Pay a winter visit to Norway’s remote Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle, and it’s impossible to miss the rows of headless fish carcasses hanging from wooden racks to dry. Follow the snaking two-lane road from village to village and you’ll arrive at the dock of H. Sverdrup AS fish factory in a town called Reine. When I visited, a group of kids with sharp knives and bloody smocks stood huddled together for warmth. School had just ended, and they were waiting for more cod heads to arrive.
The kids are known as tungeskjaererne, or tongue cutters. It was early March 2020, the middle of fishing season, when Arctic cod known as skrei migrate to the Norwegian coast to spawn. Cod tongue, tender and jellylike, is a local delicacy. “The best meat of the fish,” said Jakob Arctander, a local fish exporter. “It’s got the consistency of filet mignon.”
For as long as anybody can remember, tungeskjaererne have been responsible for the local cod tongue trade, even as fish factories give up the money they would otherwise get from the tongues by donating the fish heads to children and teenagers. The tradition introduces young people to the fishing industry, and teaching them the value of entrepreneurship and hard work seems to matter more than making an extra kroner or two. “Fishing is the most important thing that we have here,” said Arctander, who sometimes let his 6-year-old son stay up until midnight cutting tongues. “Fisheries will always be our main source of work.”
The job makes selling Girl Scout cookies or running a lemonade stand look like child’s play. Arctander knows tungeskjaererne who have made more than $11,000 in a single season. “I haven’t thought of anything else in the world where kids can make so much money,” he said.
Sea gulls swarmed overhead as a small fishing boat approached the dock. The haul was brought inside the factory, and the sound of scraping metal signaled that workers had fed the fish into a processor to slice off the heads. The bodies would be salted, frozen or dried as stockfish—unsalted fish that’s hung for months in the open air to dry—and then exported for food. The heads were collected in large bins, to be moved outside for the kids.
That children as young as 6 go straight from school to the docks, where they spend hours in the numbing cold coated in fish guts, sharp knives in hand, may seem bizarre when viewed from the perspective of today’s developed economies and increasingly virtual workplaces. But the rarefied nature of this work, proudly undertaken by kids who feel a connection to the tradition, is part of what makes the practice so fascinating. The task itself involves spearing the head onto a giant metal spike and then slicing out the tongue. The heads were thrown into a bin, to be strung up and dried for export to Nigeria, where they’re a popular ingredient in traditional soups and stews. The tongues piled up on the spike until they reached the top and were then tossed into a bucket. The kids’ handiwork was so quick it was difficult to make out the distinct steps. Heads were grabbed, spiked, sliced, tossed, grabbed, spiked, sliced, tossed, until the large bin was empty and a new batch of cod heads arrived. Despite harsh winds and below-freezing temperatures, a few of the older tongue cutters, who work fast, were sweating. Piles of snow were pink with blood, but they didn’t seem to mind.
“My parents don’t want me to tell anyone how much money I’m making,” Alice Bendiksen, 14, said. “But it’s a lot.” Her two siblings also cut tongues, as did her parents and grandparents. Alice cut tongues nearly every day, sometimes staying at the factory until 2 a.m. Her earnings went toward new Apple AirPods, for listening to music while cutting, and a new phone—but she was saving up most of her money. Alice and other children use a mobile app called MarineTraffic to see when fishing boats are headed back to the dock.
At the end of each night, the cutters took their haul home to be washed, weighed and vacuum-packed or block-frozen. Their customers, curiously, tend to be local—generally family, friends and restaurant owners. In the old days, children sold tongues door-to-door. Now many use Facebook Marketplace. “The charm of it is all gone,” said Steve Nilsen with a sigh. His son, Martin, was a tongue cutter in the village of Ballstad.
The most traditional way to prepare the delicacy is to poach or fry the meat and serve it alongside potatoes and raw shaved carrots. But variations have evolved: served with cod roe and celery root, for example, or deep-fried with capers and tarragon. Jørgen Botolfsen, then 10, couldn’t stand the taste of cod tongue, but he earned more than $5 for every 2.2 pounds he sold. His mother, Anniken Marie Geirsdatter, made enough money as a teenager—$32,000 in six years—that she was able to buy a car, pay for driving lessons and make a down payment on a home. “I want Jørgen to learn that it’s not easy to make money—it’s hard work,” she said.
Because Jørgen wasn’t old enough to drive himself to the dock, Geirsdatter sat in the car, observing him at work. He didn’t enjoy the supervision. “Mommy,” he said, “you don’t have to watch me cut all the time—I’m not a kid anymore.”