Lutefisk: A Strange and Beloved Tradition

lutefisk_junkie_mugWhether you love it or you hate it, lutefisk is a closely held tradition among Scandinavian- Americans. A wintertime rite of passage among many Sons of Norway lodges, lutefisk dinners remain a popular and important means of connecting with Nordic culture and heritage. But how did something as bizarre as fish treated with lye become such a cultural icon? Read on to learn more about this notorious Scandinavian food.

Unknown Origins
While no one is certain how or where lutefisk originated—whether in Sweden or Norway— there are a couple of legends regarding its creation. The first suggests that early Viking fishermen hung their cod, an invaluable source of protein for the winter months, to dry on tall birch racks. In a skirmish with neighboring Vikings, the racks of fish were burned but a rainstorm blew in and doused the fire. Left to soak in rainwater and birch ash for months, the reconstituted fish was later discovered by some hungry Vikings who ate it. The second less plausible tale of lutefisk’s origins describes a lye-poisoning attempt on Viking raiders by St. Patrick in Ireland. According to legend, St. Patrick served the raiders lye-soaked fish in the hopes of dispatching them, however the raiders enjoyed the fish and beheld it as a delicacy. Although an entertaining story, the lifetime of St. Patrick precedes known Viking activity in Ireland by more than three centuries.

What is known is that lutefisk gained its popularity in the U.S. after a sharp increase in Scandinavian immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Originally a food born out of poverty, descendants of immigrants now view it as a connection to their ancestors and their heritage. “These dinners represent important traditions in both families and communities, and for some, they are a valued connection to culture and heritage. While the food tradition certainly originated in Scandinavia, the immigrant communities—especially their churches and cultural heritage lodges—have played a major role in developing the phenomenon of lutefisk dinners,” says Carrie Roy, a Scandinavian cultural scholar and reator of the short documentary ‘Where the Sacred Meets the Quivering Profane: Exploring the public and Private Spheres of Lutefisk.’

How it’s Made
Modern lutefisk begins its journey from sea to plate as a whitefish, typically cod. Dried and reconstituted in lye brine, the fish is later soaked to remove the causticity and packaged for purchase. Cooked until a seemingly impossible combination of gelatinous and flaky, lutefisk is typically served with butter or cream sauce.

Facts about Lutefisk.

  • The state of Wisconsin exempts lutefisk from classification as a toxic substance in its laws regulating workplace safety
  • Much of the lutefisk sold by Olsen Fish Company comes from Ålesund, Norway.
  • Sterling silver should never be used in the preparation or eating of lutefisk as it will stain the silver.
  • Left overnight, residual residue from lutefisk preparation is nearly impossible to remove.
  • The self-proclaimed “lutefisk capital of the world” is in Madison, MN, home to fiberglass codfish, Lou T. Fisk.
  • While more common in Scandinavian-American communities, lutefisk is experiencing a resurgence among restaurants and catering companies in Norway, up 72 percent from 2005 to 2007.
  • The first written preparation of lutefisk in literature is in the writings of Olaus Magnus in 1555. In his writings, Olaus notes that it should be served with salted butter.

This article was taken from the Sons of Norway Newsletter Service. Learn more about Sons of Norway by visiting them on the web at www.sonsofnorway.com.

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