Elves Fuck, and Dress Better Than You: What I Learned at Elf School in Reykjavik

“Every time I see a local ripping off a tourist for some ‘authentic’ experience, I think, ‘Who the hell is going to fall for that?’” Dylan, my ex-roommate, remarked a few months ago over breakfast. “And then I think, ‘Oh wait. There’s you.’”

“Why?” I asked.

“You paid money to shear a sheep in New Zealand,” he replied.

“So what? That was a great experience,” I said. (It was disgusting.)

“You’re the kind of person who would pay money to see the ‘fairies’ on Ireland’s marshes,” he insisted.

“No, I’m not,” I said. “Wait, are they real fairies? Tell me more.”

“Exactly,” Dylan said.


I couldn’t resist the pull of elf school.

Elf school in Iceland costs $48. This would be a steal if you walked out of the classroom transformed into a full-fledged elf; however, nearly $50 to listen to a non-elf tell you about Iceland’s so-called “hidden people” does not seem like a great tradeoff.

Infamously, 54 percent of Icelanders are said to believe in elves. (Icelanders protest that this ‘fact’ originates from a very carefully phrased question which asked, “Can you be 100 percent sure that elves do not exist?” Logically, 54 percent of them concluded that just because they have never seen an elf, that doesn’t mean that elves do not exist).

Before I attended elf school, I spent two weeks driving around Iceland looking for elves with my husband Sam, reveling in the 24-hour daylight that occurs during the height of summer. This meant approximately 12 extra hours during which I could be on the lookout for elves. Finding none, however, I turned to the locals for some insider knowledge.

Somewhere off The Ring Road, we stayed at an Airbnb house that belonged to a blond, burly Icelander named Börkur. In his early 20s, Börkur liked to drink and chew tobacco. His English, like most Icelanders’, was excellent. After he let us into his apartment, he crossed his arms and leaned back against a wall, eyeing me up warily. When I asked about the tattoo of a ram on his arm, he explained that he’s an Aries.

“Me too,” I said.

“Really?” he asked, his icy demeanor breaking. “That’s cool. That’s really cool.” He looked at me with approval, until I blurted out:

“Do you believe in elves?”

The look on his face showed that I’d lost all the points I had gained by being born in March. “No,” he said, sighing.

“Not at all?”

“No, but the woman next door thinks they live in a rock on the hill.”

Over the course of our 14-day road trip, I found that elves and “hidden people” (or huldufólk) are always spoken of together and the terms seem to be interchangeable, representing supernatural Icelandic beings (apparently they exist elsewhere, too, but the rest of the world is too jaded to see them). According to lore, they’re people just like us—we just can’t see them. To them, we are the hidden people.

That’s a little too convenient, even for me. I have two older brothers. I know how these things work.


The rest of the piece is published on Jezebel.

Snacking with Jane Austen: Brown Bread & Parmesan Ice Creams

“I shall eat Ice and drink French wine, and be above Vulgar Economy.”– Jane Austen, in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, 1808

Let’s live today as though it were 1808 and we are Jane Austen vacationing at our rich brother’s house in Kent. Our days are long and filled with entertaining guests and writing letters to our sisters and eating Georgian ices, as well as ice cream, in such varied flavors as burnt filbert ice cream, royal ice cream and the most unusual of all, parmesan ice cream.

When you’re little, you think that any combination of your favorite foods would be great (think Friends: “Custard, good. Jam, good. Meat, good!”) Just a little something to keep in mind as we journey through Jane Austen’s culinary landscape.

So Parmesan ice cream was brought over to the UK from the Italians. Are you intrigued? I was. Cheese, good. Ice cream, good!

According to 16th century confectioner Frederick Nutt, this is how you make parmesan ice cream:

Take six eggs, half a pint of syrup and a pint of cream, put them into stewpan and boil them until it begins to thicken; then rasp three ounces of parmesan cheese, mix and pass them through a sieve, and freeze it.

As the ingredients begin to boil in your stewpan (or whatever your twenty-first century equivalent is), the wet mixture will begin to stick to the sides, like a very wet omelet. You’ll find that, by the sieving point, this mixture will actually resist sieving (try to imagine straining on omelet), but repeated banging will produce a full ramekin of the warm creamy egg-y sweet cheese liquid.

Then, freeze it. Let’s hope that you had the good foresight to save chunks of ice from a nearby river or pond during the winter and store them underground in a forest of tall trees, like they did in Austen’s day, so that you will be able to enjoy this cold dessert.

I recommend halving this recipe, for I could not even give this “delicacy” away. I offered it to friend after friend after friend and pretty soon, I had no friends at all.

Therefore, I had to sample it myself. I approached the cold mess with trepidation. Let me put this in perspective for you: it was the first time I’ve truly been afraid of what I was eating. And I lived in Beijing for three years with a peanut allergy, so please consider the significance of the statement.

VERDICT: It looked like crème brûlée, but I knew better. In short, I spat it out. At length, the cheese ice cream, while creamy and frozen, was too disgusting for me, mostly because it tasted and smelled like frozen Parmesan cheese. Mostly because it was like frozen Parmesan cheese with syrup. I do not know what the hell Regency Era people were thinking. Reader, do not make this recipe. Cheese, good. Ice cream, good. Cheese ice cream? BAD.

We’ll just say that I took one for the team here, okay?

Luckily, I found another Regency Era ice cream that was delightful.

The best thing about this 1807 recipe is that you probably have all of the ingredients in your house right now. This means that, even if you are not Jane Austen vacationing on a large English estate, but instead, say, a hungry lady whose cupboards are bare save for stale bread, a couple of eggs, and some sugar, you can actually have ice cream!

Granted, the flavor of the ice cream will be “brown bread” but beggars can’t be choosers (even Jane knew that± — that proverb was written in 1562). Besides, we like bread, right?

As the recipe is from the 19th century, you do not need an ice cream maker (and if you do have one, what are you doing reading this? You have everything a woman could ever want).

Brown Bread Ice Cream (from Mary-Anne Boermans’ Great British Baking)

For the toasted bread crumbs
100g demerara sugar
150g wholemeal breadcrumbs (don’t bother to make your own bread — this is the 1800s, after all — we can buy bread).

For the meringue “ice cream”
2 egg whites (like in the old days, hold them up to candle light to check if the yolks are solid or not)
pinch of salt
a few drops lemon juice
90g caster sugar

For the cream Double cream (Jane’s family had a few cows in Steventon, in Hampshire, if you happen to be close. Though they are probably dead now.)
Vanilla extract

1. Preheat the oven to 390 F. Mix the bread crumbs and sugar together and spread onto a lined baking sheet for 10 minutes. Remove, stir and bake for another five minutes. Stir again and set aside to cool.

2. Whisk egg whites, salt and lemon juice in a bowl until frothy. Then, beat until they form stiff peaks. Gradually add 2 tablespoons of the caster sugar and whip until stiff, glossy peaks. Set aside.

3. Heat the remaining 60g of sugar and add 60 milliliters of water to a pan, until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup bubbles up to form a sticky mass (to test the consistency, drop a ball into cold water — if it remains solid, it’s ready).

4. Very slowly, pour the hot syrup into the egg white mixture with beaters running, until the mixture is cool to the touch (10–15 minutes).

5. Add vanilla extract to the double cream and whip to soft peaks.

6. Stir the caramelized breadcrumbs into the whipped cream. Then, fold in the
meringue mixture.

7. Divide into ramekins and freeze. Serve with caramelized breadcrumbs on the side.

VERDICT: Crispy sweet frozen soufflé all made with the ingredients found in your household. The crunchy chunks and creamy meringue complement each other well. Very tasty. Super impressive. No gags. For extra fanciness, keep them cool in this French porcelain ice cream pail.

Like Jane, we too, “shall eat (brown bread) Ice (cream), drink French wine (coolers) and be above Vulgar Economy” (whatever that means — at the very least, we will not squabble about who has more Twitter followers).

And, no matter how religious you are or aren’t, let’s all say a word of grace before our next meal that Parmesan ice cream is not a thing anymore.

A Rule Is a Rule: A Day Among the Millinery at Royal Ascot

After six Pimms, 20 squandered pounds, two purchased hats, and one final race at Royal Ascot, the five-day premier horse racing event in England, Rachel and I board the crowded train back to London and end up sitting in the First Class car. We’d somehow found ourselves, two Americans, returning from a day at the races.

A slim woman in her thirties with long, blond hair enters our small coach. “Just ladies in here, is it?” she asks in an English accent, smiling and glancing at us. “This is the smallest First Class coach I have ever seen.” She adjusts her black-and-white checked dress and slips her shoes off as she sits down at the table next to us.

“Did you win any today?” I ask her.

“I won on every race,” she says, smoothing her blond hair into a long ponytail. “It was a winning streak.” She looks around and points to the narrow aisle between our seats.

“Is there going to be a drinks cart on this train?” she asks. “How could it even fit in here?”

She places her black hat on the seat next to her and we start to make small talk about the strict fashion rules at Royal Ascot this year. “Oh, I just thought the Royal Enclosure this year was appalling. Just appalling. Some girls slipped in wearing mini-skirts, as if it’s a nightclub. I have nice legs, too, but this is Ascot. A rule is a rule,” she says. “Dresses should hit the knee and hats need to have a base of four inches or more.” She gestures emphatically: “Those are the rules. That’s what makes it so English. That’s what makes it Ascot.”

“My mother won’t even come to Royal Ascot anymore,” she adds.


Most girls grow out of the crazy horse phase as soon as they discover boys, but my friend Rachel — who is 28 years old — was intent on getting me to attend Royal Ascot with her this year. I agreed, even though I knew little about it: I assumed it was an English horse race and that we’d get to drink gin outside. It was only after an elaborate effort to secure tickets (or badges) to the restricted Royal Enclosure section — a process that, for Americans, involves writing to the US ambassador to the UK and sending in character references by mail — that I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. Suddenly it began to feel less like we were going to a horse race and more like we were going to Prince Charming’s ball.

The five-day horseracing event dates back to 1711. Members of the Royal Family are always in attendance. The dress code is strict, and it’s only gotten stricter, as a way to stave off unsuitably dressed attendees. Inside the Royal Enclosure, which Rachel and I would have access to, women’s dresses must be knee-length, straps must be at least an inch wide (nothing strapless, no halters, no bare midriffs), and hats are required for both women (FOUR-inch base minimum) and men (top hats like Mr. Peanut). In case that wasn’t clear enough, Ascot put out this mesmerizing video for guidance.

Read about what happened at Ascot at The Hairpin.

Wildlife in London


Spotted this guy eating a nut, but my presence frazzled him, so he dropped it. This is also the same squirrel that likes to scare the living daylights out of me when I’m running, so I consider this revenge.*

And later that day, RIGHT next to SHERLOCK HOLMES’ APARTMENT on Baker Street, I spotted this lovely pair of paramours, just trying to enjoy a stroll in Regents Park and live their lives freely – unfortunately, the chains of humanity had other plans. Still, I managed to catch a happy moment.

dogs regents park

(That big dog looks so soft.)