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Icelandic food culture

Interview with Professor Laufey Steingrimsdottir, Reykjavik, Iceland
Culture alimentaire islandaise: entretien avec Professeur Laufey, de Reykjavik
Virginie Amilien

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Cured shark being prepared, hung in a shack

Cured shark being prepared, hung in a shack

Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir

Laufey Steingrímsdóttir is currently a professor of nutrition at the University of Iceland, Faculty for Food Science and Nutrition. Her research topics range from studies on vitamin D and calcium for the health of the elderly, to inequalities related to healthy food choices and food culture. As director of the Icelandic National Nutrition Council from 1993 to 2003, she was in charge of two national nutrition surveys and several public health projects. She was one of the founders and first president of the Icelandic Society for Food History and Culture, and has been active in establishing other societies, including the Icelandic Association for Public Health.

Icelandic cured fish

Icelandic cured fish

Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir

Interview

1Virginie Amilien: Laufey, you are professor in nutrition research and have been working with Icelandic food during many years. How would you describe the Icelandic food culture, in a few and concrete sentences?

2Laufey Steingrímsdóttir: Abundance, convenience and creativity may be the key words characterising modern Icelandic food culture. Recently, domestic foods, especially those hunted or gathered from Icelandic nature, have received greater attention and emphasis in the cuisine, while modern Icelanders also enthusiastically embrace the international culinary scene. However, there is a troubling gap in food choice and food culture emerging between population groups; it is especially noticeable after the total banking collapse in 2008, with the economically disadvantaged selecting a less healthy diet than more affluent groups. For me as a public health nutritionist, this is of course a major concern and is presently the focus of some of my research. There, a newly conducted national nutrition survey supplies much of the important data.

3VA: The impact of crisis on food habits and food culture is extremely exciting. But how important is the cultural perspective for you, as nutritionist, and what is the role of your research and of your institution, in relation to Icelandic food culture?

4L. S: In my present job as professor of nutrition at the University of Iceland, I have had the privilege of integrating classical nutrition teaching and research with food culture and traditional foods. For example, I have organized and taught a graduate course on food culture, in co-operation with the faculty of folklore and ethnic studies at the University. This course is offered every other year, and last year we had over 60 students from disciplines ranging from food science and nutrition to gender studies, the arts, and folklore.

5My position is at the Unit for Nutrition Research, Faculty for Food Science and Nutrition and the National University Hospital. The Faculty offers BSc, MS and PhD programs in nutrition, and presently there are 5 PhD students and 7 MS students enrolled in nutrition. While my own research is largely in the area of public health, focussing on the determinants of healthy food choice as well as nutrition and health of the elderly, food culture is always an integral part of all my work. My participation in a Nordic multidisciplinary Centre of Excellence Programme: Nordic Health - Whole Grain Foods, funded by NordForsk, has been especially fruitful and opened new opportunities for studies of food culture. I had the good fortune of joining a group of historians, anthropologists and folklorists, in addition to epidemiologists and nutritionists, researching healthy aspects of the Nordic diet as it relates to whole grain foods. The course I mentioned earlier on food culture is one product of this co-operation.

Icelandic Moss

Icelandic Moss

Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir

6VA: This pluri-disciplinary co-operation must be enriching, not only for students but also for the research team. What about your observations, or discussions, or results: tell us a little bit more about Icelandic food culture....

7L.S: If you were to ask the man in the street about Icelandic food culture, he would most likely mention exotic traditional foods such as ram's testicles and blood sausages pickled in whey, or even singed sheep's heads along with pungent cured shark. While these are indeed examples of Icelandic specialities, canonised as traditional foods through the popular food feast, Thorrablot – a must in the social calendar of most Icelanders in February – they have been less important as mainstays in the daily diet of Icelanders through the centuries. There, fish and skyr (the still popular dairy product made from skimmed milk) dominate the scene. Indeed, the amount of these staples reportedly eaten may boggle the modern consumer´s mind. At the beginning of the 20th century, fish could easily be served in some households for breakfast, lunch and dinner – fresh, dried, salted, smoked or cured. Indeed, most modern middle-aged Icelanders have memories of fish being served three to five times a week during their upbringing. In 1939, the year of the first national nutrition survey in Iceland, the average quantity of fish eaten by adult males in Reykjavik was over 200 grams a day, with even greater amounts reported in coastal fishing villages but somewhat lower in farming areas..

8Lack of certain culinary basics shaped the diet of Icelanders in earlier times. Shortages may also have been the driving force for new and sometimes innovative solutions for survival. As there was no firewood, peat or dung was used for cooking and smoking of food. Lack of salt for food preservation made way for a novel alternative, pickling in whey. This method, unique to Iceland, gives meats, sausages and innards a distinct sour flavour while preserving the foods' nutrients better than most other methods. Finally, grain was blatantly lacking as no grain whatsoever could be grown in the country. Here, imports from Denmark saved the day, with rye, barley and oats being shipped to the country in ever-increasing quantity in exchange for more expensive native foods, such as mutton or butter. Wheat finally replaced the old Nordic grains in the 1930s, and with the arrival of electric ovens, Icelandic housewives enthusiastically produced cakes of great variety and quantity, priding themselves on serving more than the neighbour next door.

Skyr, the still common and popular dairy food – served with milk or cream

Skyr, the still common and popular dairy food – served with milk or cream

Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir

9VA: You tell about a progressive evolution but also major changes in Icelandic diet after 1930’s. Did the diet become more varied after new products were launched (either food or technological items, as wheat and electric ovens you just quoted)?

10L.S: While stockfish, skyr, rye bread, butter, and mutton may have been the common food items on the dinner table of most folks, there was nevertheless considerable variety in the diet, mostly reflecting different natural resources in different areas of the country. Eggs from wild birds were an important source of food in the spring where nearby sea cliffs were teeming with birdlife. The birds themselves were also a great source of food, including the abundant puffin, as well as the lovely ptarmigan, now the favoured Christmas food in Iceland. Inland, salmon rivers and lakes full of trout were a source of fresh fish in the diet of farmers that otherwise relied on preserved fish. Wild blueberries and crowberries were gathered in the heather, along with Iceland moss, and the seaweed dulse which was an important commodity in many coastal regions. The one food few foreign visitors can avoid has yet to be mentioned. We are talking about cured shark. This pungent delicacy is still popular in Iceland – at least in some circles – and is a must at the midwinter festivities, Thorrablot. A shot of ice-cold brennivin, the Icelandic aquavit, which often accompanies the shark, actually makes most foods taste just fine.

Icelandic seafood

Icelandic seafood

Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir

Icelandic sushi

Icelandic sushi

Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir

11VA: Professor in nutrition is a position that underlines that food is important both for Icelandic science and culture. You gave us many interesting examples of traditional food, or what many consumers would call "typical Icelandic food", but would you tell a little bit more about "everyday food" in Iceland.  In other words, what do Icelandic eaters have on the table in a normal week day?

12L.S: The recently completed national nutrition survey gives us some answers to these questions. The diet of modern-day Icelanders has little resemblance to the traditional diet just described, and I believe that few European populations have experienced greater transition in diet than Icelanders in recent decades. Vegetables and fruits are now part of the daily diet of most people, and the increases in consumption are truly impressive. The traditional lamb or mutton no longer dominates the meat market, and chicken and pork are now the most popular meats in Iceland for the first time in centuries. Also, fine grain wheat breads, pizzas and pasta are abundant, as are sugared carbonated drinks. Nevertheless, the traditional characteristics have not totally disappeared. Importantly, fish, particularly haddock, is still one of the most common dishes on the dinner table of Icelandic families, and fish is served twice a week for lunch in most elementary schools and kindergartens. Also, bread is still not as great a part of the diet as in other Nordic countries, possibly reflecting the animal based diet of the past. Even today protein intake, which accounts for 18% of total energy on the average, is somewhat higher in Iceland than in neighboring countries.

13Still the most interesting data from the survey relate to characteristics and differences between genders, age groups, residence and social groups. Interestingly, the distinct differences observed earlier between rural and urban populations are now fading. We are in a position to compare our results to those from an earlier national survey, performed in 1990. At that time the population was divided into two distinct groups with respect to dietary habits: The people in Reykjavik and surrounding areas, who had by then adopted a more "international" way of eating, and those in the rural areas who consumed a much fattier diet of mutton, butter, and milk - not forgetting the home-baked cakes which deserve a special chapter in the cultural culinary history of Iceland in the twentieth century. (More about that later). Today however, there is less difference seen in diet between rural and urban people, reflecting greater mobility, transport and availability of foods compared with earlier times. Also, there is not as great a divide between age groups as was evident in the last nutrition survey in 2002. At that time pizzas, french fries, and soda were the new hallmark of young people's diet, while older people kept faithfully to their habits of haddock and boiled potatoes most days of the week. Now the older generation has adopted some of the habits of the young, while the enthusiasm for pizza and soda may be declining somewhat among the young, probably as new "chique fast foods" appear on the market. Sushi is one of those. It has gained enormous popularity and competes with pizza as a Friday night take-out food in some crowds.

14The divide in eating habits now, however, is mainly related to different social, economic and educational groups. One factor in this development may be the total bank collapse in October 2008 in Iceland. This certainly had repercussions for daily life in Iceland, including the diet of most people. These changes were partly of cultural origin, where domestic and homemade foods became more prominent. But the economic situation certainly had an effect as well. This may come as no surprise, considering that in the three years after the collapse, the cost-of-living index rose 28%, and the price of imported foods rose 65%. At the same time there was little increase in wages, whereas unemployment soared – a new experience in Iceland since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Paper-thin festive traditional bread, laufabrauð

Paper-thin festive traditional bread, laufabrauð

Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir

15VA: Social differentiations are, unfortunately, common to all Nordic welfare states, but Iceland went through a specific, and quite unique crisis, in a Nordic context. You mentioned that you observed changes in the diet after 2008. Did you notice changes in the types, in the quantity, in the quality of food products Icelandic eaters have on the table, or in the way they eat food?

16While the economic situation in Iceland is improving now to some extent, we have definitely observed the impact of these tumultuous times on people's eating habits. The food supply statistics even showed a definite turnaround following the collapse, with fruit and vegetable consumption decreasing for the first time in decades. However, not all groups were affected equally, and when we look at the nutritional and health quality of the diet, the most economically disadvantaged in the population were those hardest hit. We have used data not only from the nutrition survey but also from two health surveys, performed in 2007 and in 2009 by the Directorate of Health. There we look at food choice and family income, as well as how easy it is for people to make ends meet. These data clearly show that those with the lowest income decreased their vegetable intake after the collapse, while higher-income groups did not change their intake. Fast foods, however, featured less frequently in all income groups after the collapse.

17We also calculated an index reflecting the health quality of diet, using data from the nutrition survey. We see there that people reporting difficulties making ends meet have a lower health-quality index than those not having difficulties. While it is a common observation in many societies that the economically disadvantaged consume a less healthy diet, this has not been obvious in recent times in Iceland – until now. This development occupies my mind at the present time as a nutrition researcher. One of the priorities of our proclaimed welfare state must be to ensure everyone the possibility of choosing a healthy and good diet.

Thorrablot – traditional feast fare

Thorrablot – traditional feast fare

Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir

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List of illustrations

Title Cured shark being prepared, hung in a shack
Credits Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir
URL http://aof.revues.org/docannexe/image/7088/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 204k
Title Icelandic cured fish
Credits Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir
URL http://aof.revues.org/docannexe/image/7088/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 88k
Title Icelandic Moss
Credits Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir
URL http://aof.revues.org/docannexe/image/7088/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 52k
Title Skyr, the still common and popular dairy food – served with milk or cream
Credits Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir
URL http://aof.revues.org/docannexe/image/7088/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 84k
Title Icelandic seafood
Credits Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir
URL http://aof.revues.org/docannexe/image/7088/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 112k
Title Icelandic sushi
Credits Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir
URL http://aof.revues.org/docannexe/image/7088/img-6.jpg
File image/jpeg, 80k
Title Paper-thin festive traditional bread, laufabrauð
Credits Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir
URL http://aof.revues.org/docannexe/image/7088/img-7.jpg
File image/jpeg, 40k
Title Thorrablot – traditional feast fare
Credits Photo by Laufey Steingrimsdottir
URL http://aof.revues.org/docannexe/image/7088/img-8.jpg
File image/jpeg, 41k
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References

Electronic reference

Virginie Amilien, « Icelandic food culture  », Anthropology of food [Online], S7 | 2012, Online since 10 January 2013, connection on 29 May 2017. URL : http://aof.revues.org/7088

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About the author

Virginie Amilien

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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