Lutefisk for Christmas

lutefisk for Christmas - Sunnie

Photo courtesy of Arlene Sundquist Empie

Stanwood, Wash.

Uff da! Shocking news in a city with a substantial population of Nordic descendants. Front-page story, Seattle P-I, Dec. 17, 2001: “No lye: Lutefisk is off the menu this Christmas.” The editor of The Western Viking newspaper wrote, “The Norwegian community is in a state of shock.”  

I was hosting my nonagenarian aunts and several cousins for lutefisk dinner within days, so I hastened to Whole Foods, the nearest grocer, who emphatically informed me: “No, they would not be carrying lutefisk. It is toxic!”  What!!!

I rushed to Ballard and joined a long line of customers at the Scan-dinavian Specialties store. Others had read or heard the same devastating news, but a jovial mood came over the crowd once we learned that the store had an ample supply of lutefisk. I inquired of the manager: “Would lutefisk spoil if I purchased it five days ahead of my party?” My question elicited comments and laughter rippled through the line as someone declared: “I thought it was already rotten!”  

One thing for certain: lutefisk prompts animated discussions. You either love it or hate it: Both sides are adamant; there is no middle ground. The alien family in-laws or outlaws find it peculiar and not only turn up their collective noses; their reactions can be downright abusive. “It’s the odor; it stinks!” “The texture is like “Jell-O.” Notwithstanding the caustic soaking that vexes some diners. The rest of us sing “O Lutefisk. O Lutefisk. Now everyone discovers, Dat Lutefisk and lefse makes Scandahoovians better lovers.” Ja!

The annual lutefisk dinner at Sons of Norway Fritjov lodge in Stanwood always sells out early. Because of pandemic restrictions 2020, Fritjov Lodge in Stanwood canvassed members: “Would you have interest in a take-out lutefisk dinner?” A resounding JA! The lodge volunteer chefs SOLD 90 dinners! We missed the camaraderie at the usual gathering, but could again privately say, “Lutefisk, lutefisk, Ja, Ja, Ja! Lutefisk, lutefisk, takk skal du ha!”

The joking is clearly an American twist. In many households in my grandparents’ homeland, lutefisk remains synonymous with jul celebration. While not everyone eats it, most consider lutefisk a culinary necessity, not a luxury. From my perspective, it is part of our DNA—an annual yearning within that those of Nordic heritage must heed. 

As with most traditions, the one thing we can count on is change. In the early 1900s, Grandma began a month ahead to transform dried cod into a platter of steaming lutefisk on the farmhouse kitchen table, a century later preparation might take eight to 10 minutes.  

In any case, my best advice is to place your order early and order plenty. And don’t forget the pickled herring as an appetizer. I remember Grandma sitting on the woodbox by the kitchen stove, and I can hear Grandma’s voice singing over the generations: “Nu är det jul igen.” Now it is jul again. Christmas isn’t Christmas, jul isn’t jul for Americans of Nordic ancestry without this fabulous fish on the menu. 

Lutefisk, lutefisk, Ja, ja, ja! Lutefisk, lutefisk, takk skal du ha! We will again toast skål! to this year’s lutefisk and unequivocally exclaim: “This is the best we have ever tasted.”

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.