Lutefisk: The Ghost of Christmas Past *

It’s not Christmas until we have Lutefisk.  My dad says those words every year, without fail.
In fact, it’s not Christmas until my dad says the thing about the Lutefisk.  My people (on my dad’s side) are Scandinavian, and Lutefisk has been part of our holiday feast tradition since the Viking Age.

Lutefisk for Christmas DinnerI know what you’re thinking . . . Holy Mother of Snot, what the hell is that? That is the Ghost of Christmas Past. That is the King of the Beige Food Group. That . . . is Lutefisk!

Lutefisk comes from the Old Norse, meaning, Do you feel lucky?  Lutefisk is a Scandinavian delicacy, which we all know is code for “wow, does this suck”. Lutefisk is cod fish that’s been hung on racks and dried in the open air until it resembles fish jerky.  But it’s not done yet.  You might chip a tooth on cod jerky, so you have to soften it up a bit before you can eat it.  So, you reconstitute the cod in lye (yes, the same lye used to make soap, declog drains, and clean ovens).  As your cod soaks in its lye bath, it starts to gelatinize.  And, tiny detail — it’s also poisonous.  To make it edible again, it must be rinsed and soaked in water (that you constantly change) for four to six days.  Four is probably death, so I’d go with six.

Now that your Lutefisk is technically edible, you need to cook it.  Back in St. Olaf, you cooked your lutefisk in big enamel pots in your kitchen.  And because few smells are more offensive than Lutefisk boiling on the stovetop, this is an outstanding way to clear the house of any holiday company that’s on your last good nerve.  Is it really that bad, you ask? Lutefisk will singe your nose hairs — it smells like a dead fish wrapped in a sweaty sock left to ferment in a teenage boy’s bedroom.  Mmmm, Mmmm.

But Lutefisk has evolved.  Now, you can buy Lutefisk in hermetically sealed, microwaveable plastic packages that (more or less) contain the smell.

It’s skinless!  Right, because it’s the skin that would make the dish unappealing.

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If you’re dying to try Lutefisk, you can call the Lutefisk Hotline (I am not making this up) at the Olsen Fish Company in Minneapolis.  The Lutefisk will ship to you packed in dry ice.  Just be sure you’re not out of town when it arrives.  Lutefisk that sits on your front step for 3 days reverts to poisonous.  Been there.  Done that.

The finished Lutefisk has the consistency of Jell-O.  Beige (sometimes gray), fish-flavored Jell-O.  Lutefisk is served over boiled potatoes and covered in a white sauce.  Tip:  don’t ever serve or eat your Lutefisk with Grandma’s Inga’s sterling silver.  The Lutefisk will permanently ruin sterling silver.  Yes, you read that right.  Lutefisk will destroy metal alloys, but don’t let that deter you from eating it.  Dig in!

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Who do we have to blame for Lutefisk?  There are a bunch of stories that float around, but my favorite one says Lutefisk is St. Patrick’s fault.  Once upon a time, Viking raiders were pillaging Ireland (as Vikings do), and St. Patrick thought he’d teach those pesky Vikings a lesson.  So he attempted to poison the Vikings by covering their fish stores with lye.  That’ll teach ’em.  When the Vikings discovered the fish, they dug in (didn’t die) and declared it a delicacy.  It’s a good story, until I ruin it for you and tell you St. Patrick died centuries before the Vikings started plundering northern Europe.

Lutefisk is a dying tradition — today, more Lutefisk is consumed in Wisconsin than Scandinavia.  And now that I’m a grown up, I for sure don’t have Lutefisk on my Christmas table (sorry, dad).  There are many other (delicious) ways I can stay connected to my Nordic heritage.  Ostakaka (a Swedish almond cheesecake with an unfortunate name) will always have a place at my holiday table . . . but that’s a post for another day.

On the years we spend Christmas with my family, Lutefisk is a constant, even comforting presence.  It’s comforting because I know the words are coming . . .

It’s not Christmas until we have Lutefisk.

To humor my dad, and appease the Norse Gods, I have one (and only one) ceremonial bite of Lutefisk.  Honestly, it doesn’t taste like much of anything (other than regret) . . . it’s the texture that will kill you. Oysters and slugs have nothing on lutefisk.  Lutefisk is almost impossible to swallow, because it tries to crawl back up your throat.

Eating a bite of Lutefisk comes down to mind over matter.  Here I am . . . making my mind right.  Please stay down.  Please stay down.  Please stay down.

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wine lutefisk

And what does Lutefisk have to do with wine?  Uff-Da!!

Have you ever tried to pair a wine (any wine) with poisonous soap fish?  It’s no easy task.  We’ve tried Lutefisk with scads of wines over the years.  Red wine and Lutefisk is an abomination.  Champagne and Lutefisk is a waste of Bubbles.  And white wine and Lutefisk is merely a distraction.  The best strategy is to flank the Lutefisk with wine.  Drink a bottle of wine before you eat your Lutefisk, and another bottle or three after.  Or . . . you could go native and have your Lutefisk with Aqavit!

As I write this, my mom and dad are in Germany.  My mom tried to call The Lutefisk Hotline several times before she left, but no one is answering.  Oh no!  What if there’s a Lutefisk shortage?!?  No, no, no.  Pick up the phone!  Pick up the phone!!

It’s not Christmas until we have Lutefisk!

Skål!

P.S.  I’d love to hear about your family holiday traditions.  So finish this sentence:  It’s not Christmas/Hanukkah/Festivus until ____________________.

* This is my entry in the #MWWC5 (Monthly Wine Writing Challenge).  The theme for this month’s challenge is feast.  My brain went like this:  Feast > Vikings > Lutefisk.  Ta-Da!!

29 comments

  1. OMG, that has to be the most unappetizing sounding dish I think I have ever heard of. Reminds me of that movie Babette’s Feast. No thanks, don’t think I could even do one bite. My Mom used to make Calamari in red sauce every Christmas Eve, it wasn’t Christmas Eve without it, I didn’t like it AT ALL and still to this day won’t eat it. A bit rubbery and fishy not appealing at all at least to me. Oh geez, I I think I will have nightmares about lutefisk after reading your post.

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  2. Haha!! I luv it. The post, not the lutefisk. Lutefisk is always in top 5 most disgusting delicacies in the world. I don’t know I this is something to be proud of, but my homeland if the Philippines has the #1 spot for Balut. Duck eggs with partially formed duck fetuses. But at least we don’t save it for Christmas.

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  3. I used to eat it when I was young and didn’t know any better, just thought it was something you had to eat at Christmas. Not any more, now it’s just ostakaka that is a tradition at our house.

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    1. Hey Sue!! Thanks for stopping by! And that’s so funny — lutefisk as something you had to eat at Christmas! :o) I’m starting to get a craving for Ostakaka . . . I’ll see if I can get that post written before Christmas. LOVE that stuff!! Cheers!!

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  4. I’m not sure what it is about traditional Scandinavian foods, or north-west European foods in general, that makes them all so mushy and unappealing. When a trend to eat unappetising foods emerges in a particular location, questions really should be asked. How in the world did things like the following come to become staples of celebratory food days is beyond me: sil, surströmming, lutfisk, blödplattar, svartsoppa, etc. I know it has to do with colonisation, historical trends of importing and exporting, etc., but still, how could people at any point in time enjoy something like rotting fish (surströmming)?

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  5. Wow… I can’t say that you sold me on ever trying Lutefisk. I knew it wasn’t appetizing but I had no idea how disgusting until reading your description! But the Polish pottery plate is pretty! I don’t know what tradition I would point to for Christmas. I suppose the opening of one gift (and only one) on Christmas Eve.

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    1. You can live a VERY full and complete life without ever trying Lutefisk! I have a ton of Polish pottery . . . I went through a phase a few years ago! We have the one gift on Xmas Eve tradition, too. Usually a book for everyone to leaf through . . . Salud!

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  6. Never heard of lutefisk, but Aquavit tops my list of most terrible spirits ever (well, it might be the only one in that category), so based on your description, if you manage to combine lutefisk and aquavit in a single bite, they might just cancel each other : )

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  7. Never heard of lutefish and now can be fairly confident that I will go to my grave without eating any (rather than because of eating some). That texture thing gets me every time – the only things I really hate are okra and a slimy Middle Eastern spinachy thing called Mulokhia (and you pronounce the word as though you were vomiting it up).
    Do watch Babette’s Feast – it’s a fantastic movie.

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    1. I do love okra . . . not sure why, but the slime doesn’t bug me when it’s okra. Fish slime = BAD, though! I’ve never heard of Mulokhia, but will tuck that knowledge away in case I ever need it to win Final Jeopardy! Cheers!!

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  8. I for one, happen to love it during the holidays rolled up in lefse with salt and melted butter – mmm.

    Cooking directions are key so that it’s flakey instead of jellied.

    Boil salted water, add salted lutefisk and bring back to a rolling boil. Remove from heat, put a lid on the pot for for 5-6 MINUTES and then it’s flakey.

    Cooking it too long and it turns to absolute JELLO.

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