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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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This week, we have facts about lutefisk. During the lazy days of summer, Scandinavian-Americans dutifully consume this Nordic recipe of cod and lye.


ROSS: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Pippin Ross.

[MUSIC: Various Artists “Geitaslålten” The Devil’s Tune Grappa Musikkforlaoz (1998)]

ROSS: During the dog days of summer, Scandinavian-Americans across the midwest hold festivals to evoke the taste, smell and agony of a Nordic Christmas with a centerpiece dish called the lutefisk. Lutefisk comes from the words lute –“to wash in lye” and fisk – “fish.”

   A participant at Viking Fest in Poulsbo, Washington (Photo: Alf Erickson)

Sound suspicious? It should. Lye is a caustic compound found in soap, oven cleaner and Drano. Dried cod is soaked in it for up to two weeks before it’s boiled down and served as a Jello-like entree. Sound gross? You betcha. Don’t-cha know. Especially the lutefisk’s overpowering odor – a putrescence that is part decomposing fish, part harsh chemical stench. As one popular Scandinavian “carol” goes:

“O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma.
O Lutefisk, O Lutefisk, you put me in a coma.”

Scandinavians confront this meal with feelings that range from love and duty to disgust. One writer describes his experience with “a foul and odiferous goo, whose gelatinous texture and rancid oily taste are in spirited competition to see which can be the more responsible for rendering the whole completely inedible.” Inedible though it seems, Americans belly up to the table and consume more than 600,000 pounds a year. At summer eating contests across the country, contestants race to slide as much as eight pounds of lutefisk down their gullets. Now that’s hard to swallow.

And for this week, that’s the Living on Earth Almanac.




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