Friday, August 31, 2007

By Popular Demand: the post on Lutfisk

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.


zorra said...

This country is becoming so homogenized,thank goodness there are still lutfisk dinners. (even if you or I might only take a little taste to be polite)

Rowan The Dog said...

I'm convinced.
I am going to put "Eat Lutfisk" on my list of things to do before I die. But, I still think eating lye is a little scary.

more cows than people said...

so i get that you appreciate lutfisk for a number of reasons; that makes sense to me. but do you LIKE the taste of it?

just curious... maybe you said and i missed it.

i've never tried it so i have no opinion based in experience. this was a very informative post. i'm with rowan though- the lye thing is a little scary. maybe a lot.

Diane said...

sorry I didn't say. I can't say that I "Like" it, but it doesn't taste that bad, either. I have learned that there is good fish and bad fish, and that has to do with the consistency (if that makes sense.) It doesn't taste like lye.

Diane said...

Also, I added a link to wikipedia. Of course, that won't tell you how lutefisk tastes. It does recommend having beer or aquavit with lutefisk, which I could really see.

I will say that I think the lutefisk I ate in that little town in South Dakota was a lot better than the lutefisk that my grandma made.

"PS" said...

Cultural foods can have some really amazing preparations and/or ingredients. In seminary, we had a large Korean population. Our food customs made no sense to them at all...especially the choice of food and its preparation.

Janet said...

Wasn't there a year when we had to eat our Lutefisk before we could open our presents on Christmas Eve? Or was it just that we had to eat all of our food on our plate before we could open our presents?

Gannet Girl said...

That's a TERRIFIC photo.

This reminded me of the first time I was at my in-laws' for New Year's, when the traditional sauerkraut and mashed potatoes were served. I was terribly afraid of offending someone when I piled my plate with mashed potatoes, but sauerkraut makes me quite literally physically ill. My mil, who had cooked it, looked at my plate and said, "I hate it, too!"

St Edward the Confessor said...

Fascinating. Coming from and living in the northeast has not exposed me to this food or custom.

I am not sure I would be a candidate for this fish, but hey- I'd give a try! Butter would trump cream sauce for me I think!

One thing lodged in my consciousness... Lye? Do tell please, how does this figure in and not cause harm? I am most curious indeed!

Thanks for coming by my blog BTW and expect to see me here again.


Presbyterian Gal said...

I thank you for the correct spelling of Lutfisk. And sharing your bravery in eating it. I've always been leery of eating a food that requires killing twice.

At any rate, I am now interested in trying it. After having toured Minnesota for a year with Covenant Players and smelling it cooking in the fall, and watching Babette's Feast, it looks worth a try. Beer or aquavit is a good suggestion.

RevDrKate said...

Did you ever hear the Lutefisk poem done by the guys on 'CCO? Can't remember their names but it's a classic! I did try it, it's not so much the taste as the small that gotme. A friend's Norwegian immigrant grandpa told us that he was baffled by the whole lutefisk supper thing as it is not something in the old country you would ever eat until everything else was gone and you'd sure never feed it to a guest!

Rowan The Dog said...

I confess to a growing obsession with lutfisk so don't be to hard on me when I share this poem I found while google surfing lutfisk:

Ode to Lutfisk

Ah lutfisk, oh lutfisk! You stinky old fish,
To not have to eat you is my greatest wish!
On Christmas Eve we sit down to dine,
In anticipation of a feast so fine.
My father approaches, a gleam in his eye,
That among my family causes great hue and cry!
For Daddy Dearest has brought us a treat,
Something we can’t believe he expects us to eat.
Yes, yes indeed, you must fear your worst fear,
A platter of lutfisk is hovering near.
Quivering slightly in a sauce made of milk,
Strong men have fled from fish of its ilk!
Bravery is one thing, stupidity another,
My family all runs, heading for cover.
We are not stupid, we won’t touch the fish,
For even the cats recoil from this dish.

It's from a blog called WendyKnits
Anf there's a recipe too!

Diane said...

hey, cool poem and website!

Diane said...

hey Janet, I don't remember being made to eat all my lutefisk? Was that at Grandma Judy's or Grandma Emma's? And do you think someday I should post about lefse???

You should get an art blog.

Janet said...

I seem to recall it was at Christmas Eve at our house in St. Louis Park. My technique for eating Lutfisk was to have big forkful of Lutfisk in one hand and a tall glass of milk in the other, and eat it as quickly as possible! I remember eating Swedish pancakes with Karo Syrup at Grandma Gummeson's house and liked those much better.

Leah Sophia said...

Ages ago my color theory teacher told the class about when her grandmother came to live with her...Henrietta (teacher) came home and found a live fish swimming in the only bathtub. Grandmother, a Norwegian import, insisted on doing everything right, which apparently meant making lutfisk literally from scratch. She kept looking at the fish saying, "What a beautiful fish!" [add the proper accent] Thanks for the correct spelling, by the way.

Diane said...

Leah Sophia, that's a great story!

Grandmère Mimi said...

Diane, it seems that everyone's chimed in already. I know nothing about lutfisk, but it must be big in certain areas.

Anyway, "Hi everyone."

FranIAm said...

Oh dear, I left my comment before under the wrong name, silly me.

Anyway, what are the odds of me reading about lutfisk on two different blogs in one day... especially since I had never heard of it.

Well who knows what the odds were, but it happened. Lutfisk showed up on Streetprophets. Go figure!

I am not St. Edward, repeat to yourelf.. Fran is not St Edward.

Of all the places for my blog worlds to collide, this is one of the safest and best ones. Phew!

lj said...

Your admission that your grandmother's lutfisk was not all that good reminded me of the first time I had periogies (pronounced pe-doggies) that my Polish soon-to-be-grandmother-in-law had spent all day cooking.

They were horrid!

I now know that periogies are quite good. She was just a lousy cook.

Diane said...

even so, lj, you know, I loved my grandmother. but you find out these things...

revabi said...

You are very brave. I have never had it, but have been dragged to different dinners of sorts.