Tuesday, February 1, 2011


Dick Eastman in an e-newsletter posted an article about lutefisk about December 2010. He paints a very unkind picture of this food. I think that one needs to have been exposed to lutefisk as a child in order to appreciate it. We had lutefisk every Christmas Eve when I was a child. Unlike my mother who married a man of Scandinavian descent, her brother and sister married outsiders.

My mother's sister married an Irish Catholic from New York and her brother married a woman of English, Irish or Scottish descent from Chicago. When my aunt who had been living in New York with her husband and my uncle who had been living in Chicago with his wife moved back to Minnesota, our family Christmas traditions began to change.

At first, we had roast beef in addition to lutefisk on Christmas Eve. But as my siblings and I grew older and had boyfriends/girlfriends that we invited to Christmas Eve dinner, the number of people who would eat lutefisk dwindled to the point that my mom gave up serving it on Christmas Eve. Instead, she had a lutefisk dinner after the holidays. Since my husband was not a fan of lutefisk and I lived 50 miles away from my mom and dad, I was not a part of her lutefisk dinner.

As the years passed, my mother had to special order the lutefisk for her dinner. When my husband and I moved to northern California, I discovered that lutefisk was available at some of our local markets around Christmas. I really wanted to get some to prepare but my husband remembered his one time tasting it and said, 'not in my house!"

Lutefisk, like Limburger cheese and Vietnamese fish sauce, is a food that you must have as you grow up in order to like.

So what makes lutefisk so distasteful for those who did not grow up with it? Conversely, what makes lutefish so appealing to those who did grow up with it?

Based on how fish was prepared to become lutefisk, the process seems to have been a preservation technique that provided Norwegians and Swedes a source of protein during the winter months. I recall my mother telling me that lutefisk was made from dried cod that was soaked in lye.

We all grew up with warnings about drinking lye because lye would eat away ones esophagus. So why would anyone voluntarily eat something that was soaked in lye?

Remember that the Vikings were Scandinavians! -- those tough, mean guys that pillaged and plundered all over Europe and Russia. Well this has nothing to do with eating lutefisk.

The Scandinavians in the 19th century when my dad's family and part of my mom's family came to America knew about lye and the caustic nature of it. The final step before cooking lutefisk is to soak the lye out of the fish.

Lye changes the appearance of the fish. The fish is rather translucent and thus may not be terribly appealing visually. It also seems that Americans in the US Midwest and Canadians are currently the largest consumers of lutefisk and not the people residing in the Scandinavian countries.

Why might that be so?

Refrigeration and preservation techniques changed over the century between now and when many people from Norway and Sweden came to America. The people in the Nordic countries have moved on. But, lutefisk is a nostalgia food for American and Canadian people of Scandinavian descent. It was a food that our immigrant ancestors were able to get that reminded them of home. But shipping this fish to the midwest and interior parts of Canada had a cost. I believe the cost of shipping here was why we only had lutefisk at Christmas. It became a special dish at a special holiday.

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