Love at first bite?
Is there a more polarizing dish in Norwegian-American cuisine than lutefisk?
CHRISTY OLSEN FIELD
Taste of Norway Editor
I have a secret to tell you.
I just tried lutefisk. For the first time. Ever.
This is an embarrassing (and perhaps shocking) admission by the Taste of Norway Editor for The Norwegian American. Especially because I’m an adventurous eater, and I’ve worked professionally in the Norwegian-American community for 12+ years.
But I didn’t grow up with it at my family’s Christmas dinners, and I have never been to a Sons of Norway lutefisk dinner. Lutefisk was only something I heard about in Stan Boreson songs and jokes.
I’ve been curious about it, especially because people who I know and love have a fondness for this classic dish, so it couldn’t be that bad, right?
I decided that this would be the year I would try it, even though most lutefisk dinners are canceled this year.
But what exactly IS lutefisk, and why is it so maligned?
For the uninitiated, lutefisk dates to the Middle Ages and is codfish that has been dried. The dried cod is then put in a lye solution to preserve it and reconstitute its flakiness. The lutefisk is soaked in water to remove the lye, then cooked. The name roughly translates to “fish washed in lye.” In the entry on lutefisk history on the website What’s Cooking America, it reads: “Today the fish is celebrated in ethnic and religious celebrations and is linked with hardship and courage.”
Hardship and courage, indeed.
Why is it so maligned? Some find the scent to be off-putting; others dread the sometimes gelatin-like texture; and many are turned off by the combination of lye and fish.
But why do people love lutefisk so much, despite those attributes?
It was time to do some research. I wrote on my Facebook page: “Any lutefisk lovers among my Facebook friends? I’m working on an article and I need some input from people who actually like it.”
The responses were delightful, coming from people all over the United States and Norway, even from people who don’t have Norwegian heritage. There was some good-natured ribbing:
“No, nope, nope, nope.”
“Eh, might sign up for the sursild article instead.”
“I kind of like it?”
“No, no, no!”
“Sorry… I’ll need a few more decades.”
“The lutefisk tacos in Poulsbo are awesome!”
My friend Tom Heavey of Tacoma, Wash., shared his 12-step program to become a lutefisk lover: “The first year, you take one bite. The second year, you take two bites. The third year, you take three, which is really an accomplishment, because then you know you have gotten over your gag reflex. By the fourth year, you’ll love it!”
“I’m the only one of 16 grandkids who likes it,” said my friend Stephanie Button, from Kennewick, Wash. She learned to like it on a saltine cracker smeared with butter, with fresh cracked pepper on top.
Al Meyer of Owantanna, Minn., told me: “I grew up in a German background family, and I didn’t ever have lutefisk until I married my wife. For me, it was love at first bite. Only my brother-in-law can out-eat me.”
“I grew up never knowing it was an option not to like it… My dad loved it so much, so I suppose his lutefisk enthusiasm was a guiding force,” said MaryAnn Anderson of Minneapolis. She makes it every year for her family and recommends serving it with a good shot of Linie aquavit.
Friends offered to connect me to their lutefisk-loving grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. As I conducted my research by phone calls, emails, and texting, I gathered four categories of preparation:
1. Boiled in salted water, typically in cheesecloth so it doesn’t disintegrate
2. Baked in the oven in a covered dish at 400°F
3. Roasted on a broiling pan at 400°F
Because cod is naturally low in fat, lutefisk is served with a rich topping, typically melted butter or bacon pieces with the drippings drippings (a wonderful idea from my friend Anne Lise Berger in Seattle), and some serve it with a cream sauce. Side dishes include lefse, mashed or boiled potatoes, rotmos (root vegetable mash), sometimes coleslaw, sometimes gravy, sometimes ertestuing (stewed green peas).
It was time to make it in my own kitchen. I headed to Scandinavian Specialties in Seattle, my trusted purveyor of all things Nordic. They had frozen pieces in 2½-pound packages of Poulsbo Lutefisk from New Day Fisheries in Port Townsend, Wash. It’s made with North Pacific cod, but they don’t share their lutefisk curing technique.
I put the frozen lutefisk to thaw in the fridge, and then I left it there. For seven days. Every time I opened the fridge, it was a glaring reminder that I needed to try it, and I got anxious. Then I completely wimped out and put it back in the freezer for another week.
Finally, I found my courage to try it. I let it thaw again overnight in the fridge, cut it into five pieces, lightly salted it, and baked it at 400°F for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, I fried up some bacon, and melted butter with some freshly chopped chives so we could sample it both ways.
I brought it over to the table with trepidation. I served a piece to my husband, Carl, and to myself.
I tried cutting it with my fork.
“This… cannot possibly be right,” I said.
“Yeah, one bite is enough for me,” Carl agreed as he gingerly pushed his plate away. This is a man who is up for trying any kind of food.
There was no off-putting smell, but the texture was rubbery yet brittle at the same time, like a scrubbing pad for washing dishes.
My deadline was coming, and I knew I needed to try again. I went back for another 2.5-pound piece of lutefisk at Scandinavian Specialties.
“Do you have any smaller pieces?” I asked the cashier.
“No, I’m sorry,” she said sympathetically. “The fresh lutefisk will be in stock in December.”
I inwardly groaned but took my intimidatingly large piece of lutefisk home to thaw.
This time, I did not delay. I decided on three preparations: Baked in a baking dish covered with foil for 15 minutes at 400°F, roasted on a baking sheet for 15 minutes at 400°F, and boiled in salted water on the stove.
While the fish was cooking, I fried up a half pound of bacon, and melted butter with minced fresh chives.
After making test plates, Carl and I did another round of tastings.
All three preparations were simple and straightforward. It flaked nicely, though not like fresh fish, but it certainly didn’t have the jiggling jello-like texture that I had been warned about. Also, it didn’t stink at all, like I had been prepared for.
The verdict? Not bad at all!
Much to my shock, I preferred the taste and texture of the boiling method, and Carl liked the baked approach. The bacon drippings and melted chive butter were delicious and added a much-needed richness to the dish.
The biggest surprise: My 6-year-old son Carl V, who has strong opinions about food and has never tried any seafood beyond salmon, absolutely loved it. He declared it to taste like salmon (which is not true), and he liked it with bacon on top. He ate more than I did! My 3-year-old son Bjorn walked by the dinner table and said, “What’s that? Chicken?”
So, was it worth it? Sure. Did I prepare another dinner for my family beforehand in case this taste-testing went poorly? I certainly did. Will I make lutefisk again? Well…
This was not a comprehensive testing for lutefisk, and I’m not ready to give up yet. Next year, I hope lutefisk dinners will be open so I could try it made by the pros. Or get together with my friends who make lutefisk every year. Or maybe I’ll try to make it from scratch with the lye!
But more urgently: What could I do with the leftover lutefisk from this taste-testing?
For that, I take inspiration from my Seattle friend Jill Wasberg, who is half-Korean and half-Swede Finn, and a terrific cook. She grew up with lutefisk for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner at her grandparents’ house.
She shared this with me: “On Christmas Eve as a kid, I just ate it to make the elders happy, and it was a requirement to eat just even a little in order for any kids to get their presents. On Christmas morning, however, I would mix leftover lutefisk, Swedish meatballs, and even pickled beets from Christmas Eve dinner in a bowl with rice, kimchi, and whatever banchan my mom had in the fridge. She would fry an egg for me and put it on top of this bowl of Swede-Korean bibimbap. I’d also take spoonfuls of the rice bowl mix and fold them into squares of seaweed.”
As a lover of kimchi and Korean food myself, I can say that this lutefisk-Korean rice bowl is my favorite preparation yet.
Whether microwaved or served at a 25-person Christmas Eve dinner, lutefisk is a tradition that connects so many of us to Norwegian heritage, especially at the holidays.
What’s your favorite way to enjoy lutefisk? Any special lutefisk memories? I’d love to hear from you. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.