Food by VICE

This Shit Is a Delicacy

The droppings of the bird called a ptarmigan are considered a delicacy in certain parts of Greenland—a delicacy because, in a place of limited food resources, the oddest things can be regarded as haute cuisine.

by Lawrence Millman
Feb 2 2017, 9:00pm

Photo via Flickr user

This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2016.

When you tell someone to "eat shit," it's not exactly a compliment. With many Greenlanders, however, it's often a statement of fact. That's because the droppings of the bird called a ptarmigan are considered a delicacy in certain parts of Greenland—a delicacy because, in a place of limited food resources, the oddest things can be regarded as haute cuisine. Called urumiit, it's collected in the winter, when it's dry (it's unpleasantly gooey in the summer), and then cooked with rancid seal oil and chunks of seal meat. In the old days, the seal meat was masticated by one's spouse before being spat into the cooking pot.

While you're gagging at the prospect of eating this dish, let me mention that ptarmigans are Galliformes, an order that includes chickens, turkeys, and pheasants. Indeed, they're sometimes called snow chickens. Having feathered ear-flaps, eyelids, and nostrils, they wear the avian equivalent of a parka, so they have no problem surviving frigid winters.

Here's an important bit of information for the would-be diner: A ptarmigan will remain stationary for long periods and, in doing so, it may defecate 50 or so times in one place. This means that you don't have to collect a pellet here, a pellet there, and yet another pellet way over there. Instead, you can collect a large pile of pellets all in one place.

ptarmigan_DSCN0772

A pile of ptarmigan shit. Photo by the author.

Now, back to Greenland. As a longtime traveler to that rapidly melting land, I've eaten urumiit on two occasions. On the first of these occasions, I had to plead with the Greenlander to let me try it. Why plead? Because the Green-lander told me that "Americans might be full of anaq [shit], but they don't like eating it." At last I convinced him to prepare the dish for me, and—as in the second time I tried the dish—the somewhat rancid seal oil camouflaged the flavor of the ptarmigan shit.

So it was that I yearned to dine on ptarmigan shit without a camouflage. This past April, I happened to be in Iceland, and although I searched high and low, in lava fields and near hot springs, I didn't find any shit. Then I visited a mycologist friend in Akureyri, and by sheer coincidence she had a bag of the item in question on her desk. She had planned to culture the pellets to find out what species of fungi might grow on them, but when she saw the hopeful look on my face, she kindly handed me the bag.

My friend Lene and I now prepared the Icelandic version of the previously described Greenlandic recipe in an al fresco setting. With the snow-capped mountains of Eyjafjórður peering down on us, we put some sheep fat into a cooking pot and began melting it on a hot plate. Very important: The sheep fat was not rancid.

ptarmigan_DSC_5391

Preparing a mountainside ptarmigan shit feast.

In lieu of seal meat, we used pre-cooked (but not pre-masticated) chunks of bear meat. At last I emptied the bag of ptarmigan pellets into the pot and then offered a prayer to Sterculius, the Roman god of excrement, to bless our dish. As a further blessing, I sprinkled some turmeric in the pot. We cooked the concoction for approximately 15 minutes.

While the dish was cooking, we deliberated on the libation that should accompany it. At last we decided on Birkir, an Icelandic schnapps flavored with birch twigs. This drink was appropriate because birch twigs and leaf buds comprise a portion of the winter diet of ptarmigans. We figured that, if a birch product was good enough for a ptarmigan, it would also be good enough for us. (Note: Another portion of a ptarmigan's winter diet consists of willow leaf buds and catkins.)

Skól!" said Lene, raising her glass.

"Skól!" I said, raising mine.

ptarmigan_DSC_5398

It ain't pretty, but it wasn't half-bad.

Now we settled down to dine on Merde de Lagopéde a l'Islande. I impaled three ptarmigan droppings on my fork, lifted them to my mouth, and chewed, then chewed some more. The texture was crunchy, somewhat reminiscent of a Frito, but promising a considerably higher fiber content. As for the flavor, its subtle tanginess suggested some sort of plant or vegetable—doubtless willow or birch leaf buds—subjected to fermentation. (Ah, the delights of stomach fluids.)

Lene and I decided to evaluate the flavor, and with shit-eating grins on our faces, gave it a solid B rating.

At one point, a local fisherman approached us and asked what were eating. "Rjúpa skítur!" grinned Lene.

You may have heard that hákarl (putrified shark's meat) is Iceland's national dish, with svíd (singed sheep's head) and hrútspungar (pickled ram's testicles) ranking a close second, so you might not be surprised to hear that the fisherman immediately requested a sample. After he had taken a few bites, he said, "It tastes good, but it needs salt…"

I know what you're thinking: Salt or no salt, a dish featuring ptarmigan shit will never be my cup of caca. But I forgive you for feeling this way. After all, people in different parts of the world would feel the same way about eating tofu, genetically engineered corn, Brussels sprouts, or whatever McDonald's puts between its buns. For one culture's popular dish is another culture's visit to the vomitorium. Or, as Whoopi Goldberg once said, "Not everybody's gonna dig what I dig, but I reserve the right to dig it…"