food glorious food

I haven’t talked that much about food in this very self-indulgent, free-ranging column, and yet I think about it every day, and cook it, too. I usually plan my menus for the day, and past that, while I swim. I think over what’s in the fridge to be used up, what’s coming up during the week, and when I might have time to adjust or augment my plans. Case in point: I have leftover flank steak and mashed potatoes from our birthday dinner for my 70-year-old friend. He didn’t want to take anything home. So, of course, it will be shepherd’s pie but there’s no gravy I had to look in the supermarket and had to ask for directions for canned gravy - never buy it. So that’s coming. I also had salad to use up; added a ripe avocado and had it for lunch yesterday. You know already that I’m a leftover cook.

I haven’t mentioned my spiralizer, have I? I had read about them and when I visited my daughter in August, she owned one and demonstrated. I love it. I bought one and used it for the first time for a cook I admire very much and she already had one ( wouldn’t you know?) but said she enjoyed my spiralized zucchini with pesto sauce and big shrimp.( NUM.) For those of you who do not know, but you probably all do, it’s a tube with a serrated blade at each end inside, one for thicker slicing, one for thin. You push and twist a zucchini (for example) down the tube, past the blad e, and out comes long spaghetti-like strands. Pat it/them? dry with a paper towel, cook in salted boiling water for no more than 3 minutes and serve with a sauce of your choice. It’s like pasta, only far far fewer calories and good for you because it’s a vegetable.

About the same time, I finally yielded to cauliflower rice. It’s easy: you can use a knife to chop this vegetable into fine bits that look like rice, or you can run it through your food processor. You can make stir-fry rice or pretend it’s mashed potatoes. It has solved a long-time problem for me. In latter years - very latter - I had stopped buying cauliflower. Most cauliflowers are bigger than my head and they are a definition of eternity: a cauliflower and one person. After I’ve made mashed ”potatoes” and stir-fried “rice”, I can handle steamed cauliflower with cheese sauce.

Do you know that one of the hardest jobs in the world (well, you know, - hyperbole - it’s rather difficult ) is the creation of an edible recipe? The creation is not the problem; the execution is. I edited a cookbook only once, during one of my stints as a writer-in-library when wabes were in invited to submit manuscripts, from 30 to 60 pages, depending on the circulatlon of the library and the number of manuscripts submitted . That cookbook needed a lot of editing, that is, straight, old-fashioned cutting. You all know Strunk and White’s most often repeated advice in their book “Elements of Style”:

Omit needless words.  Omit needless words.  And go heavy on the repetition.

One of these days, I’ll go through a week of menus with recipes, that is, if anyone wants to see that. You can let me know?


Icelandic is a wonderful language, more like Old Norse (and Old English) than meets the eye.  I love words, as you know, and I find easy mnemonics in words from different languages that remind me of others in others, if you know what I mean.

Simple case in point:  You know the Scottish expression,”Lang may yer lum reek”?  (Long may your chimney smoke.)  It’s a good  wish for long life in one’s home, a nice thing to say at a house-waming.  Well, as you may or may not know, Reykjavik  translates as smoky bay.  Vik is bay (cf. Keflavik, the airport, also a bay).  Reyk means smoke. When the first arrivals saw the steam rising from the underground thermal wells, they thought it was smoke, so they called this new bay smoky bay.  

This is where I find similarities so fascinating.  Long may your chimney reek, i.e. smoke.  Reek sounds sort of like reyk, doesn’t it? (My Autochek is dying to change reyk to reek; I have to be firm.)  I haven’t found the source of lum.  

I was 17 when I first noticed the similarities between Icelandic and English (well - Old English) at my Icelandic grandmother’s funeral. The funeral oration was in Icelandic, which I didn’t know, but I was studying Old English (Anglo-Saxon) that year - third year Honours English.  I heard similarities in the sounds of words.  Dryten, for example, the OE word for Lord, sounded to me like Drottin, the Icelandic word. 

And then there’s the lovely purity of the Icelandic language - so pure and traditional, in fact, that a modern Icelander can read the Old Norse sagas without a dictionary or crib. The keepers of the language are even more fussy than the French Academy, famous for its nitpicking and purity, although worlds like le nightclub, have crept in.  Icelandic does not allow for Greek or Latin roots, preferring instead familiar, even ancient, words to identify modern technology.  It’s poe tic as well as practical.  A meteorite, for example, is a loftstein - a sky stone; a telephone is  simi,  the Icelandic word for thread or line; television is sjönvarp, a thrown picture,  and computer is tölva,from tá, meaning digit or finger and völva, meaning sibyl.  Voluspa, "The Song of the Sibyl" i s about the Völva, the seer who had a direct line with Odin, so we have a finger-wizard, a digital sibyl (and  no Spel-chek in sight).  

My favourite is the word for the television/computer screen. In Icelandic days of yore, before window glass, they stretched the amniotic sac of a new-born  calf across a window frame to let light  into a sod house.  That yellowish glare seemed to suit a television screen and so it was called skjár. Don't you love it?

I get into this a little in my book Letters to Icelanders (CDG Books, 1999). I'm not trying to sell you anything. Like most of my books, it's out of print. You'd have to order a remaindered or used copy from a second-hand bookstore via Amazon. I get a lot of my own books this way,to give away; they usually cost about one cent; the shipping is $6.49. I just checked it.  The shipping price is right but the books will cost you, from $19 for a tired copy to $224.78 or  - brace yourself - $999.11 for a new one in"pristine condition."  Imagine!  I wonder who gets that money.