Thursday, July 24, 2008

Day Four - Saturday - Hot Dogs and Trouble

After we cleaned up, we went outside for more adventure. It had been a bright grey overcast sky all day but now there was a fine drizzle that went from a heavy haze to something almost like raindrops. Rebecca was a bit discouraged at the crappy weather, but I was delighted with a childlike glee at the opportunity to use the swank new rain jackets we got at REI for the trip. The epitome of function over fashion, I'm sure I looked a little dorky trotting around in this thing, and no less dorky for the huge cheese-eating grin plastered all over my face.

It was my turn to pick something out of the guide book and I selected nothing more and nothing less than the traditional Icelandic hot dog. Iceland has put their own interpretation upon this dish, and there were hot dog vendors aplenty throughout Reykjavik, but the Lonely Planet guide book insisted that the sine qua non was the local legend: Bæjarins Beztu, which is short for "Bæjarins beztu pylsur," or "the best hot dogs in town." You walk from the commons down a back street through some tall, dark buildings that look like the kid brothers of castles, and then you turn down a street and walk towards the ocean. It feels like you're making wrong turns all over the place and just wandering deeper into an industrial area where you don't belong. To the right, behind a building, is a small and colorful booth with one guy working over a simple boiler, fixing hot dogs. It appeared even more quaint and pathos-evoking in the rain, but nonetheless there was a line of a dozen people waiting to order! I gave Rebecca my camera to get some action shots of me waiting, too. The stand makes a big deal of the fact that former president Clinton once ate there; so did James Hetfield, but I didn't know that until I read it on Wikipedia just now.

The book suggested ordering one with everything, so I stepped up to the booth, kronur in hand, and carefully pronounced, "Eina með öllu... did I say that right?" The vendor, a young man in his late 20s, laughed and assured me it was perfect, I was well on the way to mastering his language. Stuff like that always discombobulates me and I giggled almost to the point of hyperventilation, which made it hard to count out what I owed him. I was slightly off: if it cost 170kr I only had 150kr ready, for example, but he waived the last 20kr and called it a "first-timer's discount" and a welcome to the country. Would any Minnesotan vendor be as friendly to a foreigner struggling with English?

The recipe of the Icelandic hot dog is different not only in the consistency of the sausage, whose skin is a little more rubbery, but in the ingredients. Ingredients vary from place to place but as I recall "one with everything" entails this: hot dog and bun, a sweet variety of mustard, remoulade, a mysterious "hot dog sauce" (Rebecca thought it tasted like Thousand Island dressing), minced fresh onions, and a sprinkling of fried onions, called "crispy onions." The remoulade is intriguing enough, and "hot dog sauce" was not unique to Bæjarins Beztu, but the crispy onions were a feature I readily embraced. It made a fun tactile experience for the mouth, and it was awfully tasty besides. The last time I grilled for a group of people, I made a point of attempting to replicate the Icelandic hot dog experience as closely as possible. I hardly nailed it but I haven't surrendered the dream just yet.

After this we decided to go for a formal dinner and to give Tapas a second try. It was six in the evening so the place was not crowded at all; indeed, there was one table of people eating who left after we ordered, and another table who sat down just before we got our food, and that was the entire patronage. The owner was a gregarious Spanish gentleman or maybe South American, very warm and smooth in demeanor, seemed genuinely happy to see everyone who showed up. He could not be faulted for service, certainly. I started out ordering a Tio Pepe sherry: I've never had it before so I don't know what it's supposed to taste like, but my impression was that it was scandalously watered down. It could be that Tio Pepe is especially smooth and light, but I have never encountered so weak a sherry.

Then the menu: I felt daring and ordered a dish with saltfish, a beast one hears quite a lot about in Iceland, and also a plate of puffin. The Lonely Planet guide suggests that puffin meat looks (and tastes) like calf liver, and perhaps this description is not far off. Mine was cooked and then prepared cold, served in a blueberry sauce. The meat struck me as a little gamey at first but this was solely the nature of the meat and not any fault in preparation. I adjusted quickly and appreciated this tender preparation, though I wondered if this was a borderline risque dish to try. Puffin are one of the cutest animals in the world, and the two kinds of animals I can't consider eating are cute and companion. Would I give up beef if I somehow developed a soulful relationship with a cow? Probably not. Anyway, as it turned out, we later saw a movie involving a guesthouse out in the middle of nowhere and the proprietor was plucking and preparing a great stack of puffin for dinner, so I suppose it's actually a common food.

There was also Minke whale on the menu, and while I was dead curious to try so uncommon a food, I could not override my personal convictions and order it. My head was full of the news articles of Japan bending/breaking the rules to continue hunting Minke whale "for scientific purposes" and selling the leftovers to restaurants, a fact which breaks my heart about Japan. Two species of Minke are on the "near threatened" and "conservation dependent" lists. While I realize the meat was already prepared and sitting in storage in the restaurant, I wasn't going to contribute to the demand for it and had to pass. I don't regret my decision. The saltfish, which came in a kind of chowder, was completely delicious and there was no ethical consideration to wrangle with. I haven't yet met anyone familiar with saltfish as a taxonomical term so I searched online and found a Jamaican dish that uses "salt cod" and calls it saltfish. I have no idea whether the Jamaican saltfish is the same as the Icelandic saltfish, but if you try to hold those two concepts in your head at the same time it seems unlikely.

We wended our way back to Café Paris once again for coffee and cake. We spotted the cute couple from Halifax again—that is, the cute wife and the emotionally reserved husband. Despite his demeanor it was still a nice little treat to run into someone familiar in this foreign city. Rebecca had to excuse herself for a bit and I people-watched in the meanwhile. A couple tables over there was a lovely woman with dark blonde hair parted and plaited down her chest and a man who at times appeared much older than her. I say "at times" because the woman's age fluctuated: sometimes she seemed young, early 20s, and sometimes she seemed aged and eroded, the way a soul-crushing relationship with do to a person. The man, late 30s and balding in a most elegant way, certainly was upset about something, though his stone-faced composition gave me to think he thought he was very good at swallowing it. The woman, on the other hand, was the picture of misery and hopelessness. Occasionally they spoke and that's when the man looked angry, speaking harshly to her but in quiet tones I couldn't begin to pick up. The woman looked down at her hands as though she were struggling to contain a reservoir of tears that might burst forth at any moment. The man would relent, or rather take a break to sip some coffee, think, and then lay into her again. I almost wondered if he were less angry and more heartbroken about something, because there was a kind of urgency in how he spoke and gestured, as though he were trying very hard to impress a point into her. The situation was far too complex for me to read clearly. At one point the man got up and left the table for a couple minutes; the woman happened to glance up at me staring at her, and she smiled forlornly at us (for Rebecca had returned and I pointed out this unhappy couple to her).

Rebecca practiced doodling an ostrich—my sisters-in-law got me a fun little sketchpad that shows you how to draw unusual animals out of letter and numbers—and demonstrated her mastery of the heron doodle, entirely from memory. She also researched areas that featured hot pots, you know, the geothermal spas that are so justifiably popular, but trying to bus out to one of those was quite a fiasco...

(to be cont.)

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