Season for Lutefisk

Lutefisk: Love it or Loathe it!
By Sam Johnson

     It's one of those issues that defines a person, that reveals the truth about their character, their very being.

     There is no hazy gray area to hide in, no muddled middle ground. Feelings are strong and decisive.

     To know where a person stands on this issue is to know the very essence of that person, for it brings out the best or the worst in them.

     I'm talking about lutefisk.

     People either love it, or they hate it. There are no two ways about it.

I bring this up now for a couple reasons:

1). We are just beginning "the lutefisk season," and

2). I have to spend way too much time defending this delicious Norwegian delicacy from the jokes and digs of the unenlightened, uninformed, uncouth barbarians (mostly non-Scandinavians, such as the Irish, Italians, Germans -- especially Germans from Russia) who have nothing better to do than spend their spare time writing nasty little ditties about the "king of all the fishes" sung to the tune of "O Tannenbaum."

   You know the songs:

"O lutefisk, O lutefisk

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How fragrant your aroma.

O lutefisk, O lutefisk

You put me in a coma.

You smell so strong, you look like glue

You taste just like an overshoe;

O lutefisk don't you suppose

I might eat you if I hold my nose."

     Now I realize "lutefisk" doesn't actually sound like a tasty dish.
     This is because most people mis-pronounce it.
     It's not "LOOT-Fish," but "LOO-TA-Fisk."

     That sounds better already, doesn't it?

     And when I describe what lutefisk is made from (lute=lye and fisk=fish) well, that really seems to deter people from giving it a taste. Go figure.

     I made this mistake a couple years ago when I took Emily, (our "Aussie daughter") to the St. Olaf's Lutefisk feed, an annual event much anticipated by local Scandinavians and lovers of lutefisk. 

     Emily was foreign exchange student from Australia. She's from the land where they hunt crocodiles, snakes and sharks, box with kangaroos, and snuggle with koalas. (Don't say "koala bear," around an Aussie though, because koalas are not bears!).

     I tried to explain to her that lutefisk is the North Dakota state dish, much like "wallaby stew" where she's from. 

     Then she asked me what it's made of and how it's eaten....

     I should have lied about the lye.

     But Emily is "True Blue," and she gave it a go. To her credit she ate a whole fork full without gagging! (I had to finish the rest).

     Had I only told her lutefisk was like jello, she might have tasted it objectively. But I forgot to lie about the lye. I made the same mistake with Vladimir Krotov, a Russian teacher we also hosted one year. I figured anyone who eats black sturgeon eggs could stomach lutefisk.

     I was wrong.

     Anyway, it was after I related our lutefisk adventure and described the details of the delicious St. Olaf Lutefisk feed to some colleagues, that I discovered how strongly people feel about lutefisk. They either love it or hate it, and they don't hesitate to tell you which.

     I knew that not everyone has a craving for this culinary delight. Afterall, like other fine foods, lutefisk requires an acquired or developed taste. But I was surprised at the strong reaction against lutefisk. ("Acquired taste?  Ha!  To be able to eat lutefisk it takes forced feedings from birth!").

     While I knew that not all Norwegians or American-Norwegians are devotees of the "yiggly stuff,"  (a small number of Norskfolk claim lutefisk to be an out-and-out national disgrace), I was shocked to find these, of all people, openly ridiculing this Scandinavian specialty and participating in what I call "lutefisk lampooning."

     Why, by the end of the week I bet I'd heard every disgusting lutefisk joke, poem or song in existence, and many of them passed along to me by a Nordman!

     For instance, take this one given to me by a lutefisk-leering Norskie who didn't hasten to come out of the closet--


'Twas the night before Christmas with all things a bustle

As Mama got set for the Christmas Eve tussle.

Aunts, uncles and cousins would soon be arriving

With stomachs all ready for Christmas Eve dining.

But I sat alone with a feeling of dread

For visions of lutefisk danced in my head.

The thought of the smell made my eyeballs start burning,

The thought of the taste set my stomach to churning,

For I was a boy who good Swedes and Norse rebuff,

A Scandahoovian who can't stand the stuff!

     And this is just the tip of the fish! I'm sure I have enough material to put together a book that could be called "Lambasting the Lutefisk."

     But be assured that not all the poems and songs passed on to me have been so scathing. 

     A few were given to me by true lutefisk aficionados who really know a good thing when they taste it. Like so many, this one is also sung to the tune of "O Tannenbaum." 

     I think I'll use it as the lead piece in my book titled "Loving Lutefisk:"


O Lutefisk, how we love thee,

The King of all the fishes!

Thy flaky flesh soaked soft in butter,

How fragrant and delicious!

We wait each year for thy return,

With watering mounts and tongues that yearn--

We do adore you Lutefisk,

You're more divine than mortal!

     Other submissions to either "Lambasting Lutefisk" or "Loving Lutefisk" are welcomed, and credit (or discredit) will be given accordingly.

     Send your submission to: