HOFFSTEDT: The dreaded Christmas tradition of lutefisk

The Scandinavian delicacy known as lutefisk — which means, literally, “cod soaked in plutonium" — dates to the Viking era.
Dec 10, 2013

Journals from that era tell us that Vikings often came ashore in their strange garments and even stranger language.

These things frightened the locals. So, one day, women from some of the local families prepared a special meal for the Vikings. First, they gathered cod in the traditional Scandinavian way — by fishing. After gathering the cod — despite what I said earlier — they did not soak the fish in plutonium. No, the women really wanted the Vikings to suffer, so they soaked the cod (here I am not kidding) in lye. The same lye, as you know, that is an industrial chemical and in use today as a drain cleaner. 

In order to keep the lutefisk in storage for the long winter months, it was then sun-dried usually on their roofs to prevent theft, which never happened. Older folks who could not climb up on their roofs were forced to sun-dry theirs on the ground around their cottages. 

Myth has it that the best lutefisk was the one that had been anointed by the local dogs and cats. After the lutefisk was sun-dried, it took on the looks and feel of barn wood. It was occasionally used to patch leaky roofs. Some were able to dry theirs in an arc so it could be used as wagon wheels. 

Anyway, the Vikings ate heartily of the marvelous new food, despite having to chew so hard and long on the rubbery fish that, in many cases, horns actually grew out of their heads. (See your encyclopedia.)

Text books tell us that within a few years the Viking era had ended. Most historians think the advent of more powerful weapons doomed the proud, sea-faring warriors. But some historians cling to another theory: It’s pretty hard to wander the globe plundering and pillaging when you cannot wander more than 50 feet from an outhouse. 

Despite this somewhat negative side effect, lutefisk became popular with the residents of the Scandinavian countries. This would include Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Minnesota. 

In the centuries since, lutefisk has not only remained a crowd pleaser among the Scandinavian people, it has also become important in the training of sled dogs. Today, a common cry from the musher on the sled — one that causes even a veteran dog to quiver — is, “Vich vun of you mutts vants da lutefisk?”

When I was a child, lutefisk was always served at Christmas. They said that we did this in honor of our Scandinavian ancestors, not because we liked it.

I knew Christmas was coming when I saw my dad soaking it for days to get out the lye. It was then cooked in water and spices. We were entering the purgatory of lutefisk. It was served with a cream sauce that was used to help make a piece of lutefisk seem like something other than what it was — a repulsive, gelatinous fish-like dish that tasted soapy and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. 

I always dreaded as Christmas approached, knowing this dreaded delicacy would be put before me, and I was told, “Just have a little.” I held my nose, took a small bite and pushed the plate away.

“I’m done,” I replied. I had satisfied my ancestors.

Do we eat it today in our family? Not on your life! When our parents departed for Valhalla, so did the lutefisk. 

This is one tradition I’m happy to see disappear into the dust bin of history.

— By Richard Hoffstedt, Tribune community columnist


Cycle Guy

All the stereo types about lutefisk. I grew up in a Norwegian home. I did not like lutefisk as a child but I enjoy it now. I look forward to the annual lutefisk dinner at the Sons of Norway Lodge in Muskegon. We Norwegians eat it with melted butter. Mmmmmmmmmm!

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