Monday, December 03, 2007

No Ode to Lutefisk

Advent Calendar, December 3: Foods

Being from a Norwegian-American family, I should be looking forward to the traditional holiday fare of lutefisk and lefse just about now. Lefse, ya sure, bring it on! I love lefse with butter, and sometimes a little sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on.

But lutefisk?

For those of you not familiar with lutefisk, it is reconstituted cod: long-dried cod brought nearly back to life using lye.

It may be interesting to know that the typical native Norwegian no longer eats this. Then, why in Thor's hammer is it on many Norwegian-American tables at holiday family get-togethers, potlucks, church suppers, and even offered at buffets on ships cruising the North Sea?

It boils down (literally!) to the Viking spirit.

Lutefisk was a poor person's food in Norway, and it was also a source of protein that could be produced no matter what the weather. The method is timeless: catch the cod, dry the cod, store it in a shed, wait copious amounts of time, retrieve as needed, beat off any dust or dirt, soak in lye for several days, boil or bake well, and then serve up with riced potatoes, small cooked frozen peas, and a look of nonchalance.

Because of the longevity of dried fish and the plentiful supply of fish in Norway, lutefisk found its way to many early Norwegian farming tables whenever a little extra something was desired, especially at celebrations. Now that Norwegians are no longer as poor as they used to be, this food is ignored, and even downright shunned in its place of origin.

But, in America, lutefisk is a source of pride. It's a symbol of survivorship - proof that you can't keep a good ole' Ole down.

Ya, ve have da Viking blood coursing tru da veins!

Come harsh weather, near starvation, emigration, poverty and hardship on the prairie, you name it, the lutefisk will go on... and on... and on...

and on.

A Norwegian-American saying goes: "... about half the Norwegians who immigrated to America came in order to escape the hated lutefisk, and the other half came to spread the gospel of lutefisk's wonderfulness." [1]

I remember my mother prepared lutefisk for Christmas one year when I was young. My grandfather, great aunts and uncles, and many other relatives had arrived at our house for dinner. The women chattered off and on in Norwegian, so that the kids couldn't understand all the gossip. The little living Christmas tree in the living room was hung with ornaments, and the plastic Santa and Snowman were glowing in the front window. The dining room table was set beautifully, draped in a white tablecloth decorated with embroidered pointsettias, an evergreen centerpiece, and Mom's best silver laid out next to pearl colored cloth napkins.

This is one of my family's favorite photos of my "Grampa" (Ernest Johnson), wearing his characteristic flannel shirt and argyle socks.  Christmas, early 1960s, in Salem, Oregon.

Why, the lutefisk even had its own special holiday serving platter. And, resting in the mucky, jiggly, yellowish slush was a beautifully engraved, antique silver serving fork... turned green. It had actually turned green from the lye!
My chin was not much higher than the table, but I remember giving the lutefisk platter the once over, at eye level. After all the excited talk about this "delicacy," I was anxious to try it; that first taste held promise.

But, after spying that green serving fork, I decided that lutefisk wasn't for me. They could disown me as Norwegian offspring, but no morsel of that jiggly stuff was going to get past my sealed lips and turn my insides green. Uh-uh!
And, it never did.  But, the lefse... oooohhh, the lefse!



  1. OMG. My friends in St. Paul are going to die when I send them this. I've never had lutefisk either. But I am wondering if this is the ode you refer to:

    'Twas the day before Christmas with things all a bustle.
    As mama got set for the Christmas Eve tussle.

    Aunts, uncles and cousins would soon be arriving

    With stomachs all ready for Christmas Eve dining.

    While I sat alone with a feeling of dread,

    As visions of lutefisk danced in my head.

    The thought of the smell made my eyeball start burning,

    The thought of the taste set my stomach to churning,

    For I'm one of those who good Norwegians rebuff,

    A Scandahoovian boy who can't stand the stuff!

    Each year, however, I played at the game

    To spare mama & papa the undying shame.

    I must bear up bravely, I can't take the risk

    Of relatives knowing I hate lutefisk.

    I know they would spurn me, my presents withhold

    If the unthinkable, unspeakable truth they were told.

    Then out in the yard, I heard such a clatter;

    I jumped up to see what was the matter.

    There in the snow, all in a jumble,

    Three of my uncles had taken a tumble.

    My aunts, as usual gave what for,

    And soon they were up and through the door.

    Then with talk and more cheer, an hour was passed

    As mama finished the Christmas repast.

    From out in the kitchen, an odor came stealing

    That fairly set my senses to reeling.

    The smell of lutefisk crept down the hall

    And wilted a a plant, in a pot on the wall.

    The others reacted as though they were smitten,

    While the aroma laid low my poor helpless kitten.

    Uncles Oscar and Lars said, "Oh, that smells yummy,"

    And Kermit's eyes glittered while he patted his tummy.

    The scent skipped on the ceiling and bounced of the floor

    And the bird in the cuckoo fell to the floor.

    Mama announced dinner by ringing a bell;

    They pushed to the table with a yump and a yell.

    I lifted my eyes to heaven and sighed,

    And a rose on the wallpaper withered and died.

    With leaded legs I found my chair

    And sat in silence with an unseeing stare.

    Most of the food was already in place;

    There remained only to fill the lutefisk's space.

    Then mama came proudly with a bowl on a trivet,

    You would have thought the crown jewels were in it.

    She placed it carefully down and took her seat,

    And papa said grace before we would eat.

    It seemed to me, with my whirling head,

    The shortest prayer he'd ever said.

    Then mama lifted the cover on the steaming dish

    And I was face to face with that quivering fish.

    "Me first," I heard Uncle Kermit call,

    While I watched the paint peel of the wall.

    The plates were passed for papa to fill;

    I waited, in agony, between fever and chill.

    He would dip in the spoon and hold it up high;

    It oozed onto the plate, I thought I would die.

    Them came my plate and to my fevered brain

    There seemed enough lutfisk to derail a train.

    It looked like a mountain of congealing glue;

    Oddly transparent, yet discolored in hue.

    With butter and cream sauce I tried to conceal it;

    I salted and peppered, but the smell would reveal it.

    I drummed up my courage, I tried to be bold.

    Mama reminds me to eat before it gets cold.

    I decided to face it, "uff da," I sighed;

    "Uff da, indeed," my stomach replied.

    Then I summoned that resolve for which our breed's known.

    My hand took the fork as with a mind of its own.

    And with reckless abandon that lutfisk I ate,

    Within twenty seconds I'd cleaned up my plate.

    Uncle Kermit flashed me an ear to ear grin,

    As butter and cream sauce dripped from his chin.

    Then, to my great shock, he whispered in my ear,

    "I'm sure glad this is over for another year!"

    It was then I learned a great and wonderful truth,

    That Swedes and Norwegians, from old men to youth,

    Must each pay their dues to have the great joy

    Of being known as a good Scandahoovian boy.

    And so to you all, as you face the great test,

    Happy Christmas to you, and to you all my best!

  2. I enjoyed reading about your Norwegian-American holiday memories. Great story! There are certainly some holiday traditions that would be better left to memory. It is funny how some things that start in times of hardship just keep going on and on and on... Good thing there are other yummy holiday food options out there.

  3. Interesting! I'd always wondered what lutefisk was.