Scandinavians’ Strange Holiday Lutefisk Tradition

People in the Old Country won’t touch the stuff, but immigrants to the American Midwest have celebrated it for generations

Lutefisk is both a delicacy and a tradition among Scandinavian-Americans. (Courtesy of Kyle Nabilcy / Flickr)

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In the wrong hands, lutefisk can turn into slimy glop. For the haters, there’s always meatballs, a hand-rolled peace offering for mixed marriages of Scandinavians to spouses of different ethnic heritages, and for those with Scandinavian blood who object to lutefisk’s texture and intense odor.

The plaintive question frequently asked of lutefisk lovers: “If it’s so good, why don’t you eat it more than once a year?”

“Lutefisk is the substance you love to hate,” writes Roy. “It’s a rich substance for jokes, and for these reasons, it holds an interesting spectrum of appeal that varies from the cherished to reviled.”

That notorious smell has improved in recent years, however. Modern processing methods, including enclosed commercial kiln dryers and the refinement of lye, make for better smelling—or at least less smelly—fish. The lye does leave a distinct ashy taste that butter helps mask. Still, few people make lutefisk from scratch at home anymore, preferring instead to purchase it vacuum-packed from the store. Those searching for the smelly scent memory of old, however, can still find it at Ingrebretson’s Scandinavian Foods, a Minneapolis institution that hosts an annual lutefisk tasting, where shoppers can buy dried fish to soak themselves. There aren’t too many takers.

No one is quite sure where and when lutefisk originated. Both Swedes and Norwegians claim it was invented in their country. A common legend has it that Viking fishermen hung their cod to dry on tall birch racks. When some neighboring Vikings attacked, they burned the racks of fish, but a rainstorm blew in from the North Sea, dousing the fire. The remaining fish soaked in a puddle of rainwater and birch ash for months before some hungry Vikings discovered the cod, reconstituted it and had a feast. Another story tells of St. Patrick’s attempt to poison Viking raiders in Ireland with the lye-soaked fish. But rather than kill them, the Vikings relished the fish and declared it a delicacy. It makes for a great story if you don’t mind the fact that Patrick lived centuries before the Vikings attacked Ireland.

Whatever its origins, Scandinavians have eaten lutefisk for centuries. Preserved cod provided protein during the long winter months for generations of families in a part of the world with a strong tradition of fishing. Lye was used for making soap and preserving food. It was easily prepared in the kitchen by boiling wood ash from beech or birch in water and straining the result. Lutefisk first appeared in Norwegian literature in 1555 in the writings of Olaus Magnus, who describes its preparation and proper serving method: lots of butter.

Despite its long history in Scandinavia, though, lutefisk has fallen out of favor now that few people need to preserve food to last all winter. In fact, the Norwegian national dish isn’t lutefisk or even fishbased; it’s farikal, a lamb and cabbage casserole.

“You see some lutefisk in Norway but you’ll find many people who’ve never had it. There’s just not the lutefisk culture in Scandinavia that exists here,” says Eric Dregni, a Minnesotan who spent a year in Norway and wrote the book In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream about his experiences. “It’s the immigrants that have kept this going and turned it into a community event.”

Andrine Wefring at the Culinary Academy of Norway in Oslo agrees. “People still eat it, usually at Christmas, and you can find it in some restaurants in the winter. But church dinners? No, that doesn’t happen here,” she says.

Poverty and the collapse of traditional farming practices led more than 950,000 Norwegians to leave their homes for America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Only Ireland experienced a greater exodus relative to the size of its population. Lutefisk, the food of poor Scandinavians, came to the United States with its immigrants. Today, there are nearly as many Americans with primarily Norwegian heritage as there are citizens of Norway, about 4.5 million people. And many of the immigrant descendants crave some connection to their Nordic past, even one that jiggles and seems to repel more than it appeals.

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