Tuesday, December 20, 2005



A post by Danigirl about family Christmas traditions got me thinking about lutefisk.

Anybody who grew up in a Scandinavian household will shudder involuntarily at the mere mention of the word. Lutefisk is whitefish (usually cod) soaked in lye for an extended period, then soaked some more in cold water, then smooshed with some sort of indescribable white stuff (I think butter is involved), then served to helpless Swedes (or Norwegians). Although linguists haven’t settled the debate, the most popular explanation of the name is Old Swedish for “you’ve got to be *()*^$!! kidding me, I’m not eating that!”

How many times has this happened to you: you’re eating fish, and you say “you know what this fish needs? Lye!” Me, neither.

If you ever had a Stretch Armstrong as a kid, and it cracked open and the gooey stuff oozed out, you have a pretty good sense of the overall feel of lutefisk. It’s one of the few cooked fish dishes that could accurately be described as slippery. If you’ve ever hocked a loogy into a kleenex, then taken a good, long look at it, you’ve got the idea.

It’s vile beyond belief.

Every Christmas, the Swedes in my family dutifully track down, boil down, and try to choke down an ever-decreasing quantity of the stuff. A few years ago, a single pound of it sufficed to feed a gathering of sixteen people, with some left over. (To protect family honor, I won’t even discuss the rice-pudding-and-almond experiment of a few years ago.) Part of the sport is watching the expressions on people’s faces. This is why I don’t watch Fear Factor. Those people are amateurs.

Swedish food generally isn’t known for being, well, edible, but lutefisk is awful even by those low standards. (I’ve never heard anybody say “Swedish is the next Thai.”) Yes, the veal loaf is dreadful. No, I don’t know why they insist on pickling herring. Yes, glug is a purple that doesn’t occur in nature, requires open flame, and tastes suspiciously like nyquil. But this is the worst. I suspect that lutefisk is what drove the Vikings to look for Canada.

Yet, somehow, it’s part of the tradition. I’d be disappointed if it didn’t make its annual appearance, or at least, if we didn’t try to pass off some edible doppelganger instead. Choking that godawful fish down is a sort of annual hazing ritual – to stay in the tribe, you have to make the sacrifice. No sacrifice, no tribe. And the tribe matters, especially as I get older.

So this Christmas, we’ll break out the dala horses, set purple alcohol on fire, and gag down the nastiest fish known to man. The Boy will refuse to eat it. The Wife will reflect on the superiority of Irish food (!). My sister-in-law will long for her native Texas, where they’d add crawfish, cilantro, and salsa, and call it a day. I’ll calibrate my serving with a nanometer. And all will be right with the world.

You totally cracked me up this morning, Dean Dad!

Since moving to the midwest, I've had the ... well, you can fill that word in ... of having Lutefisk on a couple occasions. I've also endured Hagis.

There are some things we just shouldn't think about, you know? I never knew about the lye part, but somehow that explains a lot. Who the HECK thought of that? And why weren't they summarily executed?

Thanks for the laugh. Now back to my regularly scheduled grading.
Am now rolling with laughter... sorry, but even a confirmed traditionalist like me, who holds on to tradition simply because it is tradition, has to question why on this one. I mean, I guess I get the proud Scandanavian heritage aspect of it (same way we Canadians feel about our weather, I think) but really, maybe you'd all be a lot happier with some nice turkey and cranberries?

Thanks for the morning belly laugh. It's a good post that has more than one laugh-out-loud moment.
I'm the only member of my very midwestern Norwegian family that doesn't like lutefisk. My mother, father, and brother love it. It was always very awkward to go to the Sons of Norway Annual Lutefisk Feed because they were funding a healthy chunk of my undergraduate education and not touch The Fish.

Now that I have my own family, we stick with the desserts (krumkake and the like) and the breads. It's working out quite well. I still feel Norwegian in a Scandinavianless section of Canada without the smelly fish.

Oh, and I feel that I should put in a good word for haggis, which is tasty.
Dean Dad, you know it's really, really, really okay to substitute some nice pickled herring for the lutefisk, don't you?

Instead of the lutefisk, try putting the emphasis on the nice part of Scandinavian Christmas fare: baked goods. I love the krumkake, yulekake, sandbakelser and lefse!
you know, around here, you can actually order it in a resturant.

my students talk about food in one exercise about oral histories, and lutefisk is the haunting motif of their lives!
YOu make me feel so very, very shallow for insisting that we eat dinner at MY house where we have croissant and bacon stuffign with fresh herbs and a smidge of brandy... instead of at my mother-in-law's where she traditionally assualted a turkey, subjecting the cadaver to a multitude of indignities crowned with "Scotch dressing" -- some kind of vile mixture of oatmeal and god only knows what. All I know is it resembled dear vomit.

And Dean Dad, I'm neither so noble nor so brave as you.
As long as you have lefse, all is right in the world, even if you have to eat lutefisk first.

Have you ever had perfectly good baked mashed potatoes ruined with the juice from a can of sardines? That is pretty bad too.
I must agree on the pastries. The smell of cardamom can't be beat.

And, of course, Swedish meatballs are self-justifying.

I just don't know why somebody decided it was a good idea to cure fish with drain cleaner.
I grew up in the heavily Scandinavian Pacific NW, where jokes about lutefisk were legion (luckily, I avoided ever consuming it myself)--and I hadn't realized how much I'd missed them! Thanks.

However, I'd like to defend the honor of the Swedes: I've actually been to a very good Swedish restaurant in Major Eastern City. And then there's the Swedish Chef, on the Muppet Show: I feel quite convinced that he made delicious meals, and went easy on the lye.
The Swedish Chef was a culture hero in our house. Sing it with me!

Yorn desh born,
der ritt de gitt der gue,
Orn desh, dee born desh, de umn
bork! bork! bork!

Persuading my sweet patootie to eat pickled herring on crispbread is tough. Dammit, that stuff is good. Even if it smells terrible.

I'm convinced lutefisk is a prank that became mistaken for a serious dish. Mmmm...fish in drain cleaner...

Var Sa God!
I love pickled herring, have never eaten lutefisk, but am very used to the jokes where I live, and will be at a Christmas dinner with lefse, which just remind me of tortillas ...
Yes, lutefisk is nasty, but pickled herring is great, as are bread, cheeses, and cookies. What do you think of potato sausage, which all of my long-gone relatives used to make?
Re: potato sausage. I've seen it made. 'Nuff said.
I should write more slowly, so I won't have to keep making exceptions. Potato sausage is great stuff! As a kid, I loved helping Mom stuff the sausages with the big wooden stuffer-thingy, though I'll admit I later outgrew my taste for doing that.

Even without stuffing it, it's great. For the uninitiated, it's a sort of peppery-pork-potato taste with a unique (but very likable) texture.

As with any sausage, though, you don't really want to see it made.
I actually like pickled herring, especially in cream. Mr. B. brought some (sans cream) home tonight and said, "look! pickled herring!" and I said, "yay!"

Never tried lutefisk, though.
As someone pointed out, lye is a base chemical used in drain cleaner. Malcolm X has a great snippet in his autiobigraphy where he gets a "conk" laid on by his fried Shorty. The congolene mix requires potatoes, eggs, and lye.Serious skin burns can result from the process.

I cannot imagine eating anything soaked in lye. I guess that water soak must do miraculous things.

Did you ever hear about the ..eskimos.. I think it is...who are contracting botulism because they are fermenting seal meat (a great delicacy) but doing so in Tupperware?
Lutefisk is part of my family Christmas tradition; I'm pleased to have outside validation that it is indeed totally disgusting.
I'm surprised nobody has reprised the classic lutefisk recipe.

Start with 1 codfish and 1 slightly used dragon ship.

Carefully remove one strake from the dragon ship.

Filet the cod and salt it. Place the cod on the strake.

Fill a pot with a solution of water and lye. Place the strake and the cod in the pot overnight.

Drain the cod and the strake. Throw away the cod and eat the strake.

(My surname may appear to be Swedish but the main ancestry is Prussian and Puritan ...)
I stumbled upon your blog and I love it!

I presume that many traditions slowly undergo some metamorphosis. Now that you are in the Melting Pot, why not make the lutefisk more palatable with some curry sauce? (Sautee thin onion slices until lightly browned, add a little cardamom, cumin and a tablespoon or two - depending on strength - of curry powder. When the mixture starts to brown add cilantro leaves and a tomato or two and a cup of water.)

Then you can have your lutefisk and (hopefully) eat it too.
I had a Scandinavian boyfriend whose family used Everclear as part of their glug recipe. I soon learned that Glug exists so you can forget about the lutefisk.

Oh, but the lefse!
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