Lutefisk: Now an American tradition?
October 22, 2013
To this day, Vikings are touted as being some of the original tough guys. This may be because one of the favorite traditional foods of Norwegians — and especially Norwegian-Americans — is something called lutefisk.
Quite simply, lutefisk is cod prepared with lye. Yes, we're talking about the chemical associated with unclogging drains and often labeled "handle with care."
Lutefisk is noted — if not feared — for its pungent odor and flavor. It easily qualifies as "an acquired taste." But it's not a universally accepted taste.
Many Norwegians smile and say, "No thanks" when offered a serving. However, the largest worldwide consumption is by Norwegian-Americans with a Minneapolis fish supplier selling thousands of pounds per year.
So why has this strange, alleged delicacy remained popular in certain circles? The main reason appears to be the upholding of Scandinavian tradition.
Many Norwegian-American families consider a lutefisk dinner one of the best ways to recognize and honor their immigrant forebears. Scandinavian fraternal organizations based throughout the United States often hold lutefisk events.
Grass Valley's Sons of Norway Gulldalen Lodge served lutefisk during a Christmas dinner not too long ago.
There are various stories surrounding lutefisk's origin but its main initial purpose was as a method of preserving food to last all winter.
One popular legend has it that as Viking raiders approached Ireland, St. Patrick attempted to poison them by offering lye-drenched fish.
Rather than kill them, the Vikings delighted in the delicacy and asked for more.
Although almost any fish can be used to make lutefisk, codfish is the first choice. In Norway, split cod is hung on outdoor racks and allowed to dry to a leathery texture.
The dried fish must, of course, be reconstituted before eating, but merely adding water won't work. The fish is first soaked in water for five or six days with the water being changed daily. The saturated fish is then soaked in a lye solution for an additional two days. The fish swells during this step and takes on its jelly-like consistency.
After thorough repeated rinsings, the "luted" fish is ready for freezing or cooking. The lye does leave a distinct ashy taste, and some fish smell remains.
Cooking lutefisk calls for close attention. Lutefisk can be prepared either in hot water on a stovetop or by baking. However, there is a caution in its preparation — water is the enemy of lutefisk. Too much water and the fish turns into a gelatinous mess.
On stovetops, keep the water hot but not boiling. Steep for about 5 to 10 minutes. The water must be quickly and totally drained off when the fish is done. You want a fish texture that is flaky yet firm. Baking can be done using a foil wrap.
Salt the fish, wrap, bake for about 40 minutes in a 350-degree Fahrenheit oven. Serving lutefisk calls for plenty of melted butter with side dishes of mashed rutabagas, coleslaw and stewed peas. Few people make lutefisk at home these days, preferring instead to buy frozen slabs from a store.
Gulldalen Lodge will not be serving lutefisk during its annual Viking Fair from 10 to 3 p.m. Saturday at the Nevada County Fairgrounds, Gate 2. Parking is free.
However, many Norwegian foods and baked goods will be available together with food demonstrations. You may even have an opportunity to chat with a lodge member about his or her growing up dining on lutefisk — and surviving.
Penn Valley resident Max Fenson is a member of the Sons of Norway Gulldalen Lodge.