I’ve been living in a small Icelandic fishing town.
It’s home to 800 people, snowy mountains on three sides, the sea on the other. No one’s seen the sun for 54 days. Troll FM is the local radio station. Festivity is brewing vodka in your garage, taking it to parties in 1.5L Coke bottles.
One of the town’s two policemen invited me to dinner, a three-pronged affair: a Viking feast to fight the dark, the yearly recital for the hobby farming association, and an annual commemoration of pagan sacrifice to Thor, despite conflicting opinions about whether he was the old King of Norway or the God of Thunder.
It’s been a frustrating mating season for Jón, because his latest ram acquisition turned out to be gay. Still, at the Bóndadagur BYO banquet, there are platters of sheep everything, sliced, on foil.
There is svið, pressed lamb head, in terrine form, with at least five different textures, gelatinously tender and reminiscent of cold chicken. There are boiled testicles, lightly salted, in honest, cold slices: like slightly spongey sweatbreads, dense and delicious. Anna, next to me, sneaks me a half of a hot one, lightly smoked: like mouthfuls of warm, sweet fish roe.
There is sweet béchamel sauce, poured from a Thermos onto mashed turnip and hangikot, magenta slices of lamb smoked over local manure, with the intensity of an airport smoking room.
There are halved sheep faces for picking at, each with a quizzical single eye; Granny Svava’s round flatbread, made directly on her electric stove top, with rye so dark it’s flecked with the flavour of charcoal.
In a tupperware, next to hrútspungur, sour testicles set in aspic, whey-cured slices of pale whale fat, with a texture somewhere between laboratory agar and cartilage, a whiff of yoghurty sourness.
Hákarl in a jam jar for snacking, cubes of shark, buried for weeks, hung for months, then eaten with toothpicks oozing burning ammonia, interspersed with sips of brennivin, bursts of alcoholic caraway on the tongue.
Feasting is followed a speech by a man in a floral gown, and a dance competition of farmers wearing Elvis faces, after which I turn around and discover everyone is ridiculously, stupendously drunk.
A man named Rock suggests motorcross on the frozen lake after breakfast.
The next afternoon, the feasting continues.
“I could barely sleep last night, knowing this was in my fridge,” down-the-road-neighbour Alla tells me gleefully, sneaking a slice of sour testicle terrine before dinner.
And I realised - as her 10-year-old daughter played Grand Theft Auto 5 alone in her bedroom and her hulk-sized husband watched television under a crocheted blanket in his lazy chair - that this, is comfort food.
Not the balls themselves, perhaps, but the frisson of excitement that they brought to her kitchen. A little festivity as comfort; defiance of the depressive dark.
Dining at the British-run African Union army base in Mogadishu, I once ate a Full Fried English with burly, gun-toting foreign contractors making happy noises: HP sauce on limp bacon, scrambled eggs microwaved with cream, next to armoured personnel carriers, a mortar-destroyed city and free-range camels.
Comfort in face of adversity. No more bizarre than chicken soup.