Photo by jayneandd/FlickrCC
Most Americans I know are familiar with Iceland only insofar as its strategic location in the board game Risk. So it's understandable that after I returned from a vacation there last August, friends and family were curious. Sure, I brought back some quintessential Iceland stories: I had attempted to communicate with the Hidden People; I had waded in the Blue Lagoon; and I had drunk Brennivin, a schnapps regularly (and deservedly) referred to as "Black Death."
But in truth, the most Iceland-y thing I had done was a good deal less exotic. I ate a hot dog.
It turns out Icelanders love hot dogs. Every convenience store, kiosk, gas station, roadside stop, and eatery of any kind carries them, and they're consumed for meals, snacks, pick-me-ups, and as late-night munchies. We even glimpsed a pair of schoolchildren grabbing some for breakfast. Vegetarianism, while not unheard of, is exceedingly rare (I found this somewhat incongruent with what seems to be an otherwise progressive country), and I met almost no one who didn't regularly eat hot dogs. I, however, was on the cusp of becoming a full-on vegetarian, and rarely, if ever, ate meat, local cuisine be damned.
Reykjavik natives, asked for recommendations, invariably mentioned the stand, often with a look usually reserved for deceased loved ones.
The hot dog is a point of Icelandic national pride. Ubiquitous and cheap, it has nonetheless managed to avoid a low-class status. I'm trying to think of an American equivalent here, but I can't—so just imagine our hot dog significantly higher on the food totem pole. And, by widespread reputation, tastier. (Cattle are scarce in Iceland, so there's some ambiguity as to what exactly is in the dogs. Conflicting reports led me to conclude it's likely a combination of beef, pork, and lamb.)
A reputation of hot dog supremacy wasn't enough to convince me, though. The last hot dog I had eaten was in summer camp at age 15 when I inhaled six of them to impress my new bunkmates. (It worked.) And while I readily admit that hot dogs have certain appealing qualities—namely convenience and, there's no denying this, taste--their origin and manufacturing process are generally more than enough to dissuade me.
But rumblings of a near-magical hot dog began almost as soon as we landed. On the bus from the Keflavik airport, en route to Reykjavik, a middle-aged German couple asked if we had heard of "the hot dog." The wife's brother had been to Reykjavik the year before, and the most exciting part of his trip was some local, well-known hot dog stand. Several other passengers murmured their assent and anticipation. Reykjavik natives, asked for recommendations, invariably mentioned the stand, often with a look usually reserved for deceased loved ones. Tourists were of three possible minds concerning this mythical hot dog: rhapsodize glowingly and urge a visit (and/or admonish your laxity); express anticipation; and regret having missed it. The hype was unbearable. My willpower (and queasiness) was steadily losing to my curiosity.