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The Canadian Towns That Icelanders Visit for a Taste of Their Past

If you're looking for the traditional dishes of Iceland without going to Iceland, you might consider a trip to New Iceland, an area on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. New Iceland is sparsely populated (as is Iceland), but that's where you'll find rúllupylsa in both grocery stores and restaurants, and Brennivin to drink, with vínarterta for dessert. Tourists from Iceland love to stop by for a taste of home on their North American trips. The founding of New Iceland might remind you of stories of other, more familiar settlements.

The origins of this delicious diaspora are explosive. Following a volcanic eruption in 1875 that starved livestock, crippled the economy, and punctuated an ongoing series of hardships, Sigtryggur Jonasson, who had recently arrived in Canada, traveled home with a booklet titled Nýja Ísland I Kanada, or New Iceland In Canada, which Canadian officials wanted to distribute as part of an effort to attract immigrants to the lightly populated area. Over the next few decades, some 20% of Iceland’s population emigrated to North America, mainly to Canada. Jonasson became known as the Father of New Iceland, and Icelanders eventually settled, by being towed on flat boats, on Lake Winnipeg, where they hoped to fish and govern themselves in the remote territory. They named the capital of New Iceland Gimli, Icelandic for “paradise.”

But it wasn’t quite. Even hardened Icelanders weren’t prepared for the cold winters, and many died from scurvy and a smallpox epidemic during the first years. According to Stefan Jonasson, a Winnipeg-based New Iceland historian and editor of the community newspaper Lögberg-Heimskringla, at least one setter stored bodies in cold sheds until spring thaw when they could be buried. The newcomers survived in large part thanks to First Nations people, who taught these ocean-fishing immigrants how to set a net four feet under the frozen lake’s ice. The bond formed between First Nations and Icelanders persists today—intermarriage was common, as well as culinary exchanges. Many nearby First Nations families still make Icelandic dishes.

In some ways, New Iceland is more traditionally Icelandic than Iceland itself. Read about New Iceland and its cuisine at Atlas Obscura. 

(Image credit: Micah Grubert Van Iderstine)

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