Iceland is known for its hot dogs, or pylsur, as they are called, and how could we resist when walking the good road into town from our campsite, we passed a little hot dog stand on the left. If you want to get technical, the hot dog stand everyone is talking about is in Reykjavik, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Translation: “The Best Hot Dog in Town.” Its fame has traveled farther though, as it was voted the best hot dog in Europe. Before that, Bill Clinton gave it a try on his 2004 visit, ordering a dog with brown mustard only, so plain and laughable by Icelandic standards that they made “Clinton Style” part of the menu. It is said Madonna, too, snacked on a wiener here, and a member of the band, Metallica. A line snakes out from the window of this little red kiosk near the waterfront, pretty much always, even at 2:00 am.
But that place is that place. The place Scott and I were going in Stykkisholmur—Meistarapylsur, or “Master Sausages”—is out of the way, little known, and with no long wait, a better place altogether.
We walked right up to read the menu and felt the surprising heat and glory of a ray of light emanating from the serving window, apparently cast from the young Icelandic beauty slinging dogs. She leaned out to look us in the eyes, her smile so comely and inviting, her long, darkened hair falling torrent-like over her bare arms. She didn’t speak at all, but rather offered a kind of hot dog telepathy, the sanctum of her deepest pleasures open to the sanctum of her patrons.
“I’ll have the Jóakim,” Scott said, so sure of himself it made me feel a little dwarfish.
The Jóakim was not an ordinary hot dog, but “a deep fried hot dog,” the menu told us, “with cheese sauce, salsa sauce and Doritos chips, melted cheese and spice.” And when you read “Doritos chips,” dear American, do not think Scott would be handed a little bag as a side. No. The chips are hand-broken into small pieces and spread across the landscape of the saucy bun, giving every bite a delicate crunch that can drive even the steadiest man wild.
That done, the hot dog girl now turned to me, and with her radiant gaze, made a slow, soft invitation of her eyes: What do you want? What will satisfy your desire?
“Hmm,” I said to the hot dog girl, so nearly bursting with pleasurable grief, “May I please have the 14-2?”
The 14-2 was not an ordinary dog either, but a “hot dog grilled in a special way. With baked beans, sauces, melted cheese and spice.” I knew not what special way the hot dog was to be grilled, but I knew I had to have it.
At this, the girl’s eyes opened wider still, her beam warming me from the center up. She smiled, and opened her ruby lips to speak in a voice so clear and ethereal I thought I heard nightingales.
“Would you like the baked beans on that?” she asked.
“Yes, I would,” I said, now so certain of myself, I could rule a nation.
“Ooh,” Scott said, nearly fainting with jealousy. “That would have been my next choice.”
Iceland, like every region of the world, has its adventures in food. Beyond the hot dog, try puffin, that cute little marine bird, often served smoked, in a little stack of purply lumps. (Later, Scott and I would try it in a blueberry Brennivin sauce, Brennivin being that famed Icelandic schnapps, also known as “Black Death.”) Skyr is a thousand-year old tradition, a cultured milk dish, like yogurt. And minke whale is still available on restaurant menus, accompanied by canvassers on the street calling for a ban on eating whale. But Iceland is mostly famous for its fish, an island nation graced by the world-class fishery of the North Atlantic. Fish soup is a restaurant standard, a big bowl of which, with a hearty bread, is inexpensive and satisfying. Hardfiskur, or wind-dried haddock, a fish jerky eaten with butter, is available everywhere as an anytime snack. Cod cheeks, sautéed in butter, or beer battered and fried, are fabulous. And the fish dish that every traveler hears about, but avoids, is hakarl, or putrified shark meat. Basking shark is the preferred species, the second largest fish in the world, a slow-moving and generally unaggressive beast, killed and buried, then exhumed and hung in an old barn for months until it rots into a white, pasty, cheese-like goo. It tastes of ammonia, so I have read, or as one traveler is said to have said, like eating “the gangrenous, blackened toes of a long-dead polar explorer which have been defrosted and left behind a radiator for a few days.” Hakarl is primarily made at Bjarnarhofn, a farm on Snæfellsnes, not far from where Scott and I were now.
And being where we were now, the warm sun falling over us, we returned to our lovely hot dogs. We took up a seat at the outdoor table, and without ceremony, tucked right in. The experience is mostly a long distortion of zip and whirr, so measureless as to nearly escape description. What so vividly returns to my memory is the loud snap at the teeth, so crisp and tight was that wiener, and then a taste explosion ominously beautiful, the beans and spice coming together so completely the sense aches at it.
One difference between an Icelandic hot dog, and the dogs from everywhere else, is that instead of a combination of beef and pork, you get beef and pork and lamb. Lamb, Icelanders boast, unrivaled by any on earth. “You see,” Scott and I were told later by a woman who gave us a ride, “the lambs of Iceland are free to roam where they please. They can eat the grass on the hills, or the seaweed by the sea. This is why they are the best in the world.”
The hot dog went down far too rapidly, and for a moment I felt like Joey Chestnut, who holds the world’s record in hot dog eating, 69 with buns in ten minutes. I wanted another and another, but I lifted my eyes to the blue skies of Iceland, the warmth natural light returning me to my senses. Scott and I tossed away our wrappers and walked the road to the ferry terminal to arrange the next day’s passage to the Westfjords.
Two young women were working the ferry counter, and Scott asked about the schedule. In order to catch the bus to Isafjordur on the other side, we’d have to take the morning ferry, not the afternoon ferry, and in order to do that, we’d have to stay tomorrow night on Flatey Island, because tomorrow was Sunday, and the bus doesn’t run on Sundays. Our plan: take the afternoon ferry tomorrow, camp on Flatey, and catch the morning ferry on Monday to the terminal at Brjanslækur to catch the bus to Isafjordur. We started in on the arrangements.
“Where are you from?” one of the girls asked.
“From the States,” Scott said. “Oregon. He’s from Texas.”
“I’m from Oregon,” I said. “I live in Texas.”
“An important distinction,” Scott said.
“Well I’m from Reykjavik,” the girl said. “But I live in Stykkisholmur. Just for the summer.”
“Summer job?” Scott asked.
“That’s right,” she said. “I’m at university. I came here for a summer job for one reason only.”
“What’s that?” Scott said.
“The hot dogs here are fantastic,” she said. “I love them.”
“You’re kidding,” Scott said.
“No. I’m not kidding. Even better than Reykjavik.”
“We just tried the hot dogs at that little stand out near the grocery,” I said.
“The best,” she said. “I love them so much. I can’t get enough. Did you have the one with baked beans?” she asked.
“I did,” I said.
“To die for,” she said.
“We’ll have to go again,” Scott said. “I need to try that one.”
Hot dogs really are the national food, come to find out, and like so many other foods, they were born of a need for preservation. Cheese and yogurt and Icelandic skyr are all methods for preserving milk. Jams and jellies and pies are methods for preserving fruit. And sausages are for preserving meat, and making them is an ancient art. Homer (not to be confused with Hormel) mentions blood sausage in The Odyssey, and the Apicius, that famed 4th century book of Roman cookery, includes a recipe for smoked sausage. Preserving meat this way is even older still, as Paleo Indians boiled meat and carried and stored it in the stomachs and intestines of animals, 20,000 years ago. Modern sausages owe much to the Germanic peoples, among the greatest sausage makers in the world. The term “frankfurter” comes from that sausage town, Frankfurt, Germany, and “wiener” from Vienna, Austria, which is “Wien” in German. A German immigrant brought the hot dog to America in the late 19th century. The origin of that term, “hot dog,” is hard to trace. A number of tales are circulating, many false, and one even accuses hot dog makers of using dog meat, which, in the late 19th century, might have been sometimes true.
After a beer or two harbor-side, Scott and I made our way up the hill to the Library of Water. This rounded building with its bank of windows looking onto the fjord really was a library, but the books are gone now, replaced by a permanent installation by artist Roni Horn. Positioned throughout the space are 24 glass columns, each filled with water from one of Iceland’s 24 major glaciers. It’s an archive, as much as it is art. All but one of Iceland’s major glaciers are receding, and when they are all gone—the unavoidable death knell of climate change—the Library of Water will be both monument and memorial. A light illuminates the columns from within, and sunlight streaming in through the windows illuminates from without. You walk among them, these columns of watery light, like a faun in a forest of fantastical trees, light bending images, some of which are you. On the floor are words offered in place of weather: hot, dry, nice, destructive. I paused at one column with no interior light, and inquired of the attendant.
“You know,” she said. “That light just went out one day. It’s the glacier called “Ok”—pronounced “Ahk”—from the interior, a smaller glacier. So I called up Roni to let her know we would replace the bulb. Then we found out that of the 24 glaciers, Ok is the only one that is gone. It’s gone. Completely melted due to our warming planet. So we just left it.”
After dinner, Scott and I made the steep but short walk to the top of Sugandisey, a basalt island approachable by land across the harbor causeway. We stood at the lighthouse overlooking Breidafjordur, our next day’s ferry route. From here we could see the waters shimmering off the evening polar sun, and the many islands spreading out over that blue distance. The fjord, its islands, and the surrounding shoreline have been an important food-producing region since the settlement of Iceland, about a thousand years ago. The fjord is rich in fish and marine mammals, as well as marine birds, and the islands and shoreline are rich in fine soils, suitable for grazing and haymaking. Most of Iceland’s iconic foods can be found here, and a look into the past can offer an understanding of how these foods came to augment Icelandic culture.
When the first settlers arrived in Iceland, the Arctic fox was the only endemic mammal. It was hunted, but not eaten, to protect the livestock people brought with them—mostly sheep and horses, some cows. Other than these imports, marine birds were a fine source of food (puffins were easy to catch in nets like butterflies); fish, of various sorts; and marine mammals, mostly whale and seal. Whaling required resources most people didn’t have, and so a beached whale offered a protein jackpot that fed a lot of people for a long time. If you are hungry, and you find a beached whale that has gone a bit off, you eat it anyway. Now you can understand the tolerance of hakarl in the Icelandic diet. Skyr is the product of efficient use of precious milk. First you remove the cream to make butter. With the remaining skim milk, you remove the whey to make skyr. And the whey may then be used to culture fresh milk, or drunk as is.
Looking into the distance from the lighthouse, I thought then of the great appetites of nations, the appetites of human beings, and the relationship of our appetites to those melting glaciers. What Freud knew, and what we all know at our core, is that we are driven by unconscious desires, desires that bubble up from the center of our passions. We do not control them so much as manage them, and mostly we fail at that. I wasn’t sure about Icelandic culture, but American culture is a long slog through the darkness of denial, a Janus-like tension between Puritanism and hedonism. Just ask any undergraduate at a conservative university: wild abandon on Saturday night, followed by ardent repentance on Sunday morning. If you repress powerful desires, they will finally burst forth with greater fury and destructive power. I thought of the fierce Norse warriors known as Bezerkers, tasters of blood, who fought in a trance-like state, so powerful that fire and iron could not harm them.
Deep in the night, Scott and I were violently plucked from sleep by three drunk men shouting and raging and shaking tents in the campground. I peered out through the tent door. Two of them wore those iconic Icelandic sweaters, all three carried beers. They raged and yelled in their drunkenness, howled and laughed like hyenas killing babies.
“They’re Bezerkers,” Scott said. “I should get out my mace and go after them.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You should, but that stuff would really mess them up.”
“You can kill a man with bear spray,” Scott said, “but this mace is for dogs.”
I watched through the zippered door of the tent as the Bezerkers faded into the illuminated night.
Day arrived, and on our way into town to catch the ferry, we stopped again at Meistarapylsur. Scott ordered the 14-2, and I went for the Henrik: a “deep fried hot dog with garlic sauce, Doritos chips, sauces, melted cheese, and spice.” The hot dog girl was beautiful, as before, but this time she was also human.
It looked to me like it was going to be a pretty good day.