Hear that gagging sound? It’s Norwegian-Americans attempting to connect with their heritage.
It happens every year at this time; thousands of people choke down an infamous concoction called lutefisk. What people in America don’t know is that most Norwegians came to their senses decades ago and quit eating the stuff.
Lofoten Islands, Norway: Thousands of deceased cod sway in the breeze from drying racks. After this bizarre hazing ritual, they will become lutefisk.
To make lutefisk, catch yourself a cod. Take out the bones, skin it, salt it, and hang it out to dry for several weeks until it hardens and smells like a dumpster. Then, bring it inside and soak it in lye for several days.
Yes, lye — a substance defined by dictionary.com as “a strong caustic alkaline solution of potassium salts, obtained by leaching wood ashes. It is much used in making soap, etc.”
Et cetera indeed. When you use it to make fish, you get a gelatinous blob that slithers down your throat and makes you wish you had cooked a turkey for Christmas dinner like a normal American.
Norwegians didn’t invent lutefisk because they thought it was tasty. A long time ago, in the pre-refrigeration epoch, salting and drying fish was an efficient way to preserve it. They soaked it in lye afterward to pull the salt out and — believe it or not — make it more palatable. A century ago, lutefisk really was a staple in the Norwegian diet. Also a century ago, a lot of Norwegians fled the country.
To the lutefisk-eating Norwegian-Americans out there who are trying to keep in touch with your roots, here are some factoids to bring you to your senses:
Refrigerators have arrived in the Old World, as has the electricity needed to power them. They now have more pleasant ways to keep food fresh.
Today, more lutefisk is consumed in Wisconsin than in Norway.
Norwegians buy more frozen pizzas per capita than any other nationality. They consume 13,000 tons of frozen pizza annually — an average of more than five and a half pounds of cheesy goodness for every man, woman, and screaming toddler.
Yes, frozen pizza is a Norwegian staple food today. Why not get in touch with the 21st century and start a new holiday tradition?
I am a proud Norwegian-American, as is my mother, who every year at Christmas bakes about 74 pounds of traditional Norwegian Christmas cookies and other edible things. She never made me eat lutefisk when I was a child. This is because she loves me.
A couple of months ago, however, I tasted lutefisk for the first time — voluntarily. I did this for two reasons:
1) On every Scandinavia tour I lead, someone asks me about lutefisk. I tell them how horrible it is, which felt hypocritical since I had never even sniffed the stuff before.
2) I was intoxicated, and my judgment was impaired when I asked to try it.
The way it happened was I had just arrived in Drøbak, the town where I once was an exchange student. Per, my Norwegian host father, handed me a beer and a shot of akvavit and said, “We’re having something for dinner tonight that you won’t like. So we’ll make you a pork chop.”
“What is it?” I asked, and drank my akvavit.
“Lutefisk,” he laughed, refilling my akvavit glass.
Per sniffs the lutefisk between shots of akvavit.
“Are you serious?” I asked, drinking my second shot of akvavit. In the 15 years I have known Per, I had never seen him eat lutefisk before. But I sensed he was serious. The previous summer I had narrowly avoided home-cooked whale by taking him out for Indian food. He didn’t remember the whale steaks thawing in the fridge at home until our curry arrived at the table.
“Yes,” Per answered, filling my glass again. “It’s the first lutefisk of the year.”
This conversation and refilling continued for an hour or so while Per prepared the fish along with the traditional stewed peas and bacon drippings that are used to “enhance the flavor.” At one point, Wibeke, my sister’s girlfriend, knocked at the door.
“We’re having lutefisk tonight,” Per said gleefully. “Will you stay for dinner?”
Wibeke ran, very fast, far, far away.
By the time dinner was served, I was on approximately my 93rd shot of akvavit, happily munching my pork chop, when I was seized with drunken bravado. “I really should try that,” I said to Tordis, my Norwegian host mother. “Can I have a bite?”
All other conversation ceased. “Are you sure?” Tordis asked.
Moments before the lutefisk attacked, the evil bone was captured on film, dangling from my fork.
As I held the fork up to my mouth, I got that same sickly feeling you get as you climb aboard a roller coaster, wondering if you are about to become violently nauseous. I wanted to back out but everyone was watching. A quivering glob of what looked like jellyfish dangled menacingly from my fork. Mind over matter, I thought, and shoved it in my mouth, intending to gulp it down so fast, it wouldn’t register on my taste buds.
That’s when disaster struck.
There was a bone. One of those needle-like fish bones that pokes you in the tongue and gets caught between your teeth. I had to dislodge it from my mouth before I could swallow. The lutefisk sat there while I wrestled with the bone. It wrapped itself around my tongue like a lye-flavored python, attacking every taste bud. It might have been my only bite of lutefisk in my life, but it wasn’t going down without a fight.
Finally, my mouth was bone-free, and I gulped hard to get the fish down my throat.
I had done it! I could now speak from experience when telling people how horrible lutefisk is. And it was.
To be completely honest though, it wasn’t as bad as I had expected. It was surprisingly flavorless, with a texture somewhere between Jell-O and mashed potatoes. Nevertheless, I did not ask for a second bite.
There are worse culinary traditions in the world. In Athens, a friend once cajoled me into trying chilled sheep’s brain. (“It’s a Greek delicacy,” she said.) In Iceland, specialties include sheep’s testicles, and shark that is buried in the ground for several weeks until it’s rotten. No lye is required. They just dig it up and wash it down with their local firewater, called Black Death. Scotland has haggis, made from a sheep’s stomach lining. In America, we have egg salad sandwiches from vending machines that are kept warm by 40-watt light bulbs for an average of seven months before anyone eats them. (They taste fine as long as you swallow them whole without removing the plastic wrap).
So Norway is not the only nation with frightening cuisine. Nevertheless, it saddens me that lutefisk has become representative of my heritage when most Norwegians can’t stand it.
An article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer earlier this week reported that Seattle’s Norwegian community is in mourning this holiday season because for the first time in decades, not a single Seattle restaurant will offer lutefisk. The article quoted Kathleen Knudsen, editor of the Western Viking newspaper, as saying, “The Norwegian community is in a state of shock.”
Speak for yourself Kathleen.
The holidays are stressful in many ways, and every year at this time, I see interviews with psychologists warning that not all holiday traditions are good for you. “Move on, and make your own traditions,” they say.
So for Norwegian-Americans suffering from lutefisk withdrawal, fret not. It’s time to move into the modern age like the real Norwegians have. I have just returned from the grocery store. I am happy to report there are plenty of frozen pizzas to go around.