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Ruining Lutefisk

December 19, 2011 | 7 Comments

Dear GK,

I met a woman named Betsy, Swedish-American ancestry, from around Chisago, MN, who told me that, as a 17 year old, while working at a nursing home, she was "forced" to fix the lutefisk (the other staff were off that day). She had never fixed lutefisk before but tried her best. The nursing home residents voiced their displeasure, saying she had ruined the lutefisk. My question to you is whether it is possible to ruin lutefisk?

Mark Brynolfsson
Palatine, IL


Lutefisk is a delicacy that is cherished by a dwindling population of old Swedes and Norwegians around Christmastime, dried cod soaked in lye that must be carefully washed (many times) and then properly cooked, eaten (by Swedes) with a white sauce and (by Norwegians) with melted butter. It is peasant food, a staple among the immigrants, that is eaten by fewer and fewer people in Norway but still is cherished by old Scandinavians for whom it has sentimental associations with the blessed holiday. People joke about it because it does, in its raw state, reek of lye, and it will stain silver, and the odor will linger in your kitchen, but if it is prepared properly, it does not need to be pungent, as I described it long ago in Lake Wobegon Days:

"Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I'd be told, "Just have a little." Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot."

The answer to your question, Mark, is Yes. But lutefisk does not need to be an issue. The big lutefisk dinners in Minnesota always serve Swedish meatballs as an alternative entree and nobody is going to put a gun to your head and force you to eat the "repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish". It is an acquired taste, like sweetbreads, or Baroque music on period instruments, or Morris dancing, or Melville's Moby Dick, and here in America you find small pockets of enthusiasts surrounded by large populations of the indifferent and dismissive. It's a great country.


My mother kept a little poem in her kitchen. I cannot remember the whole thing but I do remember Dat yo must stand on de vinverd side so you don't care ven it died.

Happy Holidays -Do recall the smell of the stuff as a kid drifting over from the house next door. Yikes, Happy of my MN German accestors for doing Goose dinner at the Holidays and the Beer is also good .

I married into a Swedish-Texan family in the mid-1960s and was intoduced to lutefisk on the first Christmas eve with my new girl several years before we were married. I married her anyway. White fish in a white sauce served with boiled white potatos clearly failed the color test. My father-in-law to be, usually deep into his cups by lutefisk time, insisted on having it every year. He did fix the color (and taste) problem though by drenching it in Worchestershire sauce. I miss all those old Swedes this time of year, but not the lutefisk.

Dear mr. Keillor

As a native Norwegian living in Norway I love lutefisk, and for sure I will have it for dinner on Christmas day (as every year).
In Norway we consume between 2500-3000 tons of lutefisk each year divided on a population of approx. five million. About 80% of the population has eaten lutefisk in the course of a year, and peak consumption is in the months of Nov and Dec.
The average lutefisk-lover in Norway is 45 years or older, he/she lives in Mid- or Northern Norway, has average income and higher education.

Merry Christmas (with or without lutefisk)

Don't let my last name fool you--I am 3/4 Norwegian and 1/4 Swede! Every year my Norwegian grandmother would lovingly prepare lutefisk for our "big treat of December". We could only find parking a 1/2 block away, but even in the dark we could smell when we were almost there.
I can't say I EVER developed a liking for the stuff, but hey--with enough melted butter anything tastes better and it certainly slides down the throat easier!
This year the Sons of Norway in Duluth MN (the same folks that hosted Their Majesties in October)put on a phenominal Scandinavian feast which included lutefisk. I asked for my obligatory 1" piece of lutefisk so I could check it off my "must do" list.
I ended up going back for an entire serving! The taste and texture was mild and flaky like fish SHOULD be! Old and young alike said this was the BEST LUTEFISK EVER!!!! The trick--the guests should wait for the lutefisk; the lutefisk should never wait for you!

It's almost too late to comment about lutefisk. The season ends around Epiphany. But a lamentable observation from the several lutefisk dinners I enjoyed in and around the Puget Sound of Washington this year: The average age of the partaking diner seems to go up by "1" every year. There probably should be a planning committee for a Lutefisk Last Man/Last Woman Club. It's coming sooner than most Norsk og Svensk think!

I have a story sandwiched by questions.

Seeing that so many of you write of Lutefisk as an X-mas dish, or is it disk, is it not possible the practice began as a way to keep the Christian missionaries away? After all the eating of fowl-smelling food as a way to exorcise demons (as they must have seemed to the natives)is not uncommon. In Japan, a much drier slightly smoked fish that smells like carrion dug up by a dog,was sometimes eaten on the night when fortune/happiness was called in and demons and bad luck repelled, the idea being it would help do the latter.

The first and only time I ate lutefisk was at my first-time-crossing-the-equator initiation when I worked-away on a Swedish ship to return to the USA from Japan in the 1970's. Right after or before (I cannot recall the order as I gulped down a half bottle of vodka beforehand as I had been warned) I kissed the painted toenails of Juno (the Queen of the Sea being the ugliest sailor, of course)I had the honor and recall its sliminess was as gross as its odor. With age, I have come to realize such stinking food is what we most come to love in time.

Have you ever tried slurping sea cucumber guts (konowata)? That is what Japanese regard as the top-of-the-line for such foods.

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