Scandinavians Enjoy Their Fall Lutefisk!
By Sam Johnson
There were several hundred people at St. Olaf Lutheran Church last Sunday either seated comfortably in the pews waiting their turn, or already at the dinning tables, enjoying the unique aroma and taste of a very special dinner.
Some had been there an hour or so, but no one was cranky or restless.
And even though several hundred had already gone before, no one worried, no one panicked. Everyone knew their turn would come and there would be plenty of the “yiggly stuff” left.
What kind of dinner, you ask, would bring out so many people to wait so patiently for so long?
Why, it’s that delicious Norwegian delicacy, the “king of fishes” – lutefisk!
Now it is true that not everyone craves this culinary delight. After all, like other fine foods, it requires an acquired or developed taste (some would say forced feedings from birth).
And it is also true that not all Norwegian or Norwegian-Americans are devotees of the “fish that passeth all understanding.”
Some consider it a national disgrace while others (mostly non-Scandinavians, such as the Germans), turn up their nose at it and tell disgusting jokes, some you’ve no doubt heard, such as how lutefisk got its yellow color.
To the real lutefisk aFISHionados, it is a national treasure claimed by many Scandinavians (the Swedes call it lutfisk and say they ate it first, the Danes call it ludefisk and say they invented it, the Finns call it lipeäkala or livekala and claim to make it best).
But to the hundreds of people served at St. Olaf’s “Lutefisk and Meatball Supper” last Sunday, an annual event served by the St. Olaf Men’s Club for the benefit of the Thrivent Financial Services for Lutherans, it was a delectable feast and well worth the wait.
Lutefisk is, after all, a “speciality” dish. Traditionally served in Norway for special occasions, lutefisk is made from dried cod (torsk or torrfisk) treated in a weak lye solution made from boiled birch ash. Lutefisk literally means “lye fish.”
In days of old, Scandinavian fishermen would spend the summer months fishing for the cod, then lay it out on special racks to dry for use during the cold winter months. In winter, the housewife would soak the dried cod up to two weeks in the lye solution to soften it properly before cooking.
Now, slippery jello-like chunks of lutefisk can be purchased in most stores ready to be cooked with no additional soaking or preparation.
Lutefisk is traditionally served in Norway with stewed yellow peas and boiled potatoes with either melted port fat, melted butter, or cream poured over it.
Here in America where people of Scandinavian descent fraternize, the lutefisk dinner is also a special event and generally served in the fall for special occasions such as Thanksgiving, jul (Christmas) or syttende mai (Norwegian Independence day, May 17th).
But we serve it with corn or green peas, boiled potatoes, meatballs and gravy, and plenty of lefse or flatbread. And it’s not unusual to see the real lutefisk lovers take a huge sheet of lefse, spread pieces of lutefisk and boiled potato on it, douse it in melted butter and maybe add a sprinkle or two of sugar, then roll it all up and eat it like a Norwegian burrito.
No matter how it is eaten though, the lutefisk dinner is always a special event and becomes a catalyst for conviviality and fond memories.
“You know,” one lady said, “whenever I eat lutefisk, it reminds me of a cold winter’s day when I was younger, coming home and finding Mom at the stove boiling lutefisk and making lefse on her grill. It’s a nice memory.”
That started a string of fun stories and remembrances all involving lutefisk and loved ones.
It’s no wonder that lutefisk lovers turn out in hundreds for the St. Olaf lutefisk supper, and patiently wait their turn, for there is something special about lutefisk as indicated in that famous verse from the “Hymn to the Lutefisk” (tune: “O Tannenbaum”) written by one lutefisk lover and recorded in the Viking sagas of old:
O Lutefisk, how we love thee,
The King of all the fishes!
Thy flaky flesh soaked soft in lye,
How fragrant and delicious!
We wait each year for thy return,
With watering mouths and tongues that yearn –
We do adore you Lutefisk,
You’re more divine than mortal!
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