“That’s a pike. I don’t like pikes. They’re bitey but not tasty.” (American tourist couple overheard at the local public aquarium.)
This Saturday we celebrate Skull Sunday.
In two days time I’m leaving for Spain to not celebrate Christmas. This is an attempt to make the Christmas holiday an actual holiday (also to escape Norway’s soggy winter darkness). But before ditching all traditions, let’s observe some traditions.
Skull Sunday is a perversion of old traditions observed through need, transformed into a celebration itself. I’ve touched upon the topic before: It’s the annual eating of boiled sheep heads.
Bremanger is the island where my father grew up. The default weather here is shite. This close to winter solstice daylight lasts only for a few measly hours. The dark grey landscape is regularly lit with vulgar Christmas displays. Neon santas riding neon reindeers through neon snow are out of place in more ways than one. Mostly because this doesn’t feel like winter at all. Outside temperature was close to 13 centigrades when I got up at nine this morning. That’s a nicer temperature than we had mid summer.
Winds are rocking the old house, darkness is creeping in, half eaten half heads of lamb are piling up on the kitchen table.
It all feels very wrong in just the right way.
Ever had a staring contest with dinner?
When I photograph food for clients, we’re usually speaking of the gourmet stuff, prepared and styled to look its very best: let’s say scallops hand picked by the restaurant’s own divers, seared to perfection and carefully arranged in their shells on a sculpted mound of sea salt and… you get the picture. All at a price point that could probably get you a decent secondhand car in any former Soviet satellite state.
This is of course pretty far removed from what most of us consider everyday meals. But on the opposite end of the scale, and for many as equally removed from the everyday as a Michelin starred restaurant, you find the hardcore tradionalism. Food customs observed through nostalgia, mostly by the older generation. Such as Skull Sunday.
Let’s set the scene. I wake up in a tiny bedroom in my grandmother’s house on the island of Bremanger. My dad or perhaps one of his brothers must have slept here as a kid. Old music posters of Ian Anderson, Marc Bolan, Suzi Quatro and some local 70s bands unheard of even in Norway are still gracing the walls, or rather, covering holes in even older wallpaper. Fat, lazy winter flies are buzzing like small drunken helicopters. Gusts of wind reaching storm strength are shaking the entire house, having torn off the roof of a community house a few nights before. In a basement periodically flooded, on an old electrical stove top, sheep heads are boiling.
Skjeltesøndag – literally “skull sunday” – is traditionally a local variation on the old concept of the dirty Sunday, the last Sunday before Christmas when after cleaning the house one was allowed to wear everyday clothes to the dinner table, to save one’s formal attire for Christmas. In the same vein, one was also supposed to save the good foods for Christmas, on this day eating lesser foods such as the heads of sheep. Only that somewhere along the way sheep heads made the transition from a lesser food to something of a celebration in itself. A delicacy, actually.
Is it any good?
Actually, the meat is quite tasty, this is after all, just lamb meat. But I’ll willingly admit that I find the overall experience quite disturbing. There is something about food that stares back.
Speaking of which – do you eat the eye?
Hell no. But my great grandmother did. Lustily, I am told.
Is it even legal?
Lamb heads are. Adult head production is forbidden due to fear of scrapies.
Hand feeding alligators with marshmallows is a desperate measure to save a species on the brink of extinction due to abrupt changes in the food chain.
Long-term ecological complications from hurricane Katrina have all but decimated many important species of plants in the Louisiana marshlands, severely disrupting the natural food chain. Among the species as good as extinct is the wild marshmallow, the main source of nutrition for the Louisiana alligators. In a desperate measure to save the species, swamp rangers set out to hand feed starving gators with rations of aid marshmallows. As there are an estimated two million gators in Louisiana, this is an arduous and labour-intensive job, demanding large numbers of volunteers and hundreds of thousands of bags of marshmallows every week.
Why not use airdrop you might ask? Well, that would leave most of the marshmallows floating in the swamp waters, like they were windfall. Alligators are accustomed to jumping out of the water and nipping wild marshmallows straight from the branches of the marshmallow tree. A proud gator simply won’t touch soggy marshmallows. Thus the need for human hands tempting the gators like the marshmallows were fresh off the branches, allowing the animals to act on their hunting instincts.
While visiting Louisiana my girlfriend and I felt the obligation to do our part, and joined a party of first time volunteers on a barge set out to distribute aid rations in the Barataria area south of New Orleans. We are proud to say that at least a dozen gators won’t be starving for marshmallows before the weekend at the very least.
Disclaimer: Let’s just quote the great pirate W. Shakespeare: “Do not trusteh all that thou readest on the Interneth.” Alligators are not a threatened species, and I just read that feeding them actually is against Louisiana law. Huh. Seems that our tour guide was breaking the law. Not too surprising really. After reading this article on disaster tourism I must admit a certain distaste for some of the practices of the New Orleans tour industry.
Norway, having a somewhat fjordy coastline, has a lot of ferries.
Being stuck in a ferry queue and damning the world is one of the most common Norwegian pastimes. Sometimes we also damn our fellow motorists for being too many and the shipowners for operating too few ships. We never damn ourselves for being too late, though.
Surviving the misery that is ferry travel relies on a few smart choices. Some are obvious: Bring a book. Take slow and deep breaths. Never have children (this goes for all travels by car, of course). And give yourself a reward.
Now, the last one – that is the knack to happy ferrying.
Side note: The knack to – that is one of my favourite expressions in English. I very much like the sound of it. Douglas Adams wrote that the knack to flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Well, I never learned that. But I try to say knack a lot.
Back to the ferries. Yes, the knack to happy ferrying is enjoying something called a “svele,” a thick pancake made with sodium bicarbonate and hartshorn. It’s the staple food onboard ferries, and as such, something that I will from here on refer to as ferry pancakes.
There are two schools of thought concerning the consumption of ferry pancakes. One swears to adding buttercream and sugar, which is fine. The other prefers brown cheese, which is just plain wrong.
Both schools, however, agree that just the thought of a coffee and a ferry pancake can relieve tensions that otherwise would have led to acts of bloody aggression while queuing. The svele is a peacekeeper.
This concludes the part of this blog post that I wrote in the queue, before driving onboard and actually having one of these ferry pancakes. And now we’re through the looking-glass.
Because holy mother of mercy – holy mackerel with a mohawk! – that’s… actually quite nasty.
That’s not the way they are supposed to taste. They were supposed to be an instant relief to all ferry-related worries. Not like this doughy, bland and tasteless icky sweet loaf of mediocrity.
Could it be a bad sample? One simple bad product among the sublime pieces of heaven that my brain tries to recall? Better have another one just to be sure…
Damn you, world!