One of the most common markers of modern Icelandic North American identity is a seven-layered torte called vínarterta (vee-nar-terta), also popularly (mis)spelled “vinatarta” or “vinaterta.” For this English speaking and seemingly assimilated ethnic group, vínarterta is a remarkably consistent and popular symbol of ethnic identity.
This torte is regularly served during special occasions, particularly at Christmas, weddings and public Icelandic festivals. Yet this obsession with dessert is a source of confusion for Icelanders visiting their cousins in Canada and the US. Vínarterta is neither a national cultural symbol nor the most popular form of dessert in Iceland and Icelandic recipes vary more in terms of ingredients. While most Icelandic North Americans would never dream of violating the sacred trinity of prunes, cardamom and paper thin cookie layers in their vínarterta, European Icelandic bakers use a wider range of fruits including strawberry and rhubarb to make a version of the torte known as randalín.
Most often Icelandic-Canadian community members use recipes that have been passed down in the family to make this torte and condemn variation. The inclusion or exclusion of certain ingredients, including almond extract and cardamom, the use of frosting, and the number of layers are hotly contested issues. The Icelandic-American author Bill Holm described the sometimes fiery conflicts that arise over the “right” kind of vínarterta in his book, The Heart Can Be Filled Anywhere On Earth.
Say Vínarterta in a room full of the descendants of North American Icelandic immigrants and quarrels begin. In Canada, Vínarterta is in six or seven layers, flavoured with almonds, frosted with butter cream—wrong! One lady (with a Norwegian half in her family) used apricots instead of prunes between layers—wrong! Some leave out cardamom—oh-so-spicy, you know—wrong! A fearless and large-hearted Icelander in Minneapolis spikes her prunes with bourbon or brandy. This is daring and unconventional—the bobbed hair or pierced ears of Vínarterta-dom—but it might possibly be right. (Holm 2000: 217)
The debates surrounding vínarterta recipes most often reflect community members’ dedication to preserving the original form of the dessert as it was prepared in Iceland in the late 1800s. Unlike other aspects of cultural life that have been radically transformed in Canada, including the adoption of anglicized names and the decline of the Icelandic language, the dedication to preserving vínarterta in its original form illustrates that community members understand it as a powerful and culturally significant way of connecting to the Icelandic past, while re-asserting their Icelandic identity in the present.
Looking for a great vínarterta recipe? Try the version that made Jóna Peterson, of Bottineau, North Dakota, famous in 1949 when it was published in McCall’s Magazine’s monthly column, “The Best Cook in Our Town” (Text by Helen McCully) HERE.
Find out how to order your own vínarterta from the expert bakers at vinarterta.ca
Image: Jona Peterson demonstrating how to make vínarterta for McCall’s Magazine, December 1949