Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Christmas Means Hangikjöt

I wish that when I went to a restaurant and was asked how I'd like my meat cooked, "smoked" was an option. Every meat tastes better smoked. In fact, vegetables would probably taste better smoked too.

Soon I'm going back to my parents' house for Christmas, and that means smoked lamb time. Yes, there are presents, and family togetherness, and a tree with lights on it, and seeing my friends. But mainly there's smoked lamb. Oooh, there go my salivary glands. My mouth literally waters at the thought of wonderful, smokey hangikjöt.

My mom has it shipped from The Land at some point earlier in the year. When it arrives several months before Christmas, she carefully takes it out of the package and holds it up so we can all gather around and bask in the glow of its magnificence. We "ooh" and "aah" and discuss how wonderful it's going to taste at Christmas, before it is nestled in the freezer to sit, safely preserved, until the blessed event.

Normally people in the Motherland eat their hangikjöt on Christmas day, but in our family we eat it on Christmas Eve. This is primarily because we don't want to share it with anyone, and on Christmas Day there is the danger that guests could arrive, or we may be invited somewhere else. But Christmas Eve is present-opening night for us as well, so there is no danger of unwanted pickers of our meat at our table, and our ravaging can go undisturbed.

The Day of Christmas Eve I wake up and hang around the kitchen annoying my mom until she throws me out. I hover over the stove where the smoked deliciousness sits in its pot of water on the stove, just beginning the sacred alchemical process that must first take place before it is safe for consumption. I lick my lips and gaze at it hungrily, I ask again what time it will be ready for dinner, and hover and hover and hover until she has to push me out of the room and send me to watch a Christmas movie or something. But it's no use. I physically cannot be away from the hangikjöt for too long. It calls me back, and I must stare at it in the pot and think how in just a few short hours I'll be sinking my teeth into its tender, salty, smoky flesh.

At some point in the early afternoon, my dad and us kids find an excuse to leave the house for a while, usually on some lame errand that my mom makes up to get us out of her way. We don't actually need anything, since my mom is one of those people who is so prepared for every event that even if nuclear fallout were to occur we probably wouldn't notice for several days afterward.

But the point isn't the errand. No, no, no. The point is that by the time we get home, the meat has been cooking for a while. And when we pull into the garage, there is a faint whiff of smoked lamb in the air. We rush into the house, I pause for just a moment with my hand on the doorknob, trying to savor the anticipation before getting shoved inside by one sibling or the other. And when we walk in.... BAM! The scent of sweet, savory, smoky, salty, amazing, everything that is pure and good and wonderful in this world, the scent of still believing in Santa Claus (all thirteen of them) and miracles and most of all, the scent of almost-ready hangikjöt has taken over the entire house.

This is the point where I usually make a big show of falling to my knees in front of the stove before I'm swatted away by my mother, who guards her treasure trove of meat like it's the Ark of the Covenant, which, as far as meats are concerned, it basically is.

A little while later, dressed in Christmas finery, salivary glands on overdrive, seated, quivering, at the table, we eat at last. The juxtaposition of flavors, the cream-based sauce, the peas, the red cabbage, the Coca-Cola classic (I stick with my childhood preference instead of wine or beer), the also imported Egill's Appelsín, the holy of holies shining like a reddish masterpiece on my otherwise unremarkable plate... That's what Christmas means to me.

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