb, which is thinly sliced and served with boiled or candied potatoes, green peas, pickled red cabbage, all swimming in white sauce. It may not be a mixed green, but it smacks of holiday heartiness. Some dishes go a little too far. My favorite example is the sinful delight known as purusteik, which is a slab of fatty pork with a thick layer of fried pork rind on top. If Denny’s caught wind of this it would be the end of the American people.
Others people fill up on laufabraud. Its name translated means “leaf-bread”, which conjures up images of health. That would be incorrect. Laufabraud is deep-fried dough, served in crispy slices as big as your head. These dishes, while certainly not healthy, are lip-smacking, finger-licking good. However, there is one Christmas dish that even I can’t stomach. It’s traditionally eaten on December 23, known at Thorláksmessa (The Mass of St. Thorlákur, the patron saint of Iceland who died on the day in 1199). To honor the saint the nation dines on putrefied skate smothered in lamb suet. Allow me to repeat that: putrefied skate smothered in lamb suet. It’s actually befitting because the slop stinks to high, holy heaven.
To wash it all down, Icelanders have invented the glittering pearl of Christmas drinks: malt og appelsín. This is a poor man’s spiced cider, but really so much more. Basically you mix malt drink (which can be found in the US in any Latin grocery stores under the brand Goya Malta—not quite the same, but close enough) with orange soda. It’s an unexpected coupling, one to which I was quite resistant at first, but it’s actually quite nice.
So while you won’t find any eggnog or figgy pudding on this island, that doesn’t mean the Icelanders don’t have their own means of stuffing themselves to the gills. And after all, isn’t that the true meaning of Christmas?
JM – [email protected]