There's a story in my father's family about how one year, when the kids were all teenagers, my grandmother made the traditional Swedish Christmas Eve meal, complete with meatballs and Swedish sausage, boiled potatoes, and, of course, lutfisk (yes, I know, everyone calls it "lutefisk." Lutfisk is the real, Scandinavian spelling.) The children, revealing their true feelings, ordered Chinese food. My grandmother went into the bedroom and cried.
My mom and dad argue good-naturedly about lutfisk. He isn't wild about it; she loves it. She says it's because she learned to eat it the good way, that is, the Norwegian way: with hot melted butter all over it. He, on the other hand, had to eat it with a cream sauce (which, I guess, is a punishment worse than death).
Lutefisk is, literally "lye fish". It has been a popular favorite in Sweden and Norway since medieval times. It is cod soaked in lye. I used to think it was perhaps much more popular with the Scandinavian immigrants than with the Swedes or Norwegians themselves, but I recently found a web site that indicated that they still eat it over in the old country. The Swedes mostly reserve it for Christmas time; the Norwegians like to eat it all year long. Maybe it's because of the butter.
I only remember having lutfisk once or twice as a kid. My grandmother, who didn't learn from experience, served it at least once at Christmas. I tried a bite.
So, not long after I moved into South Dakota (actually, I think it was Labor Day weekend) , a couple from my congregation asked me, "Do you like lutefisk?" (they said it with an "e".) Thinking it was a trick question, I answered, "Why do you ask?" It seemed that there was a very big and very popular lutfisk dinner in nearby large(r) town (1,000 people to my 63) coming up at the end of October. They wanted to show their appreciation for me by taking me to the dinner. It was the nicest thing they could think of to do. But if we didn't buy the tickets during the next week, they would all be gone.
Thinking about my experiences with cultural exchange in Japan, I said "yes." I might learn something. What could it hurt?
My parish members were so proud to have me there with them. They watched me to make sure I ate my lutfisk, said this was about the best dinner in the area. "Really good fish," they said. And it was so crowded! People had to eat in shifts, because the church basement was not big enough. And, at a lutfisk dinner, they don't just have fish. They have meatballs too.
I have found out since, that here in the Twin Cities, you can go online and find a "Lutefisk Dinner" at some church somewhere almost every week once it hits mid-October or so. It's quite a social event for people of a certain age and ethnic persuasian.
The retired pastor who cooks the fish (in a mesh bag, by the way) for my congregation is 90 years old. So it's possible that this social and cultural event will die out someday. But in the meantime, there are still quite a few people left who get together around long tables eating white fish covered with butter. And meatballs.