Category Masticating With Mellzah

Breadfarm in Edison, WA

Last July, I found myself reading a longform article by Joe Bernstein on Buzzfeed about a shocking regional event that occurred on Samish Island in July of 2017.  At the bottom of the article, Bernstein wrote, “I left the jail and drove northwest into the Skagit Valley, past potato farms and through a tiny town known for its artisanal graham crackers. ” 

Artisanal what now?! In my backyard? Article finished, I turned my attention to the pursuit of the identity of this mystery boulangerie, suddenly acting like a master detective who specializes in the geolocation of baked goods, and in no time found my way to Molly Wizenberg’s Saveur article about the trip-worthy graham crackers in Edison, Washington, which “smelled like browned butter and cinnamon and comfort. ” Edison! 💡 The only thing left for this detective to do to seal the case closed was slap a graham cracker in my mouth, and that involved a pleasant drive on gently winding roads through green farmlands, observing hawks dotting the telephone lines, scanning the grounds below for prey. 

Edison, much like Madrid, New Mexico, is a town that has had many identities and has most recently been taken over by an influx of hippies who rebuilt the community in their image. There are more restaurants with good food than you’d think a town of just over 100 people could support. And this is good food, the kind of food that that I wouldn’t feel guilty describing to Gwyneth Paltrow as “whole food” even though I’m talking about fried local oysters, pastries rich with butter, and fresh goat cheese eaten by the spoonful. As I approach Edison on West Bow Hill road, a small white sign on the right reads “Welcome to Edison, the kindness town”. It is immediately charming.

Breadfarm’s graham crackers are everything Wizenberg said they were. I had never eaten a non commercially produced graham cracker before, and had also never really given a thought to the idea that they were something someone could bake and were something people did bake before everyone decided that this sort of cardboardy tasteless substitute in a blue box were graham crackers, period. The graham crackers at Breadfarm were a revelation, crisp to the tooth but with a melting texture on the tongue, rich and warm with a depth of flavor. I paired them with some homemade marshmallows as part of a s’mores bar at my Labor Day weekend barbeque, and it ruined me for traditional backyard s’mores.  Pro tip: homemade marshmallows toast gorgeously with a kitchen torch, I’m talking deeply caramelized on all sides perfection

Graham crackers aren’t the only noteworthy item at Breadfarm–over the course of our visits, Jason and I have eaten our way through most everything in the shop save their dog biscuits. Their squat round shortbread cookies sing with a cup of tea, all of the seasonal pastries (pear galettes, pumpkin cream danishes, orange currant brioche) have been well-balanced, flavorful and never too sweet, and their croissant and pain au chocolat rival any that I had in France: flaky, buttery, and tender. Their decadent kouign-amann are only available for those brave enough to wait to go until afternoon, which means I’ve generally missed them. Breadfarm’s pastries are so good that I would rather take the mini road trip to Edison than settle for the pastry shop down the road that used to be my favorite, and that’s saying something, because Jason and I used to be at that one down the street so often we knew all the employees and they all knew us. Now, about once a month, we hop in the car, fire up a podcast, and take the scenic route to Edison. This time, I’m planning on branching out and dining at the Old Edison Inn. If I get their Bow Burger, made with local beef and cheese, I’d still be getting a Breadfarm fix: they bake the buns.

This didn’t deserve its own post: Texas

When I take a trip somewhere, if I don’t do a day-by-day recounting, there’s usually a bunch of tidbits left over that I either couldn’t write more than a few sentences about or don’t have any photos for or would drag out the series far beyond what any human could be expected to tolerate.  All combined, however, they make for something a little more substantial, so here’s yet another one, this time about Texas.

There’s a donut shop in Round Rock that’ll sell you a donut the size of Texas for just under eight bucks. This behemoth, weighing in at around two pounds, is the equivalent of twelve regular donuts, and it absolutely dwarfs the largest donut I’d had prior, at Universal Studios. I may, in fact, never eat a larger donut in my life…but one can hope. Round Rock Donuts sells ’em glazed, chocolate frosted, and for the indecisive like myself, a split donut. Both sides had their charms, but ultimately I preferred the glazed half as the chocolate frosting can overwhelm the flavor of the donut itself, and it’s a donut worth tasting, tinted yellow from all the golden yolks of the farm-fresh eggs they use in their yeasted raised dough recipe. But y’know, maybe share it with a friend. I was particularly delighted to know that the donut could support its own weight when being picked up to do a size comparison selfie with, say, one’s own head.

I was so excited to go to Chicken Shit Bingo at the Little Longhorn Saloon, which they do every Sunday between 4 and 8pm, in four rounds. There’s a live band, and an array of picnic tables around a central tent, providing shade and protection for a large chicken wire cage, lined with a board with 54 numbered spaces and littered with feed to encourage movement(s). The band announced a table number, and it was from that table that the first round of tickets were sold. Excuse me, “exchanged for a donation”. Tickets are sold exchanged first to kids under 13, then adults over 92 (with ID), and then they’re exchanged with whoever hustled over to the line fast enough, one per person. I saw a man straight vault over a table and determined that the only way for me to win was not to participate. When the chicken finally came out, people crowded around the cage six deep, shouting at the chicken and cheering. Between them and the whole camera crew in there, I could not see anything and I didn’t feel like elbowing a bunch of people to try and see a chicken take a shit, so I left.

I wandered by this place while waiting to get into my movie at the nearby Alamo Drafthouse. Or so I thought. You see, the nearby Alamo Drafthouse, on S Lamar, was busy with SXSW screenings, and the ticket I had purchased was actually for a movie showing at an Alamo Drafthouse in Fort Worth, which is also on S Lamar, just a mere three and a half hour drive away. 

In general, I really really liked Alamo Drafthouse and I’m pretty devastated that there aren’t any locations nearby. The food is delicious, the service is unobtrusive, and they’re serious about ensuring your good experience which includes none of the ubiquitous modern commercial advertising before the start of the movie, choosing instead to take you on a nostalgic tour through tv clips, movie clips, and old timey cartoons and ads for toys and candy, curated from what must be an extensive collection by someone who has love for media. And I cannot confirm this, but I think they may have invented the endless popcorn bowl, because I happily munched on herbed parmesan popcorn all throughout Annihilation and when the movie ended, I still had 70% of it left. Some of the volume left may have had to do with my drive to eat as quietly as possible so as not to disturb the other moviegoers with my excessive crunching. 

The Jackalope was…a bar. With a Jackalope. That I tragically had no one to take my photo riding.

Looking for dinner one night, neither Jason nor I could resist the allure of “Jason’s Deli” for obvious reasons. It was, sad to say, kind of mediocre. My baked potato was almost unfathomably big–it was like they crossed a potato with a loaf of bread and planted it in radioactive soil. But it was bland and the chili was unpleasantly sweet and I was glad I’d paid the extra whatever to have access to the salad bar.

We took a ferry from Galveston to Crystal Beach and regretted it almost immediately. Jason got some freezer burned ice cream, I used the bathroom, we laughed at the “BUY SHRIMP I NEED MONEY” sign, I witnessed a wholly brown wave crash onto the “crystal” trash-littered beach and turned around and headed back to the ferry. 

I wrote one word in my travel notebook for the Houston Space Center: “Yeesh.”  It’s almost like a chaotic evil engineer designed it so that the high pitched shrieks of children reverberate endlessly. 

I like that this building looks like a cockatoo.

Umlach Sculpture Garden

I saw lots of couples taking engagement and wedding photos in Mayfield park. It’s also a lovely place for a stroll or to sit and read a book, punctuated with the haunting, mournful screams of the two dozen peacocks and hens who have the run of the place.

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Colorado River

And that’s it for Texas! Anything I didn’t talk about really didn’t deserve its own post.

Gordough’s Big Fat Donuts in Austin, TX

Gordough’s is a public house, a food truck, an experience.  …An experience I had three times in two weeks, because DAMN. The first time, I went solo to the public house and ordered a Popeye’s Roids: spinach salad with grilled chicken, honey balsamic vinaigrette, blue cheese crumbles, red grapes, roasted red peppers,  walnuts, and the star of the dish, the savory garlic donut that acted as the crouton. This glorious torus, this crispy-on-the-bottom still hot perfectly seasoned wonder of a vampire-repelling donut is the only thing about that salad that mattered.  The rest of the salad was mediocre and that’s being kind–the roasted red peppers were cold, slick, and obviously from a jar and they screwed up the entire flavor profile by fighting with every other ingredient. But that garlic donut, man. The bottom was crisp in a way that suggested it had been fried in garlic butter, and it tasted like the best garlic bread in the world. It is divine. I want THAT garlic donut with everything, especially if I can use it to mop up some kind of pasta sauce. That garlic donut is the best donut I’ve ever eaten. And I’ve blogged about donuts a lot (and I’m sure there’d be more results in that link if I was consistent with my spelling of doughnut), and will continue to blog about donuts in the future, because hard-hitting donut journalism is one of my niches, and also I just really fucking like donuts. And THIS donut is the best of the best. I’m so far behind on writing about the stuff I’ve done this year that there are donuts that I’m going to blog about in the near future, and you should know that none of them are as good as this garlic donut. 

That donut is why I went back to the public house after Jason joined me on the trip. He ordered a Dirty South: chicken fried steak, potato pancake, white gravy and a spicy cranberry jam served open face atop a piping hot donut, and for dessert, a Funky Monkey donut with cream cheese icing, grilled bananas, and brown sugar, and he really enjoyed both, despite traditionally not being a fan of the cranberry. I elected to try a donut sandwich this time, going for the Dirty Bird (I guess in addition to donuts, the theme of this visit was ‘dirty’): lemon pepper chicken with spinach, pesto, mozz, and roasted red peppers. For dessert, the Squealing Pig, with cream cheese icing, bacon, strawberry jalapeño jelly and candied jalapeños. My Dirty Bird was decent, but it didn’t really have the magic of that first garlic donut, and having had this one, I don’t think I’m down with the donut-as-a-bun experience in general. In fact, nothing I had at Gordough’s since came anywhere close to rivaling that first, perfect donut. 

It’s probably because with the exception of that salad, everything at Gordough’s is a LOT, seemingly under the guiding principle of “if some is good, more is better”. Like one donut? Have two as the bun for your sandwich! Enjoy the flavor of brown sugar? Have an entire handful on top of a thickly frosted donut! This is especially evident with the dessert donuts, even moreso with the donut hole dish I ordered at the food truck, the cherry bomb. These were served swimming in so much goo that they crossed the line from decadent to disgusting. Nothing else was disgusting–I do want to emphasize that the food at Gordough’s in general is very good, it’s just extremely decadent, even if it was being split among several people. It’s just a shame, because they have a great donut, a REALLY great donut, and in most instances you can’t even tell how great the donut is because of all the crap on top of it. And I’m getting to a point in my life where I don’t want to leave a restaurant feeling bad or throw away 90% of what I ordered because I know that eating any more of it will make me sick. The waste sickens me.

That doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop going to restaurants like Gordough’s entirely–as previously mentioned, I just really fucking like donuts, and I’m coming to find that I also enjoy writing about food in more than a perfunctory “nom or vom” way.  I don’t know how all of this is going to affect where I go and how I eat and how I’ll write about it–who knows, maybe this change has been coming on so gradually all along that I’m the only one to whom it comes as a shock. 

Lick Honest Ice Cream in Austin, TX

Lick Honest Ice Cream is hyperlocal. All the milk and cream used to make their ice cream comes from one small central Texas dairy farm, and everything else is made on site–the waffle cones, the sauces, everything. They use no artificial flavorings whatsoever. And I earnestly believe that everything served at Lick is among the best in its class. Waffle cones are available in chocolate and vanilla, and they have an addictive quality: tender but crisp. The scoops sizes are petite, which I found delightful as it meant I could enjoy three flavors easily and comfortably. All three were excellent: Tequila lime hit the right balance of tequila so that the flavor of tequila warmed the mouth but didn’t overpower the cold cream and the acidity of the lime rounded out the bite. Lemon pink peppercorn similarly kept the peppercorns subtle to allow the sweeter meyer lemon to shine. My hands-down favorite, however, was their grapefruit ice cream with champagne marshmallows. The grapefruit flavor was utterly refreshing and delightful, and I appreciated that it the grapefruit flavor came across cleanly but was more creamy than sharp, a grapefruit creamsicle. The marshmallows were spoonably soft and their champagne flavor was light and dreamy. It’s the perfect scoop on a warm Texas evening.

Roegels BBQ in Houston, TX

We arrived at Roegels (ray-gels) early: early enough to grab a spot in their small parking lot, but not early enough to be first in line–which is fine, I needed a little time to look at the menu and listen to what other people were ordering and make up my mind. We each ordered a two meat plate and between us had pork ribs, brisket, smoked pork belly, turkey, mac and cheese, seasoned cucumbers, texas caviar*, coleslaw, bourbon banana pudding, and pecan cobbler. Or in other words, half the menu. We also had access to a self-serve pickle bar with two types of pickled cucumbers (spicy and non), both with big swags of dill laid across the top, as well as pickled onions and jalapeños. Portions of everything were very very generous, especially the sides: huge scoops overwhelmed the plate, and I suspect that without the tray, the plate would struggle to support the weight of the food.

The pork ribs at Roegels were the best I had this trip, juicy with the perfect amount of peppery bark and toothiness, and the pecan cobbler (buttery nutty brown sugar heaven)  and bourbon banana pudding were both mindblowingly great, but everything else I couldn’t help but feel I’d had a bit better elsewhere. The primary issue was dryness–the brisket and turkey both had dry bites, and the smoked pork belly’s texture was flaky like fish and somehow also dry. Roegels also had two sauces to accompany the meats, both with the same thin base, tangy with vinegar, one kicking up the heat with jalapeños, and those did a great job masking any dryness I experienced. I have to assume I caught them on a bad day, and if I was in the area again, I’d give them another try because they’re rated so consistently highly among reviewers of Texas barbeque, and their turkey came recommended so highly by my friend and favorite food writer in the game, Erika of Calling All Fats. My meal was overall very good, but I arrived expecting greatness and didn’t quite get there.

 

*A bean, corn, pepper and onion salad, lightly dressed and served cold.

The Pit Room in Houston, TX

We made a cardinal error attempting to go to The Pit Room in Houston for the first time in the evening–they were sold out of everything except sausages and chopped pork, because that’s what happens at BBQ restaurants: you have to arrive early enough in the day to get what you want before it sells out or you get the dregs of everyone’s last choices. So we went to Jinya Ramen for dinner and resolved to be back first thing in the morning for some world class barbeque. 

I am not even kidding: we were the first people through the door in the morning and though there was not a line, there should have been, because this was the best barbeque I’ve ever eaten in my life. We ordered a beef rib, pork ribs, brisket, elote, and mac & cheese. Of them all, the mac and cheese was the weakest component, coming off as rather bland. Everything else was the best in its class, so delicious that at one point it felt like my soul left my body because there was no room for it in there with all of that BBQ based joy I was feeling from head to toe. 

The beef rib alone was a cool $30, and it was enormous, like something Fred Flintstone would eat, a slab of meat baaaaaaaarely attached to a prehistoric bone, heavily crusted with a beautiful bark. It was so meltingly tender that you could just pull bites off with a fork, and it was rich and juicy with a peppery bite. The brisket was incredibly tender and flavorful, and the pork ribs were perfection: toothy but tender, not so soft that they fell off the bone immediately, but pulled clean with a light amount of pressure. None of the meats needed any of the provided cups of tangy BBQ sauce, but it was a delicious extra.

Also perfect were the elote: charred streetcorn, served in a cup* and fully dressed with mayo, cojita, cilantro, and chile powder. The heat of the corn melts the mayo, softens the cheese, and turns into a smoky, crunchy, creamy delight with a bit of brightness. 

And then there was the pickle bar. The Pit Room is the first BBQ restaurant I’ve visited to have a full complimentary pickle bar, stocked with all kinds of pickled veg and salsas with varying levels of heat. These briny, tangy, spicy bites made all the difference, because the acids cleanse the palate of the meat’s richness which makes every bite of barbequed meat like the first, best bite. 

We laid waste to that tray, friends. They have an entire selection of desserts at The Pit Room that I had no room in my pit for, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently. After I got home, I sent The Pit Room an email begging for their elote recipe, but no dice. It’s fine, in the intervening time I’ve learned to make a pretty solid elote myself. Now all I need to do is learn to smoke a perfect beef rib and I’ll never have to go to Houston again.

 

 

 

*My understanding is that they are esquites when served in a cup, not elote, but I’m calling ’em by the name on the menu.

Salt Lick BBQ in Driftwood, TX

One hundred and forty four people live in Driftwood, Texas. At any given moment, visitors to Driftwood’s Salt Lick BBQ outnumber the residents: cash in hand, waiting in line for their turn for pork, bison, and beef ribs basted with their signature pecan sauce, their tender brisket, coleslaw flecked with mustard, thick slices soft white bread with a generous sifting of sesame seeds on top, and slabs of pie and warm cobbler, nestled with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. On the weekends, there’s a bonus menu with items not on offer during the week with a down-home comfort food feel, like scalloped potatoes and green bean casserole. On our BBQ tour of Texas, Salt Lick was Jason’s favorite–he really dug the bison ribs and he’s also a big fan of the pecan sauce, so much so that we ordered some to try in tandem with our new smoker. Now to find a bison rib supplier…

VIA 313 and Steel City Pops in Austin, TX

I visited these places one right after another and I’m not even going to pretend like I didn’t. Via313 was recommended to me as an Austin must-try, and I kind of love that an Austin must-try is Detroit-style pizza. What is Detroit-style pizza? It’s a soft, tender thick crust baked in a rectangular pan for crispy edges all the way around, and the only sauce is a thick swipe of red down the center of each piece. Cheese and toppings are generous because the more substantial crust can hold it. It doesn’t reach the casserole-y levels of a Chicago deep dish but it’s a thick bite. I ordered “the detroiter” which added a layer of smoked pepperoni under the cheese and still more pepperoni on top. All that generosity makes for a heavy pizza, however, and my appetite tapped out after one piece. But leftovers are a good thing–of course, it’s pizza!

I visited Steel City Pops for the first time after eating at Via313, but over the course of my two weeks in Texas, I went back several times. If you’re a new customer at Steel City, they give you a popsicle stick to redeem for a free pop on your second visit, but even if I hadn’t gotten a free pop, I still would have gone back. And then Jason joined me on the trip and I had to take him. These fresh popsicles are perfectly balanced icy treats. The cucumber lime pop was super refreshing with a good balance of flavor, not too vegetal, not too tart. The lavender in the lavender lemonade pop was subtle but I’d rather that floral flavors be subtle than bold anyway. And their patio is a great place to hang with a book and watch cute dogs walking by.

Tyson’s Tacos in Austin, TX

Still not 100% on what a kiss blown is. A kissairconditionerasted?

clockwise from upper left: burnt ends, al pastor, crispy duck, tasty basterd

Tyson’s Tacos is a charming restaurant with an inventive menu, though none of those things are what brought me here. I was lured to this establishment by two rumors: first, that there’s a ukulele at the ordering counter and in case anyone would like to sing for their supper, Tyson’s is willing to make that trade, at a going rate of one song per taco. The second rumor was that of a gold toilet in their restroom. I stalked my way all the way around this building and the only toilet I found was tragically white.

The ukulele, however, does exist, though the kind of off-key error-riddled song I could play on a uke would only be worthy of the saddest taco, the lonely little scamp trying to run away from home and make a new life in the dumpster. And I didn’t want a sad taco, I wanted a robust taco. Four of them. Al pastor, burnt ends, tasty basterd, and crispy duck, specifically. Plus a horchata, like the two kinds of agua fresca they had available gratis wasn’t good enough. 

The decor at Tyson’s is eclectic, with chippendale chairs next to chunky blonde wood chairs with carved in butt grooves and neon rainbow spatters dot the black ceiling. Rainbow dots among other things–birds come right inside and conduct their business. In addition to the type of business you already thought of, they also hop on the tables and chairs and scream at people for food.

They couldn’t have mine.  I did not love my al pastor taco, as I found it full of gristle. However, the tasty basterd, a surf & turf taco with shrimp, fajita steak, sriracha, and cheese surprisingly works. I mean, come on, it’s an unholy trinity: seafood and steak and cheese. Those very specific textures don’t tend to enter my mouth in tandem, but I was intrigued enough by the pure fortitude it took to invent this taco and then put it on a menu to order it and it really does work. By the end of it, I was a little creamied out, I think it ended up being too much of a good thing. I felt the same about the burnt ends taco. With onion rings, jalapenos, and valentina cream, it was delicious but I was done with it before it was finished. The last, the crispy duck, was a perfectly fine taco. I thought the crispiness of the duck and the fresh crunch of the cucumber was a wonderful pairing; I’m just not personally a huge fan of duck. I would’ve loved to see all these tacos in a smaller version so I could try more kinds of tacos, but that’s just greed talking. Greed and my failure to order five tacos so I could try the Prince taco. 

Iceland’s South Shore

We added a short stopover in Iceland on our way home from England. It was an opportunity to revisit favorites, see some new things, and, even better, break up the flights. Because, you know, even though I can travel thousands of miles across continents in a single day I can still find a way to complain about it. I suppose I’m inured to the marvel. Overseas travel used to involve a high risk of scurvy, a disease that ravaged the mind and body, but I’m complaining because sitting the whole way from London to Seattle might make my butt ache slightly. 

When I say “short stopover”, I mean it: we had one evening, one morning, and one full day sandwiched in between. On our evening, we went back to Grillmarkaðurinn, because how could we not? I had the most amazing rack of lamb, perfectly pink and luscious, which came with three small ramekins of yogurt, rhubarb sauce, and crushed nuts for self-saucing and experimentation and a side of crispy kale and garlic fried potatoes. I also stuffed myself on crusty bread with Icelandic butter and black lava salt and a side of fresh hot corn with the same accoutrements, and surprise, I again had no room for dessert. Jason’s meal had three kinds of fish, and he said each one raised his bar for how good fish could be. On our morning, we went back to the blue lagoon until we were driven inside by a violent hailstorm. All of those people surging out of the water while shrieking and flailing  looked like a scene from Jaws

On our full day, we went on tour to Iceland’s south shore. We were picked up early from the hotel and shuttled to the large bus terminal from which I could see the beautiful pink sunrise, and, on the hill, the place at which I’d made reservations that evening: The Pearl, where we’d eat in a glass dome under the stars with a 360 degree view. I had some time to contemplate my dinner plans and doze on the bus while we waited for some late arrivals. This late start unfortunately impacted our day as we had to blast past our first two stops, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, with assurances that we’d hit them on the way back.

Seljalandsfoss-adjacent

Skógafoss

We made a bathroom break/snack/gift shop only stop at the LAVA centre in Hvolsvöllur, but our first official activity stop was at Sólheimajökull glacier. One of my favorite teachers described his awe upon laying eyes on a glacier for the first time: “It was Tidy Bowl* blue!” This refreshingly unpretentious and product placement laden description had the kind of staying power it took to stick in my memory for decades, much like how Tidy Bowl lasts, flush after flush.  After a short hike from the parking lot, I finally got my first good look at a glacier, and it did indeed glow a gentle electric blue. We were not allowed to walk right up to the glacier but even at a distance it was immense. Less immense every year, however: it recedes the length of an Olympic size swimming pool annually.

I think this is the best photo to help understand scale–look at those tiny people in the lower right, off to hike on the glacier itself.

Our next stop was the farthest from Reykjavík we’d travel on the trip, the village of Vík í Mýrdal. As its southernmost coastal village, Vík enjoys the reputation of the warmest place in Iceland, a balmy one or two degrees warmer than average. Despite this heat wave, Vík’s population of 318 has yet to embrace shorts. To be fair, I can’t say I would have embraced them, either, as I spent the entirety of this visit in the puffy, noisy grip of cheap snowpants and still felt cold. Despite its small population, Vík offers a robust amount of services for travelers, as owing to its location along the ring road, it’s one of very few places in the area to fuel one’s vehicle and purchase food, which makes it a very different kind of “must-stop” on a road trip. Our tour group was given an hour and a half in which to eat, shop, and sightsee at our leisure, if anything done on a ninety minute timer can be said to be done at leisure. Jason and I ate at the Ice Cave restaurant, which is essentially a cafeteria attached to a huge gift shop and a grocery store. I finally got some Icelandic meat soup! It was…soup. Meat, potatoes, vegetables, water. It wasn’t objectionable in any way, but it had two main things going for it that had nothing to do with the flavor: it was extremely hot and therefore warming, and, unlike just about everything else on the menu, it’s ready to go off the line so you don’t have to use precious sightseeing time waiting twenty minutes for your mediocre burger. After Jason finished his mediocre burger, we hit the restroom and hustled down to the black sand beach, giving the gift shop a pass because however huge, it was still stocked with the same stuff we saw at every other single shop in Iceland. What did they even sell before China stitched its first stuffed puffin?

But a black sand beach…I’d never seen one of those before. The sand at Vík, due to its origins as basaltic lava, has the inky depth of rich topsoil, or, learning the lesson from that former teacher and using a metaphor that’ll stick with you, it’s a beach of Oreo cookie crumbs. To be more exacting, the black sand mingled with the pure white snow and ocean foam looked strikingly like the dirt cakes my brother requested for his birthday several years in a row (always served in a flower pot). 

I didn’t learn my lesson from last time about the perils of buying cheap snowpants online and gleefully abandoned this second terrible pair in the hotel. 

At the appointed time, we all loaded back on the bus and the driver hauled us up the hill and back down the other side to Reynisfjara Beach. Reynisfjara Beach is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful in Iceland, with its striking basalt columns and stretch of black sand, but it’s also one of Iceland’s most dangerous, with sneaker waves and an extremely strong undertow, a one-two punch that will knock a person’s legs out from underneath them and then drag them to sea. Although warning signs have been posted and tour guides stress the importance of not turning one’s back to the ocean, people still are caught unawares and several have died. Even when we visited, there were people toying about at the water’s edge, because, I guess, do you even have a life if you don’t take the risk of having it violently ripped away from you by the freezing ocean? 

The basalt columns in the ocean at Reynisfjara Beach are known as Reynisdrangar. Icelandic legend tells of two trolls who decided to drag a ship to shore in the night, but the task took longer than they anticipated (darn that strong undertow!) and they were caught by the sun and subsequently turned to stone. Also basalt, the step pyramid on land is called Hálsanef and it looks like the entrance to the lair of the troll king if only the cleft in the rock went deeper.  Scores of birds wheel about the top of Hálsanef–we were here at the wrong time of year, but I hear it’s very popular with puffins. It’s funny, these two black sand beaches are so close to one another, but one of them feels like an epic scene straight from a movie, and one of them feels exactly like what it is–a stretch of beach behind a parking lot. 

The sands at Reynisfjara Beach were rockier than their brethren at Vík í Mýrdal, with large areas covered in smooth dark grey stones. I don’t know what came over us, but both Jason and I coveted these stones, and even though we never do this, we agreed that we could each pick one to take home. I know, it’s a bad practice: if everyone did this, or even if a lot of people did this it would dramatically change the characteristic of every wild place for the worse. I knew it was wrong as I picked up the stone and closed my hand around it and slipped it into my pocket. But that stone had a grip on me. It was somehow The Perfect Stone, so smooth, so dark, so symmetrical, satisfying to look at and hold. Precious.

 

After our petty thievery, it was time to board the bus and head back to the waterfalls we’d blasted by on our way in. We made it to Skógafoss just as the sun was starting to set–you may recognize Skógafoss from Thor: The Dark World or a handful of other films. When we arrived, we were informed that we wouldn’t have time to go up to the viewing platform unless we were comfortable with the idea of running both up and down the entire set of stairs. Anyone who reads this blog or knows me or could make an educated guess about my general fitness level based on the sheer amount of Lord of the Rings references knows that running isn’t my bag. Me running up and down those entire stairs at full tilt is exactly equally as likely to happen as it is for Chris Hemsworth to have shown up just then, in his Thor costume, solely for the purpose of carrying me to the top.

Sheep!

We inched toward Skógafoss: every inch of terrain near the waterfall’s “splash zone” was coated in slick ice, and the ground itself was covered in irregular large rocks, which were also slick with ice. It was like trying to walk on bubble wrap made of ice, and while my feet tried to slip out from under me a few times, thankfully I kept my balance. Ultimately, I didn’t want to get very close to Skógafoss–the icy mist pelting me from a distance was plenty, I didn’t need to soak my jacket through, sit on a cold bus for a while, and then walk to and from our dinner reservations when we got back to Reykjavík in my still-wet jacket.

Speaking of not wanting to soak my jacket, at our final stop, Seljalandsfoss, visitors can walk behind the waterfall itself, which sounds like a great idea in the summer. When I visited, someone would have needed to credibly convince me that a puppy needed my help to get me back there, so either all puppies in the area were safe and accounted for or no one there realized that was part of my skillset. Either way, I ventured nowhere near the waterfall because I was already cold to my bones. The little heating packets in my pocket felt more like holding the memory of warmth–a pale ghost that just reminded me how cold I was, the LaCroix of heat.

 

We boarded the bus for the last time, and it was then that things took a turn for the worse. A horrible storm kicked up and an accident on the road forced us to a halt. I can no longer recall how long we sat there, but the time for our dinner reservations came and went and we had yet to arrive back in Reykjavík–and we were still lucky, because the snowstorm got bad enough that the roads were closed behind us, and in that instance, we would have had to backtrack to the nearest town and try to get lodgings for the night. Moreover, it was looking increasingly likely that the storm was going to stick around for a while, which kicked off my anxiety about our flight potentially being canceled. 

Then it struck me. In my run-up to my previous visit to Iceland, I did some research into their story culture. In addition to Norse mythology (because Vikings), Icelanders have a strong storytelling tradition about elves. In a 1998 survey, 54.4 percent of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. Plenty of people have mocked them for it, regardless of whether or not that survey accurately reflects the population in 2018, but Icelanders’ belief in elves isn’t nearly as pervasive as the nearly 80% of Americans who believe in the existence of angels and I don’t think that little tidbit makes it into the guidebooks for the land of the free and the home of the brave. Let’s at least be consistent in our treatment of invisible people! The book that I read about the elves, The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdóttir stated unequivocally that Icelanders do not believe in elves, and that the stories of the elves (or hidden people) were to help the people of Iceland deal with their extremely difficult circumstances. For example, back in the day when most Icelanders were peasants working the land for someone else, they were not allowed to marry until they had achieved significant financial resources, which wasn’t really a thing because nobody had a track record of paying peasants well–so if a woman were to somehow become pregnant outside of wedlock, well, a hidden person did it. Or, more grimly, if a child was to go missing in the harsh Icelandic weather, parents could console themselves with the idea that a hidden person had led their child off to the land of the hidden people, a prosperous place that would care for them for the rest of their lives, because the alternative was too horrible to consider.

Regardless of my day to day belief in the existence of elves, in my mind at the time I was convinced that our earlier stone thievery royally pissed off an elf since they are known to be touchy about stones and things they view as their property. When we got back to Reykjavík, Jason and I each took our perfect stones out of our pockets, sincerely apologized to the elves, and put them on the ground. And to be certain, this is just an anecdote with no scientific value whatsoever…but within 20 minutes of setting down those stones, the storm that was supposed to last for days completely cleared up. We missed our dinner reservations but made our flight and I got to eat another pepperoni taco sandwich, so all in all, I’d say the elves let me off easy, perhaps taking into account that it was a first-time offense.

 

 

*I’m fully aware how it’s really spelled.