Say you and your brood have been hunkered down for months, shivering in the 24-hour night at the bottom of a wind-blasted fjord. It’s a hard life, but you’re bred from fierce folk who colonized Scandinavia, terrorized mainland Europe, and landed on American beaches long before that Italian. Your man Sigurd slew the dragon Fafnir, say the skalds. You can take the cold.
Then, finally, the light starts to stay a little longer, the days are a bit warmer. Soon there’ll be sheep to tend, crops to plant, fish to catch. But first you want to blow off a little steam, run around the farm a few times in your underwear, and gather the neighbors to feast on what’s left of the season’s rotten shark meat and charred sheep heads. You’ll dance and sing about love and elves and pour shot after shot of thick potato liquor through your beard, thanking Thor that you’ve survived another winter in Iceland.
Traditionally that was the Thorrablot, the Icelandic kiss-off to old man winter–a nasty character called Thorri, who some say is the personification of the thunder god himself.
The Thorrablot was a Viking celebration. Over the centuries, as their country Christianized and industrialized, Icelanders stopped observing the old Norse holidays. “It was kind of corny,” says Lena Hallgrimsdottir, who moved from Iceland to Chicago in 1996. “This was our past and we weren’t ready to celebrate it. You would move to Reykjavik and you wanted to forget about this backward country you left behind.”
Hallgrimsdottir and her husband, Einar Steinsson, are secretary and president of the Icelandic Association of Chicago, an expatriate group that was founded in 1928 as a chess club and today has a membership of about 60 families from the city and suburbs. Most have been here for several generations and speak only English, but there’s also a younger faction of recent immigrants like Hallgr’msdott’r and Steinsson, mostly professionals, students, and au pairs. The group hosts a Christmas party, sponsors a “Christmas Around the World” tree at the Museum of Science and Industry, and honors Icelandic independence in the summer with a picnic. But its biggest throwdown is the Thorrablot, which was popularly revived by a Reykjavik restaurant in 1954 and is now celebrated from Copenhagen to New York City.
Even in Iceland fish and meat spoil if they aren’t preserved, and in the days before electric refrigeration this was complicated by the island’s lack of salt. The strong foods served at a Thorrablot–slatur, a haggislike blood pudding, and hrutspungar, or pickled ram’s testicles–reflect the tradition of preserving food by smoking, pickling, or burying it. The most daunting example of this is hakarl–rotten shark meat that has been buried on a beach or soaked in water for several months until it turns into something like an overpowering fish-flavored cheese, with a fearsome smell. “Usually, your first reaction is that it’s terrible,” says Steinsson, who loves the stuff.
Hakarl is usually accompanied by shots of brennivin, or black death, a potent caraway-flavored schnapps that’s also enjoying a renaissance. Fifty years ago, “no one drank this except the bums and the teenagers,” says Hallgrimsdottir. “But now suddenly this is the thing.”
In a way, the unsavory reputation of these delicacies is part of their appeal. Washing down a ripe chunk of hakarl with a belt of black death is a bracing experience for anyone in need of postwinter shock treatment. For an Icelander it’s a ritual of pride: it’s what the Vikings ate.
Steinsson, who’s a finance director for a downtown firm, is partial to singed sheep heads. His father kept a small flock of sheep as a hobby and as a boy he rounded them up every spring from the mountains outside Reykjavik. Usually lunch consisted of half a head, minus the brains. (“We don’t eat the brain, because that’s dangerous,” says Steinsson.) Now he’s only able to eat them when he travels home or for Thorrablot. “If you’re brought up with this, you miss it,” he says. “You crave it.”
Hallgrimsdottir, whose great-grandfather put to sea on a shark-fishing boat, says not many people know how to make hakarl anymore, even in Iceland. She certainly can’t find it in Chicago. So every year she puts in an order to her family, which owns several restaurants back home. Her father vacuum-packs a boxful of shark, sheep, and dried fish and sends it over with the Thorrablot band. This year that’s a guitarist and keyboard player who call themselves Slatrio–or “the Haggis.”
There’s never been a problem getting the feast through customs. “Usually they go through Minneapolis,” says Hallgrimsdottir. “And they’re used to Icelanders carrying stinky foods there.”
Unlike Thorrablots back home, the Chicago party is relatively temperate. Things start off in the early evening with a toast and hors d’oeuvres, followed by a banquet of Thorrafood, plus ham and roast beef for the squeamish. Dessert is ponnukokur–pancakes laced with sugar or jam. After dinner everyone belts out a round of folk songs, then dances off the meal to Icelandic and western pop.
Thanks to its music and film scenes Iceland’s cultural profile has grown in recent years. Hallgrimsdottir teaches language lessons to a bunch of non-Icelanders who’ve developed crushes on the land of fire and ice. “People get hooked on Iceland for different things,” says Steinsson. “The food is probably the least of it.”
The Icelandic Association of Chicago’s Thorrablot starts at 6:30 PM on Saturday, February 28, at the Swedish American Museum, 5211 N. Clark. Tickets are $60, $45 for students and au pairs. This year’s guests of honor are Helgi Agustsson, Iceland’s ambassador to the U.S., and his wife, Hervor Jonasdottir. E-mail email@example.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul Merideth.