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November 20, 2006 | 8 Comments

Dear Mr. Keillor.
I still haven't listened to your radio show since I'm from Norway and I haven't seen The Prairie Home Companion movie either, since my local movie theatre only showed it for two days, but I get the update mails from your show every week and I have read your book Days in Lake Wobegon, which I really like (I'm starting on book two soon). I have to say that I really like your humorous, but still serious writing about the small town life in Minnesota.

I've been fascinated by the Scandinavian (and especially the Norwegian) people in the Mid-West for a long time, since I figured out that my hometown Hamar was Fargo's sistercity. The thing that fascinates me the most is that everything I read about this group of people makes me think that they are more Norwegian, Swedish and Danish than we "real" Scandinavians are, for example the lutefisk and lefse tradition. I can understand lefse, but lutefisk? Personally, as a normal Norwegian, I'm not so especially fond of Lutefisk, so I wonder why the Norwegian settlers have kept this horrible tradition. We're actually having lutefisk for dinner next week, and I think I have to go to my friend and eat dinner there instead.

Thank you for great books and (I guess) a great radio show.

Hamar, Norway

The lutefisk tradition is a sentimental holiday institution here, observed by many Norwegians and Swedes, especially those in small towns, especially those who attend Lutheran churches or belong to Scandinavian organizations. It's a souvenir of ethnic identity, which is a precious thing to many Americans. As the country becomes more homogenized — shopping malls are the same all over, freeways, TV, teenagers, fashion — we cherish little things that show we're different from the others. You could get a tattoo, you could put a ring in your nose or ride a Harley or color your hair green, or you could eat lutefisk — whatever works. This sameness is the quality of suburbs and a lot of people find it oppressive. The fact that most people consider lutefisk repulsive only adds to the attraction


Sure lutefisk is bad, but take comfort in the fact that our ancestors were not responsible for the Twinkie.

You're right, Garrison. You can do all those things to make yourself different, but if you go to a lutefisk supper, you show that you know where you came from and where you belong. 4th Commandment.

Is Hanne truly unaware that she (I'm assuming that's a female name in Norway) can visit the Prarie Home Companion website ( and listen to not only the latest show, but archived broadcasts dating back to 1996? I live in Germany, and am a faithful listener - over the web. Do check it out, Hanne. You have hours of pleasure ahead of you!

As a mostly Norwegian-American bachelor teacher who has been working in China for the last few years, and who has a chunk of gjetost in the refrigerator, for me there are certain tastes that say Norway and family.

I remember talking with someone from Iceland about pickled herring...something you just can't get here...and we both had this far away look in our eyes when we talked. He told about trying to take herring to Africa for some Danish friends and the jars breaking in his luggage. Tagedy. We laughed about that, with tears in our eyes, but we both understood.

Food: it's a touchstone, it's home, family, much like listening to Prairie Home Companion programs here in China. When I listen, I'm home.

I'm half Swedish and I've spent a fair amount of time in Sweden. We Swedes say "lutfisk" (two syllables without that medial "e"), but it's the same thing, and a good many Swedes I know think it's disgusting. They will tell you -- and I concur -- that it's a holdover from days when you couldn't get fresh food in the middle of winter and you had to make do with things you could make out of flour and what you could store, before canning had been invented. Dried salt cod could be kept for lengthy periods without spoiling, and to revive it from its flat, stiff as a board, horrendously salty and inedible state, they soaked it in a solution of lye and made this disgusting, foul-tasting gelatinous, transparent stuff called lutfisk. Swedish women, in disparaging, told me that sometimes, their mothers and grandmothers would open the oven only to find that the lutfisk had shriveled up to nothing. Word on the street is that nowadays, the ideal way to cook it is in the microwave oven where you can cook it to the right degree of transparent gelatinousness without danger of having it dry up into nothing.

My mother grew up with two Swedish immigrant parents and her mother used to make it for Christmas. My mother refused to even consider making it because she thought it was so godawful.

As to pickled herring, mentioned in a comment above, Mom liked that, and you can find it readily in American supermarkets. Here on the west Coast, it's sold in glass jars the refrigerated deli case along with lox, frankfurters and lunch meat. The brand I find most often is Lassco, but I also see a brand called Vita. Lassco's jarred herring in small pieces is very much like what you can get in Sweden -- where it's called "sill" -- and you can get Lassco in plain pickled form, in sour cream and in a wine mixture, all of which are good if you like pickled herring, which I do. The most popular brand in Sweden is Abba (and has nothing to do with the musical group). I noticed the Swedish "sill" by Abba is much saltier than Lassco and, frankly, I think the less salty version is better tasting.

Anyone who likes fish ought to try pickled herring, I think.

I always liked the Vita ad, to the tune of " Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star "

" Make your day a little bit brighta.
Eat a little pickled herring by Vita. "

Madison Ave has forgotten the power of jingles.

My mother comes from a family of Norwegian farmers in Wisconsin and lutefisk has graced the Christmas dinner table as long as anyone can remember. This will be my 30th Christmas on earth and also the 30th year that I will not be partaking of this interesting gelatinous delicacy. I sometimes feel bad that I have never tasted this food of my ancestors, but I am greatly relieved to hear that "real" Norwegians don't even like it. Although I don't eat the stuff, I will always have fond memories of Christmas at Grandma's, packed into the tiny, smoky, sweltering farm house. We kids picked at our lefse and potatoes while staring at the mountain of presents under the tree. The men ate first, and then the ladies washed the dishes and ate their dinner. After what seemed like an eternity, we tore into the gifts and gorged ourselves on cookies and homemade candy. Sometimes I think of these Christmases past and feel a little sad that the lutefisk tradition is sure to die soon...but memories with turkey can be just as good.

Lutefisk was actully invented by the Irish who grew tired of the yearly Viking raids and the theft of their food. They asked "what could we possibly do that would make our fish so disgusting that the Vikings would never steal it again? They decided to take the fish, soak it in Lye and put on rocks to dry. Shortly thereafter, the Vikings returned, tasted the fish, loved it and have been making it ever since.

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