Text Bergþóra SNÆBJÖRNSDÓTTIR. Illustrations RÁN FLYERING
Ask Icelanders to name their national dish and “hot dog and a coke” invariably ranks near the top. While Icelandic lamb may receive the official title, when you actually travel around the country, it’s not a leg of lamb that you find at every whistle stop and gas station. Nope. What you will find, however, is the beloved hot dog just about everywhere.
Icelanders aren’t a hot-dog nation in the classic sense. There’s no great culture surrounding sausages here as you might find in Germany or Poland, where the meat cases groan under the sheer diversity of stuffed offerings: frankfurters, brats, chilli wurst, kielbasa, garlic links, currywurst, weisswurst, bierwurst, long, thin, fat, short, made from various parts of various members of the animal kingdom—hooved, furry, feathered and otherwise.
Icelanders are, however, a hot-dog nation insofar as they have a long-term, monogamous relationship with one kind of sausage: they are a one-wiener nation. They love that wiener of theirs so much that they even put it on a commemorative postage stamp. Need I say more? The hot dog is so popular in Iceland that when ordering, one need not mention it by name; it’s enough to order simply “one with the works”.
And perhaps it’s best if we leave its name out of this, as it seems that Icelanders can’t come to a consensus as to whether its hot dog is called a pylsa or pulsa. This is a hotly contested issue that has created deep rifts in families and friendships alike. If you want to get a group of Icelanders red in a face with fingers wagging, you need only bring up the simple question of the hot dog’s proper name. (And before someone gets their teeth knocked out, I’ll just say that the University of Iceland’s Institute for Icelandic Studies claims that the correct spelling is pylsa, although as a Danish loan word it’s not incorrect to say pulsa).
According to the website for SS Slaughterhouse, hot dogs have been produced in Iceland almost from the company’s inception in 1908. But the dog didn’t really take off until the first hot dog stand, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, opened during the war years, sometime between 1938 and 1939. And Iceland’s first fast food was born.
But a hot dog with “the works” at that time was markedly different than what we get now. Flour was rationed, so the wiener was served in a paper wrapper. The sausage itself was red and “the works” meant only ketchup and mustard. According to Bæjarins Beztu, hot dogs in buns became available in 1948 when flour rationing ended. Several years later onions were added to the condiments. And gradually, the red sausages lost their popularity as no one wanted to get red stains on their clothes while eating a hot dog on the go.
Order “the works” today and you can expect ketchup, fried and raw onions, mustard and remoulade. Although it is a matter of taste, and many choose to leave off some condiments.
But the politics of the hot dog are about not only which condiments are used, but also where they ought to be placed. Convention dictates that all condiments except mustard and remoulade are to be placed under the wiener, but there are, of course, deviations from the norm.
When celebrities visit Iceland, they are invariably directed to Bæjarins Beztu, as is the case with all visitors. Here the nation waits with bated breath to see what they get on their hot dogs, as taste in hot-dog condiments is clearly a much more reliable indicator of a person’s character than anything they might say or do. One of the most memorable hot-dog orders in recent history was when Bill Clinton came to the country and asked for a hot dog with nothing but mustard. You could nearly hear the nation’s collective gasp! As a result, this particular hot-dog order was henceforth known as the “Clinton” at Bæjarins Beztu.
But what do outsiders think of Iceland’s national fast food? When you look at the ratings and reviews on travel sites abroad you’ll find a range of sentiments. Tourists either gush over Iceland’s delectably juicy “lamb dog” or they seem to be enraged by the abundance of potato starch and lack of flavor in our waxy, little wiener dressed up in a bun. Who’s right? Is the Icelandic hot dog a wad of potato starch or the height of lamby goodness?
The Icelandic hot-dog sausage is a so-called frankfurter. According SS Slaughterhouse, the sausage is made from three kinds of meat: beef, mutton and pork. The whole thing is only about 2.7% potato starch, so the Icelandic hot dog is hardly a wad of potato starch (as some would have you believe). At the same time, the ingredients list not “lamb” but rather “mutton”, which indicates the meat of the adult sheep. So really we should be talking not about “lamby goodness” but rather “sheepy goodness”.
The hot dog is Iceland’s national dish in that it is the food most consumed by Icelanders on a daily basis. Whether or not we want to recognize the hot dog as a cornerstone of Icelandic gastronomy, it is the undisputed winner when it comes to popularity and availability. Icelanders love their hot dog. That said, when it comes to public health (like sodium intake), Icelanders would be well advised to enjoy their hot dog like they enjoy their national flag—that is, hoist one up only on special occasions.