The Last Big Mac In Iceland «
Dan Pashman: In 2017, Alexandra Yingst had a problem.
Alexandra Yingst: I needed to get to Reykjavik. And I was up here in the west fjords.
Dan Pashman: Normally, the drive takes about 6 hours. But this particular day, there was a massive snowstorm.
[STORMY WEATHER BREWING ]
Alexandra Yingst: I didn’t feel comfortable driving in the snow. And so a friend drove me all the way down to Reykjavik and what normally takes six hours took many more because we got stuck on a mountain pass in the snow and had to wait for a plow to come dig us out.
Dan Pashman: After about 10 hours in the car, they finally made it and checked into a hostel. Exhausted, she sat down at the bar. And next to her was a cheeseburger and fries. Not a cheeseburger and fries that anyone was planning on eating — this thing was on display, in a glass case, like a guest of honor.
Alexandra Yingst: With a little sign that said, “Hello, I am Mr. Burger.” And it had been such an awful day and I just sat at the bar next to this cheeseburger and it actually made me feel better because it was just such like a quirky thing. It’s so Iceland.
Dan Pashman: Now I should add, this wasn’t just any cheeseburger. It was a McDonald’s Big Mac. And as you’ll hear, it wasn’t just any Big Mac.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies it’s for eaters, I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Now, this week we’re bringing you two stories from our friends at the Atlas Obscura podcast. Atlas Obscura is a celebration of the world’s strange, incredible, and wondrous places. And both the stories we’re sharing with you today are about old meat. It might sound gross, but just work with me here. Later in the show, we’ll take a trip to the world’s oldest edible ham in Smithfield, Virginia. It’s 120-years-old, and that’s not even the weirdest thing about it.
Dan Pashman: But this first story is about the last Big Mac in Iceland and the story it tells us about economics and national identity. Now, I’ll turn it over to Atlas Obscura host to tell us more about Alexandra Yingst and the last Big Mac in Iceland.
Dylan Thuras: Alexandra might be the perfect person to have wound up sitting next to the last Big Mac in Iceland. She’s from Pennsylvania, but has lived in Iceland for years, and is getting her Ph.D. in anthropology. She sees the Big Mac as a cultural artifact.
Alexandra Yingst: I thought that it was a really great way to talk about how the local and the global interact and the greater significance of McDonald’s in Iceland. And so it had one aspect of being like this funny thing that just exists here. And it also had this aspect of being a symbol of Iceland’s entrance into the modern world.
Dylan Thuras: Alexandra just so happened to be studying with a professor who had written a lot about McDonalds in Iceland.
Kristín Loftsdóttir: My name is Kristín Loftsdóttir and I’m a professor of anthropology at the University of Iceland.
Dylan Thuras: After Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944, the country spent decades trying to establish itself.
Kristín Loftsdóttir: Rebuilding confidence in itself. And just this kind of desire of showing somehow the rest of the world that Iceland, you know, should be recognized as standing on equal footing with powerful European countries.
Dylan Thuras: In the early ‘90s, Kristín says Iceland was becoming a lot more integrated internationally. It joined the European markets, and the Icelandic stock exchange had just been established.
Dylan Thuras: And it might sound odd to an American who grew up with a McDonald’s in every town. But when the golden arches show up in a country, it sends a signal that a place has attained a certain economic status, that its residents have enough disposable income to spend on eating out.
Dylan Thuras: So when McDonalds opened in Iceland in 1993, it was a big deal. Kristín remembers glowing headlines when news broke that McDonalds would be coming to Iceland.
Kristín Loftsdóttir: So much celebration going on. I just remember also just the discussion around me, you know, the excitement for this to take place.
Dylan Thuras: Iceland’s prime minister took a photo biting into a burger on opening day. The economy was booming, business was better than ever, and now they had McDonald’s. And for the next 15 years, things went pretty well. But then 2008 …
CLIP (NEW ANCHOR 1): The stock market is now down 21 percent…
CLIP (NEW ANCHOR 2): The global financial meltdown comes to Iceland. The government in this tiny island …
CLIP (NEW ANCHOR 3): Teetering on the edge of bankruptcy in the last three weeks, Iceland has nationalized three top banks, it’s currencies …
CLIP (NEW ANCHOR 4): Iceland’s banks have debts that add up to much more than the country’s entire economy. The government had to rush in to take over many of those banks …
Dylan Thuras: Iceland was devastated by the crash. One by one, every single national bank failed. People’s life savings evaporated. The national currency, the króna, lost half its value. Because of that, and the cost of imported ingredients, the price of a Big Mac shot up to $6.36. That’s more than $8 in today’s money and at the time, it was the most expensive Big Mac in the world. It became more and more expensive for McDonalds to operate, until it simply couldn’t anymore. On Halloween of 2009, all three of McDonalds’ Icelandic locations closed for good.
Kristín Loftsdóttir: I asked people what they felt about the closing of McDonald’s and it was really kind of interesting because many people, they said, you know, kind of excusing themselves, “I don’t really like McDonald’s hamburgers that much,” but it was still so shocking. You know, people saying, it really felt like we were nobody anymore. We were just not part of the modern world. And then of course, when international media also takes this thing up, you know, comparing Iceland to poor and war-torn countries, it adds like an extra layer of humiliation.
Dylan Thuras: That was it. No more Happy Meals, no more chicken nuggets, no more Big Macs. Or so we thought.
Dylan Thuras: Three years after McDonalds closed its doors, Hjörtur Smárason was getting ready to move from Reykjavík to Denmark.
Hjörtur Smárason: And I was cleaning out my garage. And you know like it is when, when you clean out your garage, you find all sorts of stuff. And, I remember I found my roller blades and, I noticed that a mouse had chewed on them, so they were damaged. And then I found this bag.
Dylan Thuras: The bag … was a McDonalds bag. Back on that fateful day in 2009, Hjörtur had stood in line at the last McDonald’s location in Reykjavík, waiting to buy a Big Mac. He had two reasons and neither of them had to do with him being hungry.
Dylan Thuras: First, the burger was a memento of this strange, surreal time in Iceland. And second, he’d heard rumors that McDonald’s burgers don’t rot. This three-year-old burger and fries sitting on a long-forgotten shelf in Hjörtur’s garage was the last Big Mac in Iceland.
Hjörtur Smárason: I was a bit scared to, to see what was inside and didn’t really know what to expect. So I opened the bag, I take out the paper box, and what I see inside is a burger that looks like I bought it just 15 minutes ago. You know, if I wouldn’t have known better, I would’ve taken a bite.
Dylan Thuras: Just for fairness, in 2020, McDonalds put out a statement that their burgers seem like they don’t decompose and that is due to a lack of moisture and not some sort of nefarious preservative. So, there’s that.
Hjörtur Smárason: And then I was, of course I had a bit of a dilemma because, I don’t think it made sense to take it to Denmark. But I didn’t wanna throw it out either because this was like a historical artifact. I mean, this was the last McDonald’s and it was a souvenir from a time that was gone. So I asked myself, “Well, what do you do with historical artifacts?” And of course, I called the National Museum.
Dylan Thuras: And for a year, that’s where the burger sat. On display at the National Museum of Iceland. Until an expert from Denmark showed up to evaluate the museum’s artifacts, and sadly, the Big Mac didn’t pass muster. So the museum called Hjörtur, and asked if he wanted his burger back.
Hjörtur Smárason: Which I absolutely did.
Dylan Thuras: Hjörtur found the burger a new home, this time at a local hostel. And here is where Alexandra and the burger cross paths on that snowy night back in 2017.
[STORMY WEATHER BREWING]
Dylan Thuras: At first, McDonalds was a symbol of Iceland’s emerging prosperity. Then, its absence became a symbol for the country’s rapid decline. But fifteen years after the financial collapse, Iceland is well on the mend. In the last decade, unemployment is at an all-time low, the economy is on the upswing, and tourism has absolutely boomed.
Dylan Thuras: Iceland is back on its feet, but they still don’t have McDonalds. So what does that mean?
Dylan Thuras: These days, all the buildings that used to be McDonalds have now reopened as a local Icelandic burger chain, called Metro. And it seems like a very normal fast food place. A fast food place where you can get chicken, fries, and yes, of course, you can get burgers.
Alexandra Yingst: Their equivalent of the Big Mac is called the [ICELANDIC WORD] which translates to “world burger.” But also, in Icelandic that translates to “cosmopolitan.” And I thought that was funny because it still shows like the burger is — it’s global, like it’s the world burger. So even though it’s not McDonald’s anymore, it’s still a symbol of inclusion in a larger international community where people eat burgers. [LAUGHS]
Dylan Thuras: Meanwhile, through it all, the country’s last Big Mac sits stoically under its glass getting a little drier, a little harder but somehow not any moldier.
Alexandra Yingst: It looks great … Looks great for its age. [LAUGHS]
Dylan Thuras: It looks so good, in fact, that more than a few fries have gone missing over the years. And I am lovin’ it.
Dylan Thuras: You can still see the last Big Mac in Iceland, but it’s moved locations. It’s no longer on display at the hostel, where Alexandra saw it. The burger now resides at a different hostel, called The Snotra Hostel, in southern Iceland. If you go, take a picture, send it to us. We would love to know how the burger’s looking. If you want to learn more about the last Big Mac in Iceland, Alexandra wrote a very entertaining article all about it, which you can find at atlasobscura.com.
Dan Pashman: Coming up after the break, Dylan talks with Atlas Obscura’s Sam O’Brien about seeing the world’s oldest edible ham.
CLIP (SAM O’BRIEN): It felt, you know, to a much lesser degree, Like when I was raised Catholic and my youth group went to the Vatican and we saw the pope by in his pope mobile. And I was just like, I had this feeling of like this reverence and excitement and you just like fed off the other people around you. And it was like that, but with a ham. [LAUGHING]
Dan Pashman: Stick around.
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Dan Pashman: Okay, back to Dylan Thuras and Sam O’Brien from Atlas Obscura.
Dylan Thuras: Okay, so walk me … walk me to the ham. Walk me through where — I don’t even know where we are.
Sam O’Brien: Yes.
Dylan Thuras: Set some scene where we are in the world. What is the place? Walk me in.
Sam O’Brien: So we’re in Smithfield, Virginia, which, according to the people of Smithfield, is the ham capital of the world. Hams that come from Smithfield. They’re like — it’s like champagne. You can’t call it a Smithfield ham unless it’s cured and processed in Smithfield, Virginia.
Sam O’Brien: All right! So, um …
Jennifer England: So it’s the one in the middle.
Sam O’Brien: So I met with Jennifer England. She is the director of the Isle of Wight County Museum and pretty much an expert on all things world’s oldest edible ham.
Jennifer England: People that come to the museum, it’s a roadside attraction and that’s what they want to see. They want to see the world’s oldest ham.
Sam O’Brien: And, you know, as soon as you drive up to the museum, the ham is the star. There are photos of the ham outside on flags, “Enter to see the world’s oldest edible ham!” And then there’s a gift shop. There are postcards with P. D. cradling his ham. There are keychains with the ham on it. So yeah, you know, like even though you haven’t seen it yet, like everything is like preamble to the star of the show.
Jennifer England: I got some stuff I can spread out …
Sam O’Brien: Oh, sure!
Jennifer England: And then you can meet with …
Sam O’Brien: So you walk into the museum and in a big climate controlled glass case, there are three hams.
Dylan Thuras: Huh?
Sam O’Brien: One is what they claim to be the world’s largest ham. One is just another ham that’s pretty old.
Dylan Thuras: [LAUGHING]
Sam O’Brien: And then it’s just your average old …
Dylan Thuras: Average ham for scale and age comparison.
Sam O’Brien: Yeah.
Dylan Thuras: Yeah, okay.
Sam O’Brien: It’s just happy to be here. And then in the middle …
Jennifer England: And right here in the center of our case is the world’s oldest ham.
Sam O’Brien: And it is … It’s hideous. It’s not pretty.
Sam O’Brien: It looks like — some people say like a dried leather handbag. To me, it looks like a dried old corpse. Not that I’ve seen like a ton in my life, but like in museums when you see, like the bog bodies or something like that.
Dylan Thuras: This is a ham mummy. I mean, we’re talking about a ham mummy.
Sam O’Brien: That’s exactly what it is. [LAUGHS]
Dylan Thuras: A ha-mummy, as a …
Sam O’Brien: Yeah. It’s a ham mummy.
Dylan Thuras: Yeah.
Sam O’Brien: But attached to the ham mummy is also a little collar that’s in gold …
Dylan Thuras: What? [LAUGHS]
Sam O’Brien: And it says on it pet ham.
Dylan Thuras: What is … [LAUGHS] Oh! What is happening!?
Albert Burckard: This is not video, is it?
Sam O’Brien: No, it’s recording. Yeah, audio. ,
Albert Burckard: Cause I would have to put pn my mustache and my glasses. Okay.
Sam O’Brien: Unless you sound significantly different with a mustache.
Albert Burckard: No, no, no.
Sam O’Brien: Okay.
Sam O’Brien: I also had the pleasure of meeting an actor who portrays P.T. Gwaltney Jr. at events where they celebrate the ham.
Albert Burckard: And I eventually became — well, not the ham king of the world, but something like that.
Sam O’Brien: That’s right.
Sam O’Brien: [LAUGHS]
Dylan Thuras: Where did this ham come from? Like, how did it get made? How did it end up being around for a hundred years?
Sam O’Brien: So just to back up, sort of for anyone who doesn’t know the curing process, it basically all goes back to salt and drying something out.
Dylan Thuras: Mm-hmm.
Sam O’Brien: So basically what Gwaltney Foods did, is they salted the ham. They removed all the blood, they drained the blood out and then it just dried. But where it gets interesting is the ham gets lost and misplaced in a warehouse. And so it just sits there for 20 years. And then P. D. Gwaltney, Jr., who’s the head of the company, he discovers it in the 1920s. And he’s like, oh, crap. Like this ham is still good. Our preservation methods must be phenomenal.
Jennifer England: And P. D. Gwaltney JR said, well, we should use this as a marketing piece. We should, you know, bring it on out. We’re going to go ahead and, you know, put a brass collar on it. We’ll take it to, you know, trade shows and events. He had it insured and and it resided. You know, it toured the world. [LAUGHS] It went in it lived in a safe in his office.
Sam O’Brien: I like to think of him as like the P.T. Barnum of Meat.
Dylan Thuras: Mm-hmm.
Sam O’Brien: So he took the ham and he was like, I’m going to bring this to expos and sales meetings to show everyone our hams have real staying power. When the Gwaltney Foods Company preserves a ham, it lasts. So that’s when he attaches the collar to it that says pet ham. That’s when he gives it a little leash.
Dylan Thuras: [LAUGHS]
Sam O’Brien: And so he starts bringing the ham around, parading it around as this wonderful symbol of his meat company.
Dylan Thuras: What? Is he dragging it by the leash or carrying it in his arms like a baby dog? Like I need to understand …
Sam O’Brien: That’s exactly it. Not a baby dog. A baby.
Dylan Thuras: A baby. [LAUGHS]
Sam O’Brien: So are photos of this man. He had a whole — P. D. had an entire photoshoot done like he is so proud of this ham. He’s cradling it in his arms like a newborn babe. And he’s just staring at the camera like a proud papa. I asked the curator, like, “Did he have kids? Because it seems like all of his love is being directed at this piece of meat.”
Dylan Thuras: [LAUGHING] At this old ham!
Sam O’Brien: And he did. Yes, here’s his — Sarah’s showing the photos.
Dylan Thuras: At this old — oh, no!
Sam O’Brien: Look at how proud he is!
Dylan Thuras: He’s so proud! [LAUGHING]
Sam O’Brien: And he’s dressed to the nines.
Dylan Thuras: This man loves his own ham more than anything else in his life.
Sam O’Brien: Right? And you can see the collar. You can see that leash.
Dylan Thuras: Oh, my God. Yeah, yeah. Wow. I mean, man, did he love that ham. Was it was it all marketing? Was it pride in the business? Why did he love this ham as much as he did?
Sam O’Brien: I think it’s a little of both.
Dylan Thuras: Yeah.
Sam O’Brien: I mean, it’s definitely — it was a family business. And I think there was like a big push too for the local industry to sort of claim a pork production as their own.
Dylan Thuras: Hmm.
Sam O’Brien: And so P. D. was just a big part of that.
Dylan Thuras: I have to ask the question that has to be on everyone’s mind. It’s certainly on mine. Can you still eat the ham? Is it is it possible to still eat the ham or would you, I don’t know, die or something?
Sam O’Brien: So it’s technically possible. They’re actually — microbiologists have weighed in on this because it’s that important.
Dylan Thuras: Yeah.
Sam O’Brien: And just yeah. Anything that’s preserved, like the way this ham was is technically still edible. Although, and I was hinting pretty heavily at this on my visit at the museum with Jennifer, there really is no way you can 100% sure until someone has tasted it.
Jennifer England: Right. Yeah. You don’t eat your artifacts.
Sam O’Brien: Has anybody ever asked if they could taste the ham?
Jennifer England: Yeah, that’s the standard joke when folks come in. You know, Hey, I brought my fork, I’m ready to sample it” So we get — we get a lot of that.
Sam O’Brien: Okay. Okay.
Jennifer England: And then we get a lot of, you know, you — I didn’t think you had the oldest ham. I thought I was the oldest ham.
Sam O’Brien: Ahhh. Okay. [LAUGHS]
Jennifer England: Yeah. And that’s fine, too.
Sam O’Brien: Yeah.
Sam O’Brien: There is a rumor going around that every year the curator of the Isle of Wight Museum cleans the climate controlled container because bits of dried spice and ham sometimes just come off.
Dylan Thuras: Sure.
Sam O’Brien: So they clean both the container and then the ham itself. But the rumor is that the curator tastes the ham when they do that. They said that’s not true, but I still would like to be there when they clean it just to campaign for a lick. Like …
Dylan Thuras: Just — maybe, I don’t — do you know how they clean it? Like, what do you mean? Are they scrubbing it? Are they …
Sam O’Brien: So they’re not cleaning the ham itself, per se.
Dylan Thuras: Okay.
Sam O’Brien: Over the course of the year, the ham sort of releases, shall we say, meat dust? And that meat dust accumulates on the plexiglass itself, so once a year, they go in there and they just clean off all the meat dust that the ham has slowly released over the course of the year.
Dylan Thuras: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
Sam O’Brien: Yeah.
Dylan Thuras: So it’s not really — it’s not going to go bad.
Sam O’Brien: No.
Dylan Thuras: It’s turning into like — it’s sort of petrifying, maybe a little bit. Yeah.
Sam O’Brien: I mean, everyone says, like, it’s edible. You wouldn’t want to eat it. Like, it’s not going to taste delicious, but let me be the judge of that. I’m like, let me …
Dylan Thuras: Yeah, yeah. Real question. Here’s the question actually. Given a slice of the world’s oldest ham, just shaving, you know, like you do with Parmesan, a little curl, would you eat it? Would you eat the world’s oldest ham?
Sam O’Brien: Oh, one hundred percent.
Dylan Thuras: Yeah, of course. Of course. You got to try it.
Sam O’Brien: I mean, I’m a pretty reckless eater.
Dylan Thuras: [LAUGHS] This is true. I know this to be true.
Sam O’Brien: [LAUGHING] Like a lot of the editors on Gastro Obscura, I get food poisoning, like, every trip because I’m just like, yeah, I’ll eat that. Yeah, I’ll eat that.
Dylan Thuras: Yeah, yeah. That’s fine.
Sam O’Brien: No, I’ll ask questions later.
Dylan Thuras: I love this about you, Sam. This is one of my favorite things about you.
Sam O’Brien: I would even be satisfied with while they clean the ham to just be there. Because apparently, like the — the meat dust that gets kicked up is very pungent.
Dylan Thuras: Oh no!
Sam O’Brien: So I’m just like — the curator said, like, the person doesn’t wear their favorite sweater that day because it just seeps into their clothes and like, that sounds awesome. I would just love to be covered in meat dust.
Dylan Thuras: [LAUGHING]
Sam O’Brien: And then when someone asks me what it is I’d be like, Well, that’s the world’s oldest edible ham you’re smelling.
Dylan Thuras: Sam, you’re in a very small club of people who would say, “I would just love to be covered in meat dust.” [LAUGHING]
Dylan Thuras: So, Sam, you’ve been on the old food beat for AtlasObscura.com for a while. You’ve written about bog butter. This kind of ancient butter thats’s found in swamps and old Victorian cakes. But it seems like maybe the ham has like a different thing going on.
Sam O’Brien: Yeah, totally. The ham is is more exciting. It’s more quirky. Like the Isle of Wight Museum is really embraced, that sort of P.T. Barnum spirit that P. D. Gwaltney was embodying.
Dylan Thuras: Yeah.
Sam O’Brien: And the whole community gets into it too. Jennifer told me the ham got a halloween cards. And then every year, it gets a whole birthday party.
Jennifer England: Sometimes people will bring presents. And I think this year somebody sent mustard. He got a couple of birthday cards in the mail that I just thought it was hilarious that he …
Albert Burckard: Wait. Now tell ‘em the song we sing.
Jennifer England: Oh, we sing Hammy Birthday.
Albert Burckard: [SINGS] Hammy Birthday …
Sam O’Brien: Awww.
Albert Burckard: We do. We really do.
Sam O’Brien: When is the ham’s birthday?
Jennifer England: In July. It’s always the second Saturday of July.
[GROUP OF PEOPLE SINGING HAMMY BIRTHDAY]
Sam O’Brien: They have something called Ham Cam, which is a 24-hour camera that’s a live feed of the ham. So you can log on to it day or night and just watch the ham.
Dylan Thuras: [LAUGHS] Any time.
Sam O’Brien: Any time.
Dylan Thuras: Any time you can go look at the ham.
Sam O’Brien: You can look at the ham right now.
Dylan Thuras: Wow.
Sam O’Brien: See what it’s up to. See who’s looking at it. And in fact, the local hotels in Smithfield, instead of “Do not disturb” signs that you can hang on the doorknob. The “Do not disturb” signs say “So not disturb! I am watching Ham Cam.” So it’s clear the town totally loves the ham. Supports the ham.
Dylan Thuras: Oh, yeah. Big, big, big ham-aversary coming up.
Sam O’Brien: Exactly.
Dylan Thuras: If there was one thing that you just were like most delighted by in this sort of totally bizarre, delightful story, is there anything that really grabbed you?
Sam O’Brien: I mean, what delighted me the most was probably the fact that a few years ago they made a 3-D replica of the ham, because they wanted to see how much it was shrinking over time.
Dylan Thuras: Yeah.
Sam O’Brien: So they were like, all right, let’s for posterity just get that physical snapshot of the size of the ham. And that’s great for science and all, but what I liked about it was it gave me the opportunity to hold the ham, so to speak. And I never get starstruck when I’m doing stories because journalism and wanting to be a good reporter. But this is the only time I said, “Can you please take a photo of me?” So I had the curator …
Sam O’Brien: And I’m, of course, holding it like a newborn, like cradling …
Dylan Thuras: Like a baby! Love that. You and P.T. both share a deep and abiding love for this old ham. I think my favorite thing is, like it’s the leash. There’s something about the fact that there’s a leash that makes the ham like part of the party? It’s like … It really gives it a life that is just — it’s kind of — it’s just a delight. It’s a strange and wondrous thing, this old ham.
Dylan Thuras: Sam, thank you for taking me to Smithfield and to the world’s oldest ham. What a, wonderful story.
Sam O’Brien: Thank you. Enjoyed talking about it.
Sam O’Brien: Special thanks to Jennifer England, the director of the Isle of Wight County Museum, and Albert Burckard, the actor who portrays P. D. Gwaltney, Jr.
Dan Pashman: That, my friends, was two episodes of Atlas Obscura podcast, a coproduction of Atlas Obscura and Witness Docs. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts. They have a lo of great food episodes, so go check it out.