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Beautiful People, Weird Food: A Hot Dog Bender in Reykjavik

September 12th, 2008 by Jeff Simmermon

Iceland’s got a lot going for it: fresh, clean air, perfect water, jaw-dropping scenery and gorgeous, gorgeous inhabitants. They don’t go in for comically death-defying fattening foods like we do here in the States. It’s not their style. But generally speaking, you can find better food in a pet store than you can in Iceland.

I’m exaggerating for comic effect here, of course. Having once learned the hard way that Gravy Train does not secrete anything close in flavor to real gravy when you add water, I do know the difference.

It’s just that because Iceland is so far away from everything and everyone else, and a country made of Arctic tundra, there’s no such thing as fresh local produce. Whatever is grown locally is grown in geothermal greenhouses and everything else has to be flown in from Europe. This drives up prices for pretty much everything on the island. And it makes for some seriously strange sandwiches that cost at least ten bucks. Like this one, snapped at a gas station outside of Vik:


I emailed a few Icelandic acquaintances, just to make sure I was reading the label correctly. That last letter isn’t one we have in English, and I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a cognate game-changer. They all wrote back, saying essentially the same thing: “Yep, that is a Bacon Nacho Sandwich.”

This is a country that counts hákarl, or fermented whale shark, among its national dishes, though it’s hardly a comfort food even to native Icelanders.

But the food there isn’t all bad, not by a long shot. Skyr is a delicious, yogurt-like cheese native to Iceland, and the fresh lamb is some of the best you can get — not to mention all the fresh, amazing seafood you can get year-round. But the real workhorse of the Icelandic diet (at least to my clumsy American palate) is the Icelandic hot dog.

pylsur, an Icelandic hot dog
(Taken from hasemeister’s Flickr stream)

The pylsur (as it is called in Icelandic) is such a beautiful thing: a taut tube of beef, pork, and lamb in a natural casing that really pops with a wet snap when you bite it. Everyone knows that all hot dogs are made with whatever is swept up off of the floor after other butchering is done. But whatever falls off the broom and into the meat-pile in Iceland must be as clean and pure as the water in that country — Icelandic people have one of the longest life expectancies in the West, and they bang these things down till well after dawn during some serious benders on the weekends in Reykjavik.

The only way to eat a pylsur is “with everything,” which means: remoulade (a mayo/relish blend), a sweet honey-mustard, maybe a little ketchup, and a blend of fresh and crunchy-fried onions. Followed immediately by another pylsur. They are Reykjavik’s late-night slice, and the line for pylsur at closing time is a scene of its own. Impossibly stylish, genetically superior Icelanders loll and stumble around the pavement like a cross between a sailor on shore leave and a semi-sentient sack of rice, slurring and shouting for hot dogs and taxi cabs. Sometimes the guys get a skinful and pick a friendly fistfight with each other, a billboard, or a trash can. It’s amazing to see fistfighting as a recreational sport rather than a prelude to a gun battle.

The streets are littered with these wrappers, crumpled and stained:


When Dave and I were there, Iceland had just earned a silver medal in Olympic handball and was on its way to play for the gold. The game was at 8 am, Iceland time, and people were gathering in parks in Reykjavik to watch it on giant projection screens. A lot of people just never stopped drinking from the night before. Dave and I stayed out until 5 or so and grabbed two and a half hours of sleep before being picked up for a tour. When we went to bed, Reykjavik was spattered with pylsur bits and pylsur wrappers, full of staggering, shouting people howling for cabs and festooning the pavement with cheerful strands of vomit.

Two and a half hours later, the streets were spotless and quiet. Street sweepers had swarmed en masse and deleted all signs of the mayhem. Incredible.

Here, you can see Dave’s eyes rolled back in ecstasy as he bites into a pylsur. Mine did the same thing, too.


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