W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice in Iceland
W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice in Iceland

I am listening in on the Key West Literary Seminar. This year’s topic: The Hungry Muse, all about food in literature. Poets and gourmands are waxing eloquent, and mouths are watering, and perversely it has all put me in mind of some culinary prose from W. H. Auden, reporting from Iceland in 1936:

For the curious there are two Icelandic foods which should certainly be tried. One is Hákarl, which is half-dry, half-rotten shark. This is white inside with a prickly horn rind outside, as tough as an old boot. Owing to the smell it has to be eaten out of doors. It is shaved off with a knife and eaten with brandy. It tastes more like boot-polish than anything else I can think of …

Dried fish is a staple food in Iceland. This should be shredded with the fingers and eaten with butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin of the soles of one’s feet.

Soups: Many of these are sweet and very unfortunate. I remember three with particular horror, one of sweet milk and hard macaroni, one tasting of hot marzipan, and one of scented hair oil.

I went to Iceland last summer. The food has gotten better.


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