O Lutefisk! Oh. Lutefisk.
November 29, 2009 12:36 PM   Subscribe

O Lutfisk, O Lutefisk!. Also known as lipeäkala, this dried white fish once saturated with lye is a traditional dish in both Nordic countries and in much of the upper Midwest of America and the plains region of Canada. Sounds tasty, right? Let this article describe the experience of countless kids faced with this dish each Christmas Eve before you sign up for a Lutefisk Eating Contest (scroll for video!) in Ballard, WA.

The history of this medieval dish is murky and filled with mythologies and tall tales; for Americans of Scandinavian descent, it is a symbol of humor, pride, and sometimes revulsion, so it's no surprise that someone rewrote Twas the Night before Christmas as The Lutefisk Lament. In fact, it is commonly repeated as a fact on many Lutefisk web pages that more Americans of Norwegian descent eat Lutefisk than actual Norwegians do.

You could make it in the traditional way, watch someone prepare it, or you can download a handy PDF chart of all the places an American Lutefisk Lover can go to get your fix - whether you are in Wisconsin or California or anywhere else. Or, you could just make plans now for the next Lutefisk Festival in July in Madison, MN, the Lutefisk Capital of the U.S. (Glenwood, MN claims the same thing, even though they have to borrow the Lou T. Fisk statue from Madison for their parades). If eating it is absolutely not for you, there's always the Lutefisk Toss during the Heritage Days in Two Harbors, MN.
posted by julen (39 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Back in the mid-1950s, my dad went back to Norway for a college summer program, and asked some of our relatives if they liked lutefisk.

They said "Lutefisk?!? Don't you have refrigerators in America?"
posted by msalt at 12:40 PM on November 29, 2009 [12 favorites]

I was in Ikea yesterday, and I checked out the Swedish food section. In the freezer case, between ham and salmon, I found packages of frozen lutefisk. The prices of everything else were clearly marked, but I never found the price for the lutefisk. Maybe it had never come up.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:43 PM on November 29, 2009 [10 favorites]

Endorsed. And for good reason; great post!
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:44 PM on November 29, 2009

Church joke: Little known fact, the fish part of the loaves-and-fishes miracle was lutefisk. How do you know? Because after everyone had eaten as much as they wanted, there were still twelve baskets left over.

(My husband eats lutefisk. Every Christmas we have the "treasured cultural heritage" v. "artifact of outdated food preservation methods" faceoff.)
posted by Flannery Culp at 12:47 PM on November 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

My favorite lutefisk moment was between Andrew "I'm Preternaturally Cheery" Zimmern and Adam "Food's Winning, Trust Me" Richman on the Minneapolis ep of the Travel Channel's Man v. Food. Zimmern and the head chef at Brasa had procured some lutefisk for Richman to try, and the resulting opening bites went something like:

Zimmern: "Mm. This is some excellent lutefisk."
Richman: "... ... ...how can you tell?!"

Zimmern cheerily replied with a list of its slimy, Vaseline-like, unctuous and flaky all at once qualities and managed to put Richman even further off the stuff, which I didn't think was possible.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 12:48 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

My parents insisted on making lutfisk every Christmas when I was growing up. I like fish. Hell, I even like surströmming, but lutfisk is the devil. Even with the tasty sauce it's awful. Give me dopp i grytan any day!
posted by gemmy at 12:57 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Obligatory Almost Live Ballard Files sketch.

I think lutefisk's pretty good, actually
posted by Esteemed Offendi at 1:09 PM on November 29, 2009

My therapist and I decided that lutefisk was an artifact of Norwegian-American passive-aggression - forcing it upon me at Christmas was a way for my Norwegian grandmother to say "I hate how soft and spoiled and ungrateful you have become you worthless little turd" while not saying a word.
posted by milkrate at 1:20 PM on November 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

My mother had lutefisk when she was pregnant with me. I believe that Fetal Lutefisk Syndrome is the cause of all my problems.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 2:05 PM on November 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

Mention of Ballard and lutefisk pretty much requires someone include the Ballard High School chant:

Lutefisk, lutefisk
Lefse, lefse
We’re from Ballard
Ya, sure, you betcha

posted by dw at 2:06 PM on November 29, 2009 [6 favorites]

My wife calls lutefisk "Norwegian haggis."
posted by jonp72 at 2:32 PM on November 29, 2009 [2 favorites]

I may remember this wrong but perhaps someone can come forward? In the heyday of USENET and alt.tv.simpsons, one poster used the never-broadcast Homerism of "Mmmm...lutefisk" in the hopes that someday the writers would include this line in the show (for they famously monitored and occasionally commented elsewhere). They never did, but it did make it fairly quickly into a Simpsons comic.

Please, if you know this story in more detail, share?
posted by stevil at 4:22 PM on November 29, 2009

My Italian grandmother used to threaten my brother and I with Hell. My Danish great-grandmother used to threaten us with ludfisk. One of these worked a lot better than the other.
posted by cobaltnine at 5:20 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ballard is a neighborhood in Seattle for those of you planning lutefisk-themed vacations.
posted by vapidave at 5:36 PM on November 29, 2009

julen: "I, too would love to encourage more descriptions of holidays and festivals from around the world. I love that stuff! If people don't do this, I'll... I'll.... post about lutefisk! (cue violins of horror!)"

Well, at least we know to never, ever fuck with julen, as they obviously have no problems following up on threats.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 5:53 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just returned from Lillehammer and was treated to lutefisk in a few different forms. The Norwegians I was hanging out with put the fear of god in me when describing what it was and how it's made. I was told the most important part of ingesting lutefisk is the copious amount of alcohol that one drinks to accompany it. I took to referring to it as Norwegian sushi.
posted by photoslob at 6:08 PM on November 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

Bear in mind that Zimmern is from Minnesota. That helps to explain his, uh, expertise.
posted by norm at 6:30 PM on November 29, 2009

My boyfriend's brother took part in a lutefisk-eating contest in Minnesota. He was the only participant for his weight class: below 200 pounds. Imagine that.
posted by Moral Animal at 6:44 PM on November 29, 2009

Previously this month, at a big-box retailer in Roseville, Minnesota.

Really, it's not that bad.

Although the snarkier side of me can't help but notice the "PURE" on the packaging. Pure? In what context?
posted by gimonca at 6:59 PM on November 29, 2009

Well, it's certainly uncontaminated by food.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:10 PM on November 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

The thing is, the taste is actually quite mild. I just never personally understood the strong revulsion people have.

Is it really that bad? I mean do you just hate it because that's the thing to do or does it really taste revolting?
posted by Authorized User at 7:34 PM on November 29, 2009

This is my favorite account of someone's first encounter with lutefisk. I think the phrase "lasting psychological damage" in there is what did it for me.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:50 PM on November 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

It is possible to prepare lutefisk poorly and to prepare it well. The former is always revolting. I can tolerate the latter. In small doses. With plenty of butter. And the promise of Swedish Meatballs (in a cream sauce) to follow. In the course of putting together this post, I discovered that many people mask the lutefiskiness of their lutefisk with bacon. BACON. Of course, bacon makes everything taste better, but it's traditional, too? My mother has some explaining to do. The butter was lovely, but I missed out on bacon?

We had to special order lutefisk from the grocery store, and so we got a wide variety of lutefisk over the years - some with a more distinctive lye aftertaste, some that was more gelatinous, some that more closely resembled a fish, some that was a solid mass of white goop ... There's only so much you can do with subpar lutefisk.
posted by julen at 9:14 PM on November 29, 2009

Oh, lutefisk. Such a delightful Jul delicacy. My grandma makes it perfectly. She's 92 and in excellent health. Take from that what you will.
posted by Maude_the_destroyer at 10:34 PM on November 29, 2009

In our family, we often call the 'fisk "jello with fins".

Eating the bland, stinky fish is never the same unless it's drenched in butter,
dusted with salt and pepper, and accompanied by a fresh lefse.
posted by pickingoutathermos at 11:40 PM on November 29, 2009

"Oh hey, Amber, you... uh... got some lutefisk in your hair."
posted by greekphilosophy at 1:00 AM on November 30, 2009

Uhm, yeah, as a previous poster said: Lutefisk is rather mild. As a dish, it's more based around the garnishes than the actual fish. If you find the fish itself revolting, whoever fixed that fish up for you doesn't know what the hell they're doing.

That said, I agree the consistency of it might be a little hard to get into, but it's not as bad as you all make it out to be.

However. Pinnekjøtt. Can I get an Amen? Basically air cured (great) Norwegian lamb ribs, reconstituted in a vat, lying on a bed of birch(?) twigs (hence the pinne - twig - in "twigmeat" as it would be called in English). It is the best Christmas food ever, especially with mashed root vegetables. So, so good. And salty.
posted by flippant at 5:06 AM on November 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

You can become a fan of Lutefisk on Facebook.

I like this feature as it lets me know who to put against the wall when the Revolution comes.

Why yes, I come from a Swedo-Midwestern family and the very SMELL of lutefisk was enough to start some serious dry heaving. The only worse smelling food is the Icelandic fermented shark.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:32 AM on November 30, 2009

Also: having inherited the Sekrit Family Recipe, I can't be impressed by Ikea's meatballs. Though anytime Swedish Meatballs come up in conversation, and I mention knowing the secret secrets, someone says "Oooh! Can you give me the recipe?" or worse "Oooh, can you make them?"

#1) No.
#2) Sure, if you give me ten hours and a pound of butter. Honestly, good meatballs take at least an hour of prep (mixing, frying) and at least six hours of simmering. And EVERY SINGLE DISH in the kitchen. Hence, our family only makes them on Christmas Eve and Midsummer. I can't explain why we're insane enough to spend 10 hours in the kitchen in the middle of June, but I think being Swedish has something to do with that.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 6:36 AM on November 30, 2009

A summary of the alt.tv.simpsons - lutefisk-pimping is summarized tersely on alt.tv.simpsons here (Google account may be required)
posted by stevil at 7:02 AM on November 30, 2009

Ballard, WA

Isn't Ballard a neighborhood in Seattle?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:46 AM on November 30, 2009

I had it with cream cheese and I believe bacon rolled in bread-like hors d'œuvre. It was, dare I say, very good. But then I also spent a few weeks sampling all of the salty fish that could be had from Russia as well which ran the gamut of delicious to downright horrifying.
posted by photoslob at 8:23 AM on November 30, 2009

I grew up in a very Scandinavian community in the Upper Midwest. Every Lutheran church had an annual lutefisk supper in the fall and everyone I grew up with dreaded working at ours. The stench of the fish was enough to gag a maggot.

A few years ago my wife saw this on a t-shirt at a Scandinavian store and if you're Lutheran, you'll get it:

"Lutefisk, the piece of cod that passes all understanding"
posted by Ber at 8:30 AM on November 30, 2009 [2 favorites]

Bear in mind that Zimmern is from Minnesota

Nope. He's a New York City boy who moved to MN when he was in his 30s and now calls it his home state.
posted by Clave at 10:58 AM on November 30, 2009

The thing is, the taste is actually quite mild. I just never personally understood the strong revulsion people have.

Is it really that bad? I mean do you just hate it because that's the thing to do or does it really taste revolting?

It doesn't taste of anything, but it reeks like a gas leak. This penetrates the nose and gives everything else eaten at the meal the faint tang of lutefisk. The perfect Calvinist meal: tasteless and revolting at the same time.

posted by jrochest at 12:05 PM on November 30, 2009

I have a hard time keeping normal food down. Hakarl is a similar appetite depressant. I wonder if the cold climate and lack of sunlight has had an adverse effect on these people? .....and I thought the Japanese had some weird food........ (help, I'm gagging...)
posted by ~Sushma~ at 7:20 PM on November 30, 2009

Hakarl is pretty bad, and Surströmming is in the same vein. I have no idea why anyone would even think of eating something like that. It kinda goes along with my theory for the invention of bread (and/or beer): Somebody was on the verge of death due to starvation, and didn't know how to make or didn't have enough money to buy decent food, and the possibility of food poisoning in the future was a less immediate danger than starving to death.

Regular pickled herring though -- awesome.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 9:02 PM on November 30, 2009

"Isn't Ballard a neighborhood in Seattle?"

At one point it was a city. Later it became part of Seattle, but it's always kept a bit of that independence. Until relatively recently it was still chock-full of Scandihoovians (as my half-Swedish grandpa, Ballard High School class of 1928, would say), but in the last 10 years or so it's changed quite a bit.
posted by litlnemo at 6:40 AM on December 1, 2009

From wiki's Norwegian cuisine page:

The dish most likely came about as an accident; stockfish [aka cod] became covered in ashes after a fire, then the rain caused lye from the ashes to seep into the fish.[citation needed] Poverty will have prevented people from throwing it away, and after watering it out the lyed fish was found edible

Preparation and accompaniment is as for fresh cod, although beer and aquavit is served on the side.

posted by msalt at 1:05 AM on December 21, 2009

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