This article explores the history of vínarterta, a striped fruit torte imported by Icelandic immigrants to North America in the late nineteenth century and obsessively preserved by their descendants today. When roughly 20–25 percent of the population of Iceland relocated to North America between 1870 and 1914, they brought with them a host of culinary traditions, the most popular and enduring of which is this labor-intensive, spiced, layered dessert. Considered an essential fixture at any important gathering, including weddings, holidays, and funerals, vínarterta looms large in Icelandic–North American popular culture. Family recipes are often closely guarded, and any alterations to the “correct recipe,” including number of layers, inclusion or exclusion of cardamom or frosting, and the use of almond extract, are still hotly debated by community members who see changes to “original” recipes as a controversial, even offensive sign of cultural degeneration. In spite of this dedication to authenticity, this torte is an unusual ethnic symbol with a complex past. The first recipes for “Vienna torte” were Danish imports via Austria, originally popular with the Icelandic immigrant generation in the late nineteenth century because of their glamorous connections to continental Europe. Moreover, the dessert fell out of fashion in Iceland roughly at the same time as it ascended as an ethnic symbol in wartime and postwar North American heritage spectacles. Proceeding from recipe books, oral history interviews, memoirs, and Icelandic and English language newspapers, this article examines the complex history of this particular dessert.
Icelandic Cake Fight: History of an Immigrant Recipe
Laurie K. Bertram is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Toronto and the author of The Viking Immigrants: Icelandic North Americans (University of Toronto Press, 2020). This research was made possible by support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.
Laurie K. Bertram; Icelandic Cake Fight: History of an Immigrant Recipe. Gastronomica 1 November 2019; 19 (4): 28–41. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2019.19.4.28
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