Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

Think Globally, Eat Locally

There are different ways to experience a new place. The most obvious is sight-seeing – show up, hit the museums, hit the obvious tourist sites, and call it a day. This results in things like the Glockenspiel, a giant clock in Munich of very little interest to anyone that everyone who has been to Munich has seen. It results in the waste of money that was a hot air balloon ride over Cappadocia in Turkey. It is why half the people waiting in line for the Mona Lisa or the Sistine Chapel ceiling are waiting in line. They were told they simply have to see these things when in whatever place. And that isn’t the worst proposition. After all, if you made it this far, shouldn’t you see the thing everyone else has seen so you have topics of conversation to relate with? It is a personal question: Would you watch a movie you have no interest in just because most people have seen it?

Another way to experience a place is to just wander, to get lost in it, and soak it all in. This is related to the “talk to locals” approach. You try your best to experience a new place the way that the locals experience it rather than as a tourist. The approach obviously only works to some degree. Without speaking the language and without being there long enough to get your stride, you are still a tourist lacking the shared history of the locals. Without a job and obligations for rent and seeing friends, you are still a tourist. How well do you experience your own home town? How much do you appreciate all of the local infrastructure and the god restaurants? When was the last time you paused and just soaked in your own home, seeing it as a tourist trying to see it as a local?

My major way of experiencing a new place is to eat my way through it. As a person who loves novelty and food, it is my approach to the “experience it like a local” tack. Of course, this isn’t truly the local approach, because trying traditional delicacies in a country is usually more about eating what their ancestors ate than what they currently eat. But it is always a new experience, and so I’m in for it.

In Iceland this has resulted in a wide range of tastes. The most popular restaurant in the country is a hot dog stand, and it is the most frequently observed version of fast food. The dogs themselves aren’t as good as American – they always come out a bit rubbery and more a vessel for toppings than a taste by themselves. But when it comes to toppings, Iceland wins – raw onions, deep fried onion bits, potato salad, catsup, catsup with chili sauce, mustard, a half mustard/half satay sauce, and two cream sauces. And the dogs are often wrapped in bacon.

Skyr – a yogurt like product is also ubiquitous and good. There are a variety of flavors, and it is a cheap way to keep full. The candy is decidedly not American given the dominance of black licorice flavors – wrapped in chocolate, wrapped in caramel, plain, wrapped in sugar, fermented and sold like Jagermeister. (Tip on this last version – just because it looks like Jager, does not mean it can make effective Jager bombs. Jamie and I got stuck with expensive glasses of energy-boosting Robitussin.) And there is their take on the doughnut – a slightly denser, slightly more oily lump of dough shaped somewhat like a football and in need of dipping the same way a plain doughnut needs help to merit the calories it is bestowing. A Danish-like pastry with yellow goo and pink and brown drizzles is usually cheap, pretty good, and everywhere. And for any fans of rye bread, the Lake Myvatn area takes advantage of the smoldering earth and uses holes in the ground as bread ovens for the densest rye bread I have ever had. So much so that it no longer tastes like rye bread, and becomes sweeter and darker. And the coastal towns produce a white fish jerky that tastes and smells exactly as you would expect. Apparently it is better with butter.

Then there was the farmers market. This is the place to go for random meats on the weekend. And they have free samples. The smoked salmon was the most accessible taste – plain smoked, honey smoked, and dung smoked, each one with a distinctive and pleasant flavor. The horse meat was also pretty good, though raw and requiring purchase and cooking to appreciate. It is a tough enough meat that all of the solid meat required boiling for 90+ minutes. But the schnitzel was good with salt and pepper – a slightly bitter taste, but a strong one, and juicy. And this is where it starts to get weird.

Puffin was not on the menu due to the change in hunting season. But guillemot was, and was a very dark meat, dense, like turkey dark meat that you could actually get excited about having.

Whale meat has the best of both the land and the sea. It is a dark meat that cooks up like a steak more than a fish steak. And when it does, it has a slightly chalky texture the is reminiscent of liver without tasting like liver or bothering those who don’t like liver. But it has the benefit of fish in the ability to be consumed raw. As such, Jamie and I had whale sushi that looked like raw steak but tasted like a very strong fish – think tuna without the fish taste.

Beyond these, it starts to get really weird. Café Loki provided us with sheep’s head jelly on rye pancakes. Sheeps head – brains, tongue, eyes – apparently was or is a delicacy. I can admit that it would be an infrequent meal compared to lamb chops. But when it comes in jelly form any gain from eating non-descript meat rather than digging into a skull is lost in the off-putting texture of flavorless jelly. Random bits of meat shouldn’t be held together by a clear matrix.

The farmers market provided us with our most intense culinary items. The sheep’s testicles came squished into a block. Though the lines between each one were clear, they did not just come apart as you’d expect. So we diced the block into small cubes and tried a bite. Bitter, with the consistency of super-dense raw tofu. It is as if the sheep knew what the butcher intended to do and turned his bits into something more reflective of his mood. After our small pieces, we put the rest on a plate and left it on the reception desk for people to try. In the morning, only about 20% remained.

The most tragic of tastes was the hakarl, Greenland shark fin that has been fermented underground for six months. When everyone sees a movie and says it is terrible, I don’t lose the urge to watch it, as if the trailers are a better indication than the opinion of everyone I know and respect. When everyone says that a local dish is awful, I still want to try it, and usually do. The hakarl smelled of ammonia and nothing else. It actually didn’t taste that bad while chewing – consistency of fish, though not overly flavorful. The true pain comes in once you’ve swallowed, when the ammonia starts eating at everything from the back of your tongue to your stomach and the fumes start hovering in your mouth and sinuses. The girl serving us just quietly watch our faces turn, cracking the faintest of smiles before informing us to not consume water, which only spreads the misery. The only cure is Brennivin, Icelandic schnapps.

Brennivin is called the black death and is apparently responsible for a wicked hang-over. After a night of interspersing shots of it with beer, I had no hangover. Nor did I mind the taste – it was like alcoholic rye bread given that it is a combination of potato and caraway seeds. It is no scotch, but I can sip it just fine. And so I did. And it became our battle cry.

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This entry was posted on July 9, 2010 by in Iceland.

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