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.