“The Great Lutefisk Mystery,” solved

The nutritional reasoning behind Norway’s most famous (or infamous) food explained

Photo: Adam_d / Wikimedia Commons
Lutefisk for sale in Norway in 2006.

Terje Birkedal
Anchorage, Alaska

Though Norwegian Americans practically define who they are through the eating of lutefisk during the Christmas season, I have found to my surprise that the vast majority of Norwegian Americans know nothing about the practical reasons behind the making and eating of lutefisk. When you ask them why Norwegians prepare and eat this unusual dish, most just stare blankly back at you with silly grins on their faces—it is clear they just eat it because that is what most Norwegian Americans do at Christmastime. Others, slightly more informed, eagerly begin to tell you tall tales and goofy stories about its origins that they heard when they were kids.

Last year, as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, I thought I would write something about lutefisk in our newsletter in advance of our annual lutefisk dinner at Viking Hall. The existence of lutefisk and the reverence that Norwegian Americans accord it sparked my fascination with (but not taste for) the food.

For a coastal Stavanger boy, lutefisk was mandags mat (Monday’s food), not something you celebrate as verdens beste fisk (the world’s best fish). So I delved into the mystery and was aided in my search by Eva Bilet and Marit Kristiansen, two of our most informed members on all things Norwegian. Well, we scoured the internet and learned a few things, but came up empty as to the practical benefits of preparing and eating lutefisk.

What we did come up with were repeated stories about the Irish putting lye in the Vikings’ fish barrels to poison them and how the Vikings found that lye-poisoned fish was to their liking. Then there was the common story of the Lofoten fisherman whose fish shed burned down, and he found he liked the ash-covered fish he retrieved after the fire burned out. The amazing thing is that these bogus origin stories are often believed by Norwegian Americans to be true accounts of the origin of lutefisk.

We also learned why lutefisk is so important to Norwegian Americans. Most of the immigrants to America from Norway were from the inner valleys where fresh ocean fish was not easily available. For them re-hydrated stockfish (wind-dried cod) was a delicacy associated with Christmas feasting. Lutefisk was closely tied to happy times with a full stomach and family. When large quantities of stockfish became commercially available to Norwegian immigrants toward the end of the nineteenth century, many of them jumped at the chance to re-connect with their childhood memories and their beloved homeland through the eating of lutefisk, especially during the Christmas season.

When being a Norwegian American wasn’t so popular in the xenophobic early part of the twentieth century, lutefisk eating also became a way of fighting back against the prejudice. Being stubborn Norwegians, many made a point of eating more of the strangely prepared fish to show they were proud of their heritage. “I eat lutefisk because I am a Norwegian; and am a Norwegian because I eat lutefisk,” you might hear Ole or Sven saying at the Christmas church dinner. This enthusiastic lutefisk-eating tradition was passed on to the children and the children’s children; and it is still very strong today. Whether they love it or hate it; eating that white gelatinous fish brings back happy memories and reaffirms the Norwegian heritage of which they are so proud.

But why did this tradition of making and eating lutefisk begin in the first place? Norwegians are a practical people and would not blindly start eating fish the Irish had allegedly poisoned with lye or that they found in a burned-out fish shed. Norwegians are not that stupid! There had to be practical benefits behind the making and eating of lutefisk.

For the past year, I have searched for an answer and, for the most part, run into countless dead ends. I consulted a book dedicated to lutefisk, which I found in Ballard, called The Last Word on Lutefisk: True Tales of Cod and Tradition by Gary Legwold. But it wasn’t the last word; I just found more silly origin stories. I asked Norwegian friends and relatives in Norway, and this time I heard for the second time the story about the Scotch, not the Irish, poisoning of the Vikings. I corresponded with some of Norway’s top fisheries scientists in Tromsø, Norway, who work with lutefisk, and even they did not know the answer. I wrote a half a dozen Scandinavian Studies professors in the U.S. I asked experts in the Norwegian Folk Museums. I even wrote the Swedish Folk Museum in Stockholm promising them credit over their Norwegian colleagues if they revealed the mystery.

Most of my passionate inquiries were met with silence. Either they did not know the answer and were too ashamed to admit it, or they brushed me off as just another Norwegian-American lutefisk nut. In the end, two kind and generous scholars sent me answers to my persistent questions. One was Kathleen Stokker, Professor Emeritus of Scandinavian Studies at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. The other was Kari-Anne Pedersen, Curator at the Norsk Folkemuseum, Oslo, Norway. And I also have to credit Pedersen’s boss, Morton Bing, leader of the Culture History section of the Norsk Folkemuseum, who took my query seriously and referred my email to Kari-Anne Pedersen of his staff. Both Professor Stokker and Curator Pedersen independently gave me the same answer as to the practical benefits of making and eating lutefisk.

So here is the answer to what I started calling in my frustration “The Great Lutefisk Mystery”:

First, soaking dried, unsalted stockfish (“tørrfisk”) in a lye solution (traditionally wood ashes mixed in water) is a very efficient way to reconstitute the fish. The Southern European method of re-hydrating dried fish is to beat it first with a hammer and then soak it for days in water, a much more labor-intensive and lengthy process compared to the Norwegian technique of soaking the stockfish in a lye bath.

The reason the fish is dried in the first place is to preserve it; tørrfisk, if kept dry, can be stored for years and yet keep its full nutrition. Before the days of refrigeration and cheap salt, preserving fish required a lot of ingenuity. By drying cod in the cold, windy spring days of Northern Norway the fish loses all the moisture that makes it attractive to bacterial attack. Also, the drying process reduces the fish to one-fifth its original size, which makes it easy to store and transport. Yet, once the stockfish had finished soaking in its lye bath, this hard, dried fish would plump up to a size even greater than the original living fish.

The second reason behind the lye treatment is nutrition. The lye breaks down the protein in the fish into amino acids that are easily absorbed by the small intestine. Usually ingested proteins need to be broken into amino acid molecules in the stomach. It’s because of this protein breakup that lutefisk acquires its characteristic gelatinous, jelly-like texture. It is essentially pre-digested by the lye treatment and transformed into a highly edible, digestible, and nutritious food package that delivers nearly instant energy to the eater. What is remarkable is that no nutrients are lost in this process and all the calories and vitamins are delivered intact and efficiently to the body (about 79 calories per 100 grams [3.5 oz.] of fish).

So how did a bunch of Nordic farmer-fishermen figure this all out? They were not chemists or food scientists, but they were good observers and learners from experience. When they ate lutefisk they felt good and full after the meal. The same people quickly adopted the very nutritious potato in the early nineteenth century and made it their own within a very short span of time.

It is actually quite common in history for ordinary people to make good food decisions that benefit their lives. For example, indigenous peoples of the U.S. and Mexico soaked their dry corn kernels in a solution of lye (again wood ashes in water) or slaked lime to make hominy. Not only did this process bulk up the corn kernel, it also increased the calcium in the corn, but most importantly it freed the niacin (Vitamin B-3) so that it could be absorbed by the intestines. People who base their diet on untreated corn are at risk for the chronic and debilitating disease known as pellagra because untreated corn does not release its niacin when it passes through the body.

Curator Kari-Anne Pederson of the Norsk Folkemuseum emphasized that soaking the stockfish in lye had nothing to do with preserving the re-constituted fish. This practice would indeed inhibit bacterial growth in the lutefisk, but she stressed that the re-hydrated lutefisk was not stored for any length of time in old Norway. In the old days each family would store its bark-like stockfish in big bundles in a dry part of the house or in a shed. When the time came to eat lutefisk they would begin the soaking process and eat the fish right away when it was ready.

The making and consumption of lutefisk is an old practice in Norway, and also in neighboring Sweden and Finland, and this method of preparing stockfish may even date to well before the Viking Age. We know for certain from early writings that the making and consumption of lutefisk was widespread by at least the late Medieval Period and the practice continued to be popular well into the nineteenth century. Unlike among Norwegian Americans in the United States, its popularly waned among Scandinavians in the twentieth century, for it began to be considered an old-fashioned peasant food, associated with poverty and want. In the last couple of decades, however, lutefisk has been undergoing a revival as a worthy, honored traditional food in Scandinavia, and more and more people are beginning to eat it again, but not quite with the worshipful excitement of Norwegian Americans.

According to Professor Stokker there is also another difference between Norwegians and Norwegian Americans in their lutefisk traditions. She says that unlike Norwegian Americans, Norwegians have not developed the self-depreciating humor that is closely associated with the eating of lutefisk in the United States. This humor includes many jokes about its terrible smell and taste. One of the most common of these jokes is that the special taste of lutefisk comes from the accidental or purposeful addition of dog urine. Many examples of this unique and plentiful lutefisk humor can be found in Gary Legwold’s book The Last Word on Lutefisk: True Tales of Cod and Tradition. In Professor Stokker’s book, Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land, she suggests that this depreciatory humor helped Norwegian Americans in the first half of the twentieth century cope with disapproval from the dominant Yankee society that surrounded them. She notes that the Norwegians in Norway, on the other hand, did not have to contend with any hostility to their eating customs and thus never developed a similar body of humor over the consumption of lutefisk.

In the end, I want to stress that I did not solve the “The Great Lutefisk Mystery;” I just found the people who knew the answer as to the practical benefits of making and eating lutefisk. We will probably never know when or how the practice actually began.

If you want to learn more about lutefisk and the history of Norwegian traditional foods please get hold of Professor Kathleen Stokker’s book, Keeping Christmas: Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 16, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Terje Birkedal

Terje G. Birkedal was born in Stavanger, Norway, in 1946. He immigrated to the U.S. as a child and grew up in Colorado. After earning a Ph.D. in Anthropology he served as an archeologist with the National Park Service for 36 years. He has conducted fieldwork in Alaska, the American South and Southwest, Canada, the Great Plains, Guam, and Norway. He served five years as President of Sons of Norway Bernt Balchen Lodge in Anchorage, Alaska, and he has always been passionate about Norwegian prehistory, history, and culture.