The View from Here, No. 6

The sixth in a regular series of columns by Chay Lemoine: ‘California’, in which Chay revisits the state he used to call home and introduces a little bit of Iceland to Sunday brunch.

In a past incarnation I was the General Manager of a very popular restaurant in Santa Barbara, California. Ten years ago I supervised my last meal and moved to Iceland to renew an interest in Icelandic Writer Halldor Laxness. The restaurant at that time served “California Cuisine” and was replete with the clichéd wait staff of aspiring actresses/actors and screen writers. One of my servers made a pilot for a cable network series but three weeks later she was back waiting tables. It didn’t sell. I was told the aspiring screenwriter is still working on his screenplay. Every Christmas I was allowed a generous budget for a Christmas party. In order to take advantage of the talent – and some were very talented – I would write a Christmas play and it was performed for the staff and select customers. The subject varied but we usually performed a parody of the Jerry Springer-type show with politically incorrect topics such as “Woman with Three Breasts” and my personal favourite “Siamese Twins Who Marry”. That show featured what happens when one of the twins marries and the other is single. It produced this still-talked-about-line: I asked the unmarried twin what he did while his newly married twin went on his honeymoon and he replied “I went along for the ride”.

In July of this year I returned to Santa Barbara for an extended visit and was invited by the new owner of Max’s Restaurant to develop a few menu items for the popular Sunday Brunch menu. I accepted the invitation and visited the restaurant to get the feel for the clientele and the current menu. I was surprised that many of the customers remembered me and several wanted to talk about Iceland. For years Iceland was a small forgotten island that could not score a headline, having to compete with countries with unrelenting tragedies. Now Iceland is newsworthy; with a lesbian Prime Minister, a once-failing economy and a wonderfully persistent volcano that annoyed the Europeans. I was told by a customer that he read that the volcano didn’t bother Iceland as much as its European neighbours. This comment was followed by laughter at the table. Although the United States claims to be friends with Europe, Americans are giddy with excitement when the Europeans are distressed.

After the visit I went in the kitchen to prepare my brunch menu. American breakfasts are dangerously hearty and weekend brunch menus are road maps to heart disease – even in California.

Iceland Benedict

6oz fresh (Icelandic Salmon) lightly baked (10 minutes), then flake into a bowl
One teaspoon of lime juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
Fresh dill
½ teaspoon horseradish
Squeeze one clove garlic

Mix all ingredients and make into patty. Grill until hot. Put patty on a toasted English muffin and top with a poached egg and cover with one ounce of lime infused hollandaise sauce (substitute lime juice in a standard Hollandaise Sauce). Garnish with Icelandic Red Lumpfish Caviar.

There are over 100 cheeses made in Iceland, but Iceland does not have a tradition of making goats’ cheese. I had been reading about the effort to save the Icelandic goat and how a small amount of goat cheese is being made from the milk of a small herd. With this in mind I created Halldor’s Omelette. I am acquainted with several Halldors in Iceland all of them deserve to have food named about them. Max’s creates soufflé-style omelettes and the owner preferred that I not give the particular process that the restaurant uses to create them, but some variants can be found on the internet.

Halldor’s Omelette

Three large eggs, whipped
2 ounces of goats’ cheese
Handful of sun dried tomatoes
One tablespoon fresh basil
Lemon zest

I sent the ideas to the kitchen and the next weekend Max’s featured both ‘Iceland’ and ‘Halldor’ on their brunch menu. As a matter of fact, ‘Halldor’ was held over for three weeks.

Halldor Laxness moved to Los Angeles in 1927, with dreams of becoming a screenwriter. Surely he was impressed by the temperate weather and beautiful beaches. He was not a student of film, although he did profess a love of Chaplin and his films as well as his politics. Like many who move to Los Angeles, Laxness had little understanding of the machinations of the Hollywood movie machine. At that time Los Angeles had a population of over one million and had the highest suicide rate in the United States. Dreams die hard in the City of Angels.

It’s not just the movie industry that creates the fantasy mindset that Southern California engenders. The climate is non-intrusive. The landscape sparkles. Skating and surfing are part of the youth culture, because there is little environmental resistance and they feel the freedom of flight. For those lucky enough to have the beauty of presence or the safety of dollars the possibilities seem infinite. A culture of excess exists alongside a culture of want. It’s easy to see how the seeds of socialism were planted in Halldor’s mind when he was a young writer living in LA. The superficial glaze must have been evident. LA was Disneyland for the senses. He looked toward Iceland for another kind of Disneyland; one where the weather was intrusive and the landscape sparkles and darkness descends over the landscape. It’s there that introspection is possible and, if you can endure, it’s Disneyland for the soul.

Chay Lemoine is an American scholar who, among other things, is a renowned Halldor Laxness expert. Chay writes a regular column called ‘The View from Here’ on IceNews where he talks about Laxness, life, Iceland, and whatever else is on his mind.