Joy of cooking: From Iceland to the Deep South, Sigga Head finds happiness in the kitchen

July 28, 2010 9:47:00 AM

Jan Swoope - jswoope@cdispatch.com

 

Cookbook titles aside, that phrase, "the joy of cooking," might have been coined for Sigga Head. "The main objective to cooking is to love whoever is coming to see you and to share it," she smiles, the crisp consonants of her native Icelandic accent still prominent, even though she came to America more than five decades ago. 

 

In her North Columbus home, filled with photographs and needlepoint celebrating her Scandinavian heritage, Sigridur Sesselja Sigurdardottis Head prepares champagne chicken in a spacious kitchen. She and her husband, U.S. Air Force Ret. Col. Robert Head -- currently branch chief for T-1 training at Columbus Air Force Base -- will share the sumptuous meal later with friends. 

 

"This is a dish you don''t leave," she says, adding cream to sautéing chicken and sliced mushrooms at just the right moment. A permanent twinkle seems at home in her eyes. "This is a dish you babysit. You have to be ready with everything, so it goes 1,2,3." 

 

Head''s collection of kitchen accouterments is one many chefs might envy. An extensive array of Mississippi artisan Gail Pittman''s "Annabelle" pottery is evident everywhere. Soothing music plays in the background, as much a part of the cooking and dining experience as the ingredients lined up on dark, gleaming counters. 

 

"Music is so relaxing; it takes the edge off for hostess and guests and adds to the spirit of the gathering," she believes. 

 

It also helped her recuperate from three bouts with cancer. "Music, people, food, friendship" were her therapy, along with exquisite stitchwork. "And, if you believe, you are never alone," she says serenely. "My house is filled with the spirit of love and God''s wishes. He is with me all the time." 

 

Her survivor status is part of why this charming hostess relishes small joys, like creativity in the kitchen. For her, cooking is not an effort, it''s an expression of life. 

 

 

 

Icelandic roots 

 

Head had cooking instruction as a young girl at finishing school, while growing up in the harbor village of Hafrsfjord, near Reykjavik. The bland Icelandic diet of her native land, however, was limiting. 

 

"I was raised on fish, six days a week. Iceland''s cuisine, especially in the days I lived there, was seafood. Today, they have so many different cultures that have moved into the island, things have changed drastically." 

 

She tells of going down to the docks with other village children when boats came in, heavy with their day''s catch. "They''d throw me a fish, and I''d carry it home," she laughed. "Sometimes the children could help out in exchange for fish."  

 

Her family grew cold-weather vegetables -- turnips, potatoes, cauliflower, cabbage. "We stored them in cellars; I remember people didn''t have refrigerators," she remarks. 

 

There was no television either, but the movies she would occasionally get to fueled Head''s desire to see the United States. 

 

"Anything with Susan Hayward or Deanna Durbin, I went to see," says the woman who cheerfully admits she was a "little dreamer." 

 

"I made up my mind when I was 10 years old to come to America. My father kept asking me how I was going to get here, but I said, ''I will find a way.'' ... I thought everything was like in the movies," she chuckles. 

 

Head applied for immigration papers when she was 16, sponsored by a family member in the States. On her 18th birthday, they finally arrived. She soon left Iceland, bound for Massachusetts. 

 

"I did not speak English very well, so I had to put all my effort to try to learn. The television helped a lot," she says. 

 

She''s since lived in locales including Louisiana, Germany, Texas and California. At points along the way, she had a dress shop, and even ran a restaurant near Sacramento, a place where her genuine enjoyment of people and entertaining was a decided asset. 

 

The traits have smoothly translated now to supper club, a luncheon group, garden club, Friends and Neighbors, and her involvement with CAFB international spouses and the Military Officers Association. 

 

 

 

A delicious dish 

 

As the chicken continues to reach perfection on the stovetop, Head tells how she still has Icelandic lamb shipped to Mississippi from Iceland every Christmas for the family feast, a tradition from her upbringing. 

 

"When I moved here I had never seen a turkey!" she says. "We always had smoked lamb leg for Christmas. I''d never seen a hamburger either; and we had chickens, but they were strictly for eggs." 

 

Icelandic lamb, she explains, is "a little different ... they graze on grass that is misted by the sea. It is much milder." 

 

As the kitchen timer pings ("A timer is your friend," she smiles), she removes the chicken from the skillet, then adds champagne to the remaining sauce. 

 

"I''m not a snob when it comes to champagne or wine," Head states. "If the taste is there, I go for it. But, I do not recommend using the Asti Spumante champagne for this; it''s too dessert-like." 

 

Champagne added, the sauce foams and thickens as she stirs, reaching a rich consistency. 

 

"I give this dish a medium in difficulty, because it is the preparation ahead of time: You''ve got to pound out the chicken, got to dust it with flour and salt and pepper, then sauté it. To be organized -- that is your biggest battle with cooking."  

 

Borrowing from a plaque displayed in her kitchen, Head shares her outlook: "A pinch of patience, a dash of kindness, a spoonful of laughter and a heap of love ... will make a perfect dinner." 

 

Deftly serving the champagne chicken with wild rice, asparagus and a beautiful salad of fresh peaches, seasonal berries and homemade poppyseed dressing, she added, " ... a little music and have a little laughter, share happiness ... the main thing is to have a good harmony about it and not to stress yourself. Cooking should be a pleasure." 

 

 

 

CHAMPAGNE CHICKEN 

 

 

 

Four de-boned, skinless  

 

chicken breasts 

 

1/4 cup flour 

 

1 teaspoon salt 

 

1/2 teaspoon pepper 

 

1/2 cup real butter  

 

1/2 pound mushrooms 

 

1 cup cream 

 

1/2 cup champagne 

 

 

 

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.