For many Norwegian-Americans, Christmas isn't Christmas without a big plate of lutefisk. What in the world is lutefisk? You start with torsk, which is a codfish relative caught in Norway's Lafoten Islands. After you've caught the fish, you gut it and hang it to dry in the frigid arctic air in racks outside your house. About 80 percent of the moisture evaporates during the drying/freezing season. Here's a good photo of the drying racks.
This dried fish, which at this point is known as ``stockfisk,'' is so hard that you could literally knock someone out by hitting them over the head with piece of it. It will keep for a very long time and, for the most part, has lost most of the intense fishy odor. When I was a little girl, I can remember seeing stockfisk stacked up like cordwood on the sidewalk outside the Scandinavian markets in Seattle's Ballard district.
Now comes the tricky part. In order to get the stockfisk into condition to be eaten, you have to soak it in lye. After this, it's soaked in water for a few days, with the water changed daily. The fish is now ready to be cooked.
Steaming or boiling is the classic method of lutefisk preparation, although these day some people bake it in the oven. Many people do not cook lutefisk at home, but prefer to spend the winter traveling to lutefisk suppers offered by Lutheran churches in parts of the U.S. with large Scandinavian populations, or various chapters of the Sons of Norway. The ethnic press publishes a schedule of lutefisk dinners and in places like the Pacific Northwest, Minnesota or the Dakotas, you can have a lutefisk supper every weekend from well before Thanksgiving all the way to New Year's if you follow the lutefisk circuit.
Lutefisk is the centerpiece of a ``white dinner,'' and no, that term has nothing to do with the ethnicity of the servers or dinner guests. For most folks of my dad's generation, the ideal meal is steamed lutefisk with boiled white potatoes, white sauce and some lefse to soak up the melted butter. The butter provides the only color on the plate.
It's not unpleasant to eat. The drying, lye-soaking steaming process alters the texture of the fish so that it's firm without being dry, and the taste is very very very subtle, somewhere between no taste at all and the taste of the butter that's poured over the top.
Lefse, incidentally, is the Norwegian equivalent of a tortilla. Most lefse is made with potatoes, but the Selbu lefse made by my grandmother and aunts uses only flour. It's commonly spread with butter when it accompanies a meal, but when it's eaten alone, it's spread with butter or cream and sprinkled sugar, and then rolled up or doubled over and cut into squares.
Everyone who knows me has heard me say ``uff da'' at least once a day. It's a hard phrase to explain, but I remember seeing one description of ``uff da'' as ``the words you say when you drop your lefse butter-side down in the chicken yard.''
A few years ago, when both my dad and stepmother were still alive, I flew up to Seattle and took them to a Sons of Norway lutefisk dinner. The menu was exactly as described above, with the addition of coleslaw made from the palest cabbage I have ever seen, vanilla ice cream in white paper cups, and spritz cookies baked only until they were firm, but before they were browned. The meal was the capstone of what my friend Thalia calls ``snowblind cuisine.''
The median age of the diners was somewhere between 85 and death, with most of them tall, blue-eyed, pink-cheeked people with short noses and wearing hand-knit Norwegian sweaters. In other words, exactly what I'm going to look like when I reach that age.
Some of the serving women wore bunads, and I think there was entertainment by one of the various (largely geriatric) Norwegian male choruses that are found in areas with a large Norwegian immigrant population.
The connection of lutefisk to the Yule predates the Reformation and relates to the Advent fast of the Catholic church. It's a food of meager times, and reminds Scandinavian-Americans of the tough times their ancestors endured and survived. Swedes and Finns also eat lutefisk, but Norway is the epicenter of lutefisk production and consumption. And even here in the U.S., more than a million pounds of lutefisk are eaten every year, although, as the older generation dies off, we lose something like 8 or 10 pounds of lutefisk consumpation per Old Norskie who travels the rainbow bridge to Valhallah.
But today lutefisk can be a convenience food. It may be hard to believe, but you can actually buy lutefisk TV dinners manufactured by a Minnesota company. Last summer when I was in the small Norwegian-American fishing town of Paulsbo, Washington, I shot this sign outside the market.
I have a lutefisk plaque on the back end of Audhumla (my silver Ford Taurus, for those who are coming late to the story). It mystifies most of the world, but always makes Scandinavian-Americans laugh. A couple of years ago, when I was on my big car trip around the nation, I stopped to shoot some photos a scenic overlook above Oak Creek Canyon, which leads down to Sedona, Arizona. When I came back to my car, two men were standing at the back, looking at the lutefisk plaque, wondering out loud what it meant.
I explained that it was my car, and that lutefisk is Norwegian soul fool, and that it was an inside joke to others who share my ethnicity. Boy, they were not amused. One of them gestured to the other, and snarled at me ``he's a Christian pastor, and he should know about things like that.'' Holy cow! Some people have no sense of humor. Good thing I didn't have a ``my other car is a broom'' bumper sticker too.
There's an old saying about lutefisk: ``Half the Norwegians who came to American left Norway so they could get away from the hated lutefisk; the other half emigrated so they could spread the gospel of lutefisk's wonderfulness.'' Sometimes I'm in one category, and sometimes in the other.
lutefisk fish Norway Norwegian Christmas Yule food ethnic Lafoten torsk stockfisk cooking Washington+State TV+dinner immigrant Pagan Paganism Christian Christianity Reformation Catholicism Witch Minnesota Dakota lutefisk+belt bunad