Iceland and Storytelling for Jewish Modern Food

A greenhouse with plants on green grass.
A greenhouse for growing tomatoes and other vegetables in Reykholt in Southern Iceland (Photo Salvor/public domain)

This post starts with a country that most people do not think of for Jewish food: Iceland. I recently went on a lovely trip there with my partner. Iceland has many things to love, big and small. Among these things are the food. Some of the food comes from Iceland’s pastoral and fishing heritage: lamb, skyr, butter, cod, and rye bread. And some comes from the incredible creativity of Icelanders – tomatoes and carrots from greenhouses powered by geothermal heat, bread combining the flours of the world with local flavors and advantages; and an abundance of high-quality processed foods. The latter is what I am thinking about here. As I walked through supermarkets in Iceland (something I love to do whenever I travel), I thought about Rachel Laudan’s call for embracing modernist food. If any country has heard this, it is Iceland.

Triangular red and white milk container saying "Mjolk 1 litri"
Triangular milk container from the 1960s at the National Museum of Iceland. (Photo mine, March 2022)

Iceland’s wholehearted embrace of modernity for food – and all the promises that brings – is inspiring. Much of this has to do with the fact that Icelanders aren’t overly romantic about the hardships of the past, which were particularly harsh for a volcanic country just off the Arctic Circle. Modernity is not bad or unnatural – it means that vegetables can be grown closer to home, Icelanders can have a high quality of life, and healthy food is readily available with a fair amount of variety. Some countries direct travelers to unbroken agricultural traditions. Iceland – especially its government – goes in the opposite direction. Icelanders show off greenhouses and posters explaining all of Iceland’s excellent milk products. This push comes not just as a promise of prosperity – but also as a new way of revitalizing traditions, from preserved fish to skyr to some of Iceland’s more notorious specialties. In some ways, this embrace even enhances some of Iceland’s traditions, such as the baking traditions that preserve recipes now lost in the mainland Nordic countries.

Checkered jam pastry and fried knot pastry on parchment
Icelandic pastries – hjónabandssæla on the top, kleina on the bottom (photo mine, March 2022)

We should all be like Icelanders in this way.

Some people pooh-pooh the industrial and artificial for a “natural” history they romanticize and misremember. I have made this point again and again on this blog. A lot of this has to do with the stories people would rather tell or hear about the food they eat. Stories are nice but should not be the basis for advocacy or a food system – the good old days were not very good. (Especially for Jews and Icelanders, and black people in the Americas.) Rather, as Laudan notes, we need to advocate for high quality processed foods. Or as I say, we should try to become a bit more like Iceland. For that, the advocacy and the making is not enough – we also need to tell stories.

In her masterful Cook As You Are, Ruby Tandoh asks us to imagine what a narrative (which she calls a “mythos”) for processed food looks like. As I noted, Iceland is already beginning to get there with modern food. And part of that has to do with the stories – that there is something about making the highlands bloom with greenhouses, or the clever reuse of Iceland’s volcanic features and abundant water. And let us not forget that Iceland fought off British ships – and won – to be able to fish for cod, which was then processed – and by then, in very modern ways. Those fishermen are well-remembered. There is humor in these stories, too, such as a book of poetry in honor of the discount supermarket Bónus. (I have read it, and can confirm that it is funny.)

A refrigerator with four shelves stacked with packaged dairy products
Shelves of Israeli industrial dairy. The fruit yogurts at bottom left are a personal favorite. Iceland has a similar selection. (Photo Rakoon via CC/Wikimedia, 2018)

Some of this type of storytelling does exist in Israel, with narratives of the kibbutz and the behemoth of the Israeli modern food system. I want to ask: what would American Jewish modernist food storytelling look like? Of course the stories themselves would vary – some stories would be about technology, some about ingenuity, and some about tradition. I would hope that some would be about the workers in plants and in supermarkets and the cooks in commercial kitchens. I think many would be about familiar foods – say, the workers who produce industrial matzah meal or cream cheese, or the technological ingenuity of canned, jarred beets. Others could show the promise of new technologies and tie them to traditional foods – imagine a hraimeh or gefilte fish made from fish grown in new forms of aquaculture, or borekas made in giant air fryers. And most of the stories can only be told after the innovation happens.  Nothing in this lore would negate the Jewishness of this food. Icelanders can tie their modern embrace to their rich cultural tradition – and so should we. 

So let’s start thinking of these stories.

1 Comment

  1. David Ouziel says:

    Great article! It was a lovely trip 🙂

    Like

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