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Madison author Joan Peterson's new book is "Eat Smart in Norway."

Joan Peterson sat down at the table earlier this week and, almost before we said hello, made what I can only interpret as a preemptive strike.

"Do you want to talk about lutefisk now, or later?"

"Oh, later," I said.

Why spoil the mood from the outset?

It seemed like destiny that I was having a cup of coffee with Peterson, who is the author of 10 well-received travel guides for food lovers, each focusing on a different country.

Her latest, just published, is titled "Eat Smart in Norway," which put us on a collision course.

Long story short, despite coming from Norwegian stock — my grandfather emigrated from Norway — I have lived my life in fear of lutefisk, a Norwegian staple. It's dried cod soaked in lye, and the result has a jelly-like consistency. Why anyone would eat it I cannot imagine, and I never have.

That said, Joan's husband, David Peterson, is an acquaintance of mine — destiny again — and a good Norwegian-American who helps Joan research her travel and food books.

David was responsible for one of the best short road trips I ever made.

One day about three years ago, he called and invited me to ride with him west of Stoughton, to meet his great friend Skip Johnson, a nationally known wood artist.

David and Skip were members of the Torske Klubben, Madison's Norwegian men's club. Skip told marvelous stories that day. He drank beer and joked roughly about a brain tumor that had slowed him a bit. When he died less than a year later, Skip's friends gathered to shoot his ashes out of the cannon he had made for that purpose.

It was on the way home from Johnson's place that David suggested I come as his guest to the Torske Klubben.

"They will make me eat lutefisk," I said.

At the time I hadn't made the connection that David was married to the Joan Peterson who was making a name for herself as a food author.

The Petersons met while attending UW-Madison, and both maintained university connections on graduating. Joan began working as a biochemist. David taught music and theater and wrote musicals. 

A passion for travel was always there, abetted in the 1970s when the USO used David's musicals on tours to entertain troops in the Caribbean and Pacific Rim.

As their travel expanded they sampled local cuisines — avoiding tourist restaurants, meeting locals, sometimes gaining invitations into their homes and kitchens, learning a country's culture through its food.

In 1993, Joan started Ginkgo Press with the intention of turning the couple's passion for travel and food into books to help others with roving appetites. Eighteen years on, Ginkgo and the "Eat Smart in" series is a surprise success story, with 11 titles now distributed by the University of Wisconsin Press.

Joan wrote or co-wrote 10 of them — Brazil was first, countries that followed included Sicily, Poland and Turkey — while Ronnie Hess authored "Eat Smart in France." Other authors will be tapped in the future. Local travel and food writer Mary Bergin is set to tackle Germany while Monroe Street retailer Orange Schroeder gets Denmark.

Some time ago, David asked Joan, "When are you going to write about my people?"

That would be the Norwegians.

In the summer of 2009, the couple took a trip to Norway and Joan was blown away. David, of course, needed no convincing.

"It is exquisitely beautiful," Joan said, and the people friendly.

I asked, "Has Norwegian food had a bad rap?"

"I think it has," she said.

"Eat Smart in Norway" contains a history of Norwegian cuisine along with inventive recipes — Peterson makes them all first — gleaned from top chefs including the young Geir Skeie, who contributes a "new Norwegian" shrimp and scallops dish that won a prestigious French cooking competition in 2009. 

Sunday, Dec. 4th, from 1-3 p.m., Joan will appear at Orange Tree Imports on Monroe Street to sign copies of her new book. It's a benefit for the Wisconsin Scandinavian Studies Department and will include a silent auction.

We still hadn't broached the "l-word."

"Actually," Joan said, "Norwegians in Norway don't eat as much lutefisk as Norwegian-Americans."

The home country knows best.

Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoe@madison.com. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

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